What’s Left: Look Before We Leap

At first glance, it’s hard not to support Secretary Kerry and President Obama on their push for a Congress-authorized strike on Syrian President Assad’s forces: the United States has confirmed at least one, if not four, instances of the Assad government using sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent that prevents victims from breathing. At least 2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries (adding to nearly 5 million who have moved elsewhere in the country) while more than 100,000 have been killed in the now two-and-a-half year long civil war. President Assad has shown no indication of stopping the slaughter of the rebel forces in Syria, though he still has denied any use of chemical weapons.

In August of 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Foreign support is also changing the equation: Saudi Arabia announced support for a U.S. strike in Syria, against the will of many of the Arab League, including Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Tunisia. France also announced support for intervention, though contingent on an initial course of action from the United States.

On the other side, Italy ruled out any possibility of its participation, instead opting to continue “diplomatic and political pressure” on the Assad regime. British Prime Minister David Cameron looked for support in Parliament, though the vote was a resounding no; meaning that one of the U.S.’s greatest allies was off the table. Two of Syria’s strongest allies, Russia and China, both have strongly spoken out against U.S. intervention.

So what’s the course of action? Call me crazy, but I’m just not convinced that there is a whole lot that the Americans can do to ameliorate the current situation. We could absolutely put thousands of boots on the ground, march on Damascus and parade the corpse of Assad around the city’s streets, though that is hardly constructive. We could funnel military, financial and humanitarian help to the rebels fighting Assad, though the situation oddly resembles the Russo-Afghani conflict of the 1980s. Additionally, there is a hazy link between the Syrian rebels and Al Qaeda, meaning any American support would also

fund terrorists.

I’m also worried about America’s history as a regime-changer. In fact, I’m not sure if I can really think of an instance of American-baked regime change in a foreign country that has ended up the way we intended. There’s no promise that we would even win a war should we get involved, or that the person we installed in Assad’s place be any better than Assad himself (looking at you, Egypt).

Last, and certainly not least, as with any American involvement on the warfront, it’s important to weigh the costs and benefits of human life. I can guarantee that American military involvement will send more American troops to Syria than it will bring home, and I’m not sure I can justify that against the goals of intervention. Yes, we have the ability to remove a cruel war criminal from his position of power in a country that is pushing to become modern. But in this day and age, especially with the course of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, that isn’t enough. There needs to be a clear end in sight, one with a positive outcome. I’m just not confident that American involvement creates a net-positive in Syria, and until we get to a place where we can guarantee that (be it through more modern warfare, a more stable alliance of rebel forces or a larger network of global force), it’s best to stay out of it.

President Obama has taken all the right steps in the timeline of this conflict: he created a “red line” for further American action, he carefully weighed the evidence and reported it to the American people and is now asking for Congressional support for our intervention. Whether or not Congress will approve the attack remains to be seen, but I still support the leadership of the president on this divisive issue, even if I don’t agree with his conclusions. It’s a testing time for Obama’s presidency, and he seems to understand that well.

Contact Andy Philipson at [email protected]