As I write, President Obama and Congressional leaders are gathering support for an attack on Syria. This is the latest phase in a crisis that began to unfold on August 21 when Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his own people on the outskirts of Damascus, killing 1,400 citizens. Politicians have argued back and forth on the matter, with proponents of the attack saying that it is a necessary evil, and critics decrying it as a repeat of Iraq. However, despite the potential problems with military intervention in Syria, a quick but severe aerial raid would be the best option.
The civil war in Syria poses a challenge for United States foreign policy in three ways. First, it is a large humanitarian crisis, as President Assad has killed more than 100,000 of his own people, and in at least one case, it is likely he used chemical weapons. Next, it complicates the U.S.’s already strained relationships with several other countries, notably Russia and Iran, who both support Assad (not to mention Hezbollah). And finally, it tests America’s position in a world that is increasingly multipolar.
The issue of human rights is perhaps the most obvious, but it still offers room for debate. Yes, President Assad has used chemical weapons in clear violation of Barack Obama’s “red line,” and yes, his ruthless violence towards his own people requires special attention. But America’s record of intervention in the Middle East for humanitarian purposes over the past 12 years has shown that military action has limited effects (think Afghanistan), and can sometimes even make the situation worse (think Iraq). And by many accounts, the rebel alliance is becoming less cohesive and more Islamist, a recipe for a potential Egypt-esque disaster.
But such considerations ignore the complicated nature of American foreign policy. Any sort of military intervention in Syria would be a slap in the face to Russia and Iran, Syria’s allies. And offending either could cause problems for the U.S. down the road: Iran could be less likely to negotiate over nuclear weapons, and Russia’s rocky relationship with the U.S. could deteriorate further.
And finally the most complicated issue of them all: how America’s response to the Syrian crisis would affect its place and perception in the international system. Several recent events highlight America’s waning influence on international events: the refusal of Russia and others to hand over Edward Snowden, America’s ambivalence towards the Egyptian revolution, etc. Thus, the Obama administration should be keen not to let Assad’s crossing of Obama’s “red line” become the latest dent in America’s credibility. In a world in which rogue countries like Iran and North Korea are close to having dangerous nuclear weapons, and China increasingly becomes a force to be reckoned with, the U.S. can’t afford to be seen as weak or bluffing.
The results of these considerations are various. Regarding the issue of human rights, the sensible response would probably be inaction: better not to get bogged down in another Iraq-type war that could just as well lead to more civilian deaths. In terms of America’s relationship to other countries, the conclusion is mixed: while some countries would be offended by an American intervention, others would take the opposite stance (Israel, Britain, etc). The third issue calls strongly for some sort of attack.
Overall, the best answer would be some form of intervention that would show that Obama is serious about his “red line,” but wouldn’t commit the U.S. to a long, expensive campaign. Therefore, a quick but intense aerial attack would be preferable. This would allow the United States to remain firm on its commitment to human rights, maintain a balance between other countries that want an attack on Syria and those that do not and assure its allies (and its enemies) that it will not tolerate the type of reckless violence caused by Mr. Assad’s regime.
Contact William Whetzel at [email protected]