I strongly believe that it is time for an American military response to Assad’s brutality. I appreciate the case made by many that military action may only exacerbate the violence in Syria, but it is also equally possible that military action will quicken Assad’s departure. The fact is violence will ensue either way. Therefore we must look beyond the direct effects of an American military strike, to the broader consequences of not reacting to this affront of human decency.
Disclaimer: this article is based on the assumption that it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad that used chemical weapons on the East Ghouta region of Damascus, resulting in the death of over a thousand Syrian men, women, and children. Despite denials by the regime and its foreign backers, I believe the evidence to be overwhelming. Anyone with doubts should watch John Kerry’s disclosure of the evidence. Regardless, this debate is for another article.
A Dangerous Precedent – The Humanitarian Case
The use of chemical weapons is both against international convention and international norms. There exists a standard in international relations wherein it is morally reprehensible for a state to use chemical weapons. Indeed, unlike many other horrendous weapons, chemical weapons have only been used three times in historic warfare: World War 1, Italy’s 1935-1936 invasion of Ethiopia, and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War – that is of course before Syria fell into disarray.
Thus, Assad’s use of chemical weapons sets a dangerous precedent. Without an American reaction, in the 21st century it would become acceptable to use these horrendous tools of human destruction on civilian populations. Indeed, Assad used these weapons on his own people. What does this say to other tyrants who face domestic opposition? If the world is willing to stand by and watch as Assad poisons men, women, and children, this opens the door to future autocrats who hope to hold on to power through any means necessary. No matter how violent or brutal the method, the world will stand back and watch.
True, this is a job for the United Nations. But the UN has been hopelessly defanged by the threat of Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes; thus the task falls to the United States of America. But without UN backing, it is critical for Barack Obama to gain the legitimizing support of a multinational coalition. Other states in the region and the Arab League have a particularly important role to play in this.
A Matter of Credibility – The National Security Case
In August of last year, President Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would bring about an American response. For clarity, here are his words:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus – that would change my equation. We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
Admittedly, Obama did not directly say his reaction would be a military one, but it was assumed that this is what the President meant. Also, like many (including myself) the President probably did not assume Assad would be able to cling to power for as long as he has, and this threat was part of other tough language that would hasten Assad’s departure. In hindsight this may have been a mistake, but the mistake was made and the consequences must be handled.
We have now reached the point that chemical weapons have been used on a large scale on a civilian population by the Syrian government. Assuming Obama does not act, what message does this send to other regimes who hope to frustrate American ambitions in the region. What will Iran learn from this? Iran will learn that it can continue its nuclear program without fear of an American reaction. The precedent will be set that American leadership does not mean what it says. In this era of American isolationism lawlessness in the world will reign supreme.
A Final Clarification
I find it very troubling that many have compared a potential military strike on Syria to 2003’s invasion of Iraq. The two are incomparable. First, Operation Iraqi Freedom was an unprovoked preventive attack. Syria would be a limited reaction to protect the civilians of a foreign country who face a direct and immediate threat. Second, 2003’s invasion of Iraq was an attempt to remove a government and replace it with American-backed institutions. Syria is only an attempt to hasten the removal of Assad by rebel forces in the country. Finally, Iraq required tens of thousands of American troops on the ground. Nobody is talking about a ground-invasion of Syria, and with good reason. The American public is war-weary, and boots-on-the-ground would likely only paint the Americans as occupiers. If the world does nothing, Syria will join Rwanda and be studied by future generations as a case of international inaction.
I Compel the Civilized Nations of the World to Act
Force can be used for good in the world. It was used to prevent Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. It was used to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It was used to remove Colonel Qaddafi, a tyrant who possessed Assad-like potential. It can be used for good in Syria. I compel the nations of the world to act.