President Obama has a very difficult decision to make on Syria. PHOTO: Reuters
Let me start off by saying that I am a tortured agnostic on the idea of intervening in Syria. In writing the case for Obama intervening, I feel I am betraying my pacifist mentality and my pacifist friends. Still, just because not intervening is my own default choice and the opinion of many around me, I find myself leaning toward a limited intervention. Here’s why:
I don’t buy that this is none of our business.
There is a strong case that making Syria our business is a bad idea, and I’ll tangle with that more in a moment. But the idea that what happens in foreign countries stays in foreign countries…or it doesn’t, but our only recourse is to watch and cringe until it’s over? That’s an old idea based on old times.
Here’s how I see it, in oversimplified terms: Let’s say there is someone who lives on your block. You don’t know him well, don’t know what he does for a living, but you exchange a quick hello when you pass each other. Then, one day, you find out that he is abusing his wife. Do you not do anything, just because it’s none of your business? I think that most of us would agree that the right thing to do is intervene, either through the police or some other avenue, but doing nothing on principle seems bizarre.
Of course, the Syrian Civil War is exponentially more complicated than an isolated domestic abuse scenario, but basic human compassion and reasonably good intelligence makes this our business, as does our ability to intervene. And yet…
Intervention in Syria scares the **** out of me.
I will not deny that this is a minefield of potential problems. Obama has stated time and again that this would be a limited strike to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people. But what if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses more chemical weapons? What if Russia helps defend Syria against U.S. intervention? How do we respond if a perfectly executed strike against a militarily significant target does little to stop the casualties on both sides, but especially the civilian resistance?
Furthermore, there is the issue of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups using a U.S. strike in Syria as a recruiting tool—it would only help their fraudulent case that the U.S. is in a war against Islam. I know that it doesn’t help my side in this debate to make all of the anti interventionist’s points, but it would be dishonest not to. I’m wrestling with all of these issues myself.
So why intervene?
Good question. The chemical weapon attack has something to do with it, but so do headlines like this about a “napalm-like” bomb attack on a children’s playground in Aleppo:
“A playground full of children in northern Syria has been bombed by a fighter jet with a napalm-like substance, according to disturbing new footage captured by the BBC Panorama programme.
Eye witnesses described how a jet had passed the school in Aleppo numerous times, as if it searching for a target, before it dropped the bomb.”
The Syrian regime has no regard for human rights, and if we are to move toward a more peaceful world, norms around human rights need to be maintained and enforced. That’s not to say that the Syrian rebels would have behaved differently in Assad’s position, but doesn’t there have to be a point at which human rights violations are not tolerated? And doesn’t not tolerating those violations mean that they have to have consequences?
The Assad regime has been dealing with a civilian uprising since 2011. Instead of submitting to elections or otherwise moving Syria in a democratic direction, Assad chose to label the rebels as terrorists and launch an attack against them. Two years later, the rebels have shown no sign of relenting, so Assad has made it known that he will subject rebels, their families and innocent civilians to a horrific death via sarin gas if the rebels don’t back down.
I don’t accept that the answer is to throw up our hands, say, “this is too complicated,” and walk away. Intervention is risky, but moral norms are useless if we can’t back them up. If there are no consequences to a large attack using chemical weapons, we can only assume that the Syrian regime will keep doing them. Intervention might be a bad idea, but the alternative feels worse, both in moral terms, and even in the real terms of dead and injured people.
As you can see, I’m very conflicted about this whole issue. Check out my colleague Sean’s case against Obama intervening in Syria and let us know what you think.