President Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of American military force in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Recent American history in the region demands that the United States exercise tremendous prudence and discretion in how it handles the war in Syria.
Syria is embroiled in a bitterly violent civil war that has claimed the lives of as many as 110,000 in a country of slightly more than 22 million. The conflict began in the spring of 2011 when revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt successfully challenged their respective nations’ dictatorships. Largely peaceful protests against Assad’s authoritarian rule quickly turned to armed conflict after the regime’s violent response.
The conflict is further complicated by the fact that Syria is led by a minority Shia Islamic sect known as the Alawites while most of the citizens are Sunni Muslims. While the rebellion may have been initially fueled by an anti-Assad sentiment, sectarian division seems to have intensified the violence. The more-secular Alawite-led regime has cast the rebels as religious extremists committed to imposing Sharia law and attacking other religions. Assad has galvanized the Alawite base by spreading propaganda that an Assad defeat means the extermination of Alawites throughout Syria.
In response to the heavy-handed Alawite response and Shia-dominated Iran’s support of the Assad regime, rebels have become increasingly affiliated with “a [radical Sunni] jihadist presence in Syria drawn in part from al-Qaeda in Iraq.” To put a fine point on it, the Syrian civil war is becoming increasingly polarized along sectarian lines and the violence appears to be growing.
There is no question that people are dying in a terrible war in Syria, but that has seldom been sufficient to provoke an American military response. The U.S. has historically declined involvement in exceptionally lethal civil conflicts in Rwanda, Cambodia, Liberia, and Ethiopia.
Instead of pointing to the large numbers of casualties in the Syrian war, the Obama Administration has primarily argued that the U.S. must “hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons.” The President also made the statement that American involvement has “profound implications for America’s national security” though he declined to elaborate on the specifics of that statement.
To make matters worse, Russia has raised substantial concerns about U.S. military action towards Syria. Russia has significant political and economic ties to Syria, including billions of dollars in weapons contracts and forgiving around “70 percent of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt to Russia in 2005.”
In August of 2012, President Obama stated, with respect to Syria, that “a red line for us is … seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” He did not suggest what the U.S. response would be if Syria deployed chemical weapons against the rebels. Now the President seems to argue that the United States must maintain its global credibility by retaliating, based on evidence the Assad regime did indeed use chemical weapons against the rebellion.
The hostilities in Syria devolved into a wide range of monstrosities well before the August nerve gas attacks. Where war breaks out, the goal for either side is decisive victory. Regrettably, even war motivated by a just cause is replete with acts and atrocities that haunt combatants and civilians for generations. War never changes.
In any war, an effort to punish one side is tantamount to allying yourself with the other. By attacking the Syrian military for the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. pits itself against Assad and his allies in Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. At the same time, American intervention will do nothing to placate the decidedly anti-American jihadists increasingly supporting the rebellion.
Regardless of whether American soldiers are ever placed in harm’s way, “punishing” Assad with cruise missiles will mark America’s entry into war against the Syrian government. The United States will be taking a clear stance in a conflict where neither side nor their allies support American interests.
The greatest apparent risk from American inaction is that other nations may increasingly turn to chemical weapons in their conflicts. Chemical weapons are a tragic offspring of war, but do they demand an American military response any more than the machetes used to dismember Tutsis in Rwanda or child soldiers raping and murdering civilians in Liberia? American military engagement must be predicated on protecting Americans rather than deterring the use of certain agents of death while ignoring others.
Unless America faces a direct material threat from those involved in Syria’s civil war, it would be wise to avoid military action and continue to focus on diplomatic strategies to deter Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Cameron Smith is vice president and general counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DCameronSmith.