The discussion about President Obama’s call for military action in Syria tends to get bogged down in a confusing mix of arguments. What’s the point of a strike if U.S. forces won’t hit hard enough to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad? If Washington does topple Assad, won’t al-Qaida take over Syria? Is this all about preserving American credibility after Obama warned that chemical weapons use was a “red line”? Or is it even a misguided effort on the part of the president to save face?
The clearest way to look at an American, or American-led, intervention in Syria is to keep in mind that the operation has many intended purposes and several intended audiences.
The world is rightly worried about the catastrophe that has befallen the Syrian people and about what might come next within the borders of that country. But intervention in Syria aims to address a number of issues simultaneously, of which Syria is one.
One goal is to influence the course of the war so that Assad can stop massacring his own people and a better future can ultimately be secured for Syrians. But there’s an objective beyond Syria.
President Obama has said that the famous “red line,” his warning a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would have consequences, was not his. He said it was the “the world that set a red line.” The truth is that he did, but so did the international community. The overwhelming majority of the world’s nations agreed many years ago to set an outside limit on the horrors they would tolerate even in a time of war. The world has banned the use of certain weapons, chemical weapons among them.
The fact that more than 100,000 people have already been killed in Syria is terrible. But it in no way means that it would be hypocritical to enforce a major international treaty forbidding the use of certain weapons. There is a reason for the taboo on WMDs, reasons humanity is particularly horrified by their use. And there will be consequences if the world as a whole looks the other way when a dictator shoots rockets filled with poison at his own people.
A strike in Syria following the sarin gas attack would attempt to make it clear that this will not be allowed. Otherwise, we will see it happen again and again, with increasing frequency in Syria and eventually elsewhere. If others don’t act, it doesn’t mean the United States should let this crass violation of international standards pass without a response.
Bullies, tyrants and outlaws watch and learn. History has shown that when they are not stopped, their cruelty increases.
Besides the issue of protecting international rules, there is the matter of what happens when the U.S. issues a warning. America’s friends, enemies and potential enemies are watching closely. America has issued other warnings, notably to Iran. If America’s stern warning means nothing now, others will conclude they can cross other lines. Efforts to prevent future wars will suffer. A well-delivered message now could prevent wars later.
At the heart of it all stands Syria, torn by civil war. Assad used chemical weapons on a smaller scale several times before. Without a response, he was already emboldened to use them on a larger scale. Chemical weapons have killed a small percentage of Syria’s dead, but that could change. In a few hours they can kill thousands more. Out of the warehouse, the weapons could end up getting used in other areas.
The war is already spreading, sending millions of refugees across the borders with Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. Some flashes of fighting have crossed into all those countries, and into Israel.
The war must be contained in Syria to the greatest extent possible, and the right people — Syrian opposition fighters of the Free Syrian Army — must be allowed (and helped) to tip the balance against Assad, Hizbullah, and their ally Iran. That could open the door for a solution that preserves the rights of all Syrians.
No military action is without risk, and there are no purely good choices. But there is an enormous risk in not acting. I believe it outweighs the risk of a limited military intervention, particularly when we consider the larger cost of inaction.
It’s worth remembering that Syria is a country made up of several minority populations. It is not a homogenous, radicalized, xenophobic country. Syria is not Egypt; it is not Iraq.
Among the many complicated issues, what is clear is that the most humane course of action is to avoid saying this is not our problem.