President Obama gave a speech on Sept. 10 urging Americans to support military action in Syria. The U.S. government suspects Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad of murdering his own people with weapons the Obama administration claims to be outlawed by “international norms.” However intervening in this conflict poses greater risk than staying out.
The amount of conflicting information concerning Syria makes staying informed difficult. This is tougher still when political leaders such as Obama use undefined concepts. “International norms” is an example of this, as the concept does not have real legal significance.
Syria has not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, as most nations have. This convention outlaws the production and use of, besides other mass dispersion weapons, the sarin gas deployed in the recent attack. The only pertinent legislation Syria has signed was the 1925 Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and the country was under another regime in any case. Even if Assad did use sarin gas, he is not violating any bonafide laws, which is why the West has substituted the term “norms.”
Western powers have been hypocritical when it comes to the condemnation of chemical weapons. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Saddam Hussein regime frequently targeted the Iranian military with chemical weapons. The infamous 1988 Halabja chemical attack by Hussein on the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, which killed 3,200–5,000 people, was essentially sanctioned by the CIA. The CIA knew about the attack beforehand and took no action. During the 2003 Iraq War, U.S. forces deployed white phosphorous, an incendiary chemical weapon against insurgents.
Unlike Rwanda or Kosovo, there is no systematic genocide in Syria conducted by one group against a defenceless other. Syrian civilians have been caught in the crossfire, but no ethnic or religious groups have been singled out. In Syria there are Iranian and Russian operatives supporting Assad, unlike in Rwanda. It is not genocide, it’s a civil war. America has no interests here.
The Obama administration may hope to reduce Iranian and Russian influence in Syria which woud be achieved by a rebel victory. However, Russia and Iran have interfered by supporting Assad with weapons and manpower. By opposing these two countries, a U.S. military intervention will have massive repercussions on a global scale, sacrificing long-term stability for short-term morality.
The Syrian rebels are fractured, unreliable soldiers whose composition is partially unknown. The main body of the Free Syrian Army does not normally fight alongside the factions aligned with al-Qaida and the Kurds have isolated themselves in the north. The CIA claim that they will only aid rebels who are democratic but this distinction is difficult.
Bombs do not discriminate. Airstrikes against the Assad regime could provide al-Qaida with the upper hand against both Assad’s regime and the FSA, allowing them to acquire unsecured chemical and explosive weapons. An al-Qaida victory in Syria would be disastrous for the entire region, as Turkey, Israel and Jordan would be forced to deploy troops to prevent terrorist incursions.
Retaliation from Iran is also a risk. Iran has threatened to attack Israel if the U.S. attacks Syria. They might be bluffing, but America should not try to find out.
International support for these strikes is low. NATO and the UN have stated that they will not support an attack. Fewer countries still have said they would support a U.S. unilateral strike than during the 2003 debate over the invasion of Iraq. The U.K. has voted against it and France’s participation is tenuous. The U.S. might go in alone, which is possibly what Russia wants — to draw the U.S. into another unpopular conflict which will weaken its reputation and economy.
American cruise missiles might not destroy all of the regime’s weapon storage sites and silos. If bombardment fails, they will resort to manned airstrikes, putting pilots at risk as Syria has a relatively modern ground-to-air defence system. The situation for the U.S. Air Force and Navy is different than it was in Libya, which had sub-par aerial defences. Even if successful, a limited strike could have worse consequences than inaction. Violent half-measures can be dangerous to their perpetrator, potentially leaving the situation more unstable then it was before.
If Obama wanted to stop the bloodshed he should have attacked two years ago before 100,000 people died. But 100,000 dead would not have been good enough for the world and an invasion didn’t suit U.S. interests then. Even after the gas attack, global support is shaky. Obama must be careful not to fall into Putin’s geopolitical trap or the international credibility of the U.S. as a peacemaker will be damaged yet again.