Why We Need To Intervene In Syria
“We are sleepwalking into a major disaster,” Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, told the Atlantic, on the Syrian refugee crisis. Sleepwalking rather than leading pretty much sums up the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian conflict at large.
But Thursday’s White House revelation, based on “varying degrees of confidence,” that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own people, puts an exclamation point on the need for President Obama to admit that President Bashar Assad has now crossed a “red line.” If Assad has used sarin in his country’s civil war, the U.S. must intervene.
A commonly heard refrain is we will not intervene in Syria because of our botched intervention in Iraq. That Americans cannot afford to invade another Muslim country, especially one as divisive as Syria. The list of clichés goes on.
But Syria is different. Two years ago on this page, I predicted that Assad would not go easily. A minority ruler with a family history of slaughtering his own citizens, Assad would not be moved by non-violence or flee his homeland. Which is why the civil war in Syria continues to march on, two years after top U.S. officials began warning Assad to stop the violence or else. “Or else, what?” is the question we in the West keep asking.
There are some glimmers of a change of policy afoot, thanks to the globetrotting of Secretary of State John Kerry. The former senator understands the stakes involved, as did his great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Winthrop. Writing in the North American Review, Winthrop summoned the American people to support the Greeks in the civil war against their Ottoman overlords in 1823. “Remember the time … when our beloved, prosperous country waited at the door of the court of France and the States of Holland, pleading for a little money and few troops; and not to disregard the call of those, who are struggling against a tyranny infinitely more galling than that, which our fathers thought it beyond the power of man to support.”
President James Monroe was unmoved at the time, just as President Obama has taken a similar stance in the face of mounting calls to intervene more actively in Syria.
As a result, our policy in Syria is a shambles. If we get this right, we can perhaps forge a peaceful future in the region by balancing against Iran and containing violent jihadism. If we get it wrong by continuing to stay on the sidelines, we will be forced to stick around indefinitely.
The Obama administration’s rationale for not intervening gets bogged down in catch-22s. First, we refuse to overtly arm the rebels because of religious extremist groups within their ranks. But the presence of these radical elements is precisely due to our refusal to arm the rebels. Secondly, we deny support to the rebels until they exhibit more signs of progress, such as seizing control of key cities such as Aleppo. But that is virtually impossible without air support and defensive weaponry to fend off Assad’s forces, and some kind of no-fly zone.
To be sure, Syria appears to be the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. It comes nearly a decade after a botched intervention in Iraq. And Syria’s chemical stockpiles scare the bejesus out of U.S. military planners.
If Assad manages to win this war, however, the message is loud and clear: WMD is a get-out-of-regime-change-free card for aspiring despots. Syria is a textbook case of what happens when there is a vacuum of American leadership on an issue. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but Iranians and groups such as al-Qaeda do not. If we fail to get Syria right — and that means deposing Assad — then the Middle East will become a cesspool of violence and anti-Americanism for generations.
Arming the rebels with light weaponry does not foretell another post-Soviet Afghanistan, nor doom the country to a decades-long civil war, as some analysts predict. Nor does installing a no-fly zone in the north mean we will “own” Syria, any more than we are mired in Libya or Kosovo now. And both places are arguably better off than they were before we intervened.
Kerry’s great-great-great granddad was right. We owe it to intervene on the side of the oppressed. Somebody tell Obama to stop sleepwalking through this historical crisis.
Lionel Beehner is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on USA Today.