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What Do We Do About Syria?

Civilian casualties from Syrian Civil War Phhoto from Voice of AMerica via wiki commons.

Civilian casualties from Syrian Civil War
Photo from Voice of America via wiki commons.

Right now, somewhere in Washington, DC, a group of officials from the Obama administration is wrestling desperately with one simple question: What do we do about Syria?

And it’s a tough question. The problem is that there are no good guys in the Syrian Civil War, no side of the angels that we can get behind. President Bashar Al Assad has reacted to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in his country with brutal violence and repression. The rebels, comprised of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA,  on the other side are equally as brutal, and have joined forces with al Qaeda linked al Fusra to strike out against the government. And both sides are apparently targeting civilians. The UN recently estimated that at least 100,000 people have been killed so far in this conflict.

There’s a religious component at work as well political. Al Assad is an Alawite Muslim, which is, in comparison to Sunni and Shia sects, a fairly moderate brand of Islam. But this is no guarantee of moderate behavior; Assad is also the leader of the Ba’ath Party in Syria. If that sounds familiar, it should; Saddam Hussein was the leader of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq. More to the point, the al Qaeda groups allied with the rebels have committed massacres of Alawite villages, just as Bashar’s father, Hafez al Assad massacred the town of Hama following a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982. Estimates of the deaths number at least 20,000, most of them civilians.

The terrorist group Hezbollah supports the Assad regime. Al Qaeda associate group al Nusra supports the rebels.

If you need a scorecard to keep up with the players, you aren’t alone. Fortunately, this summary from news.com.au is an excellent place to start.

During a press conference on Aug 20, 2012,  President Obama declared that if chemical weapons were used in Syria, that was a red line which would compel a US response.

What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully.  We have put together a range of contingency plans.  We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.

Every player. Enormous consequences. That means we can’t sit back and do nothing. Our credibility as a nation demands that we do something, and that something, using the President’s words, must be enormous. An op-ed in the New York Times argues that the moral imperative to respond is so strong that it outweighs any legal considerations like going through the US Congress or the UN. That’s a remarkable position for the NYT to take.

But which side should we be on, if any? The situation is far from clear.

While it hasn’t been getting covered in US media reports, this article on the French News site leMonde was published back in May, and detailed the experience of reporters on scene during and immediately after chemical weapon attacks on rebel forces. To be fair, while it does document that the Assad government is using chemical weapons against the FSA and al Nusra forces,  it has nothing to say about the current incident which is causing the current crisis. The article details the use of chemical weapons during combat, not the indiscriminate use against civilians. The differences are crucial and important. As has been pointed out, Assad is winning the war against the insurgents. What would he gain by gassing civilian targets? ON the other hand, if he could be framed for using chemical weapons on civilians, that could help the rebels. We don’t know who targeted the civilians.

That’s a question that demands an answer before we do anything.

Robert Fisk raises another good question. Do we really want to partner with al Qaeda?:

If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured for the very first time in history that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida.

Quite an alliance…The men who destroyed so many thousands on 9/11 will then be fighting alongside the very nation whose innocents they so cruelly murdered almost exactly 12 years ago. Quite an achievement for Obama…

Maybe we should look at it another way. Instead of looking at the two sides involved in the fighting, we should look at the human beings caught in the crossfire. Don’t they deserve our intervention and protection? Can we stand by and watch as they pay the price for the conflict between two rabid and hateful groups? Is that what being an American means?

I can’t answer that question for everybody, but I can say this: if we decide to get involved, if we decide to act, then we must act in a way that will be effective in achieving our goal. Syria is not now nor will it ever be a US ally. They have nothing we want, and pose no threat. The only reason for us to get involved is to protect the Syrian people. And if that is our goal, then the actions we take must be designed to reach that goal.

And folks, lobbing a few missiles at a few buildings in a desert somewhere will not achieve the goal of protecting the Syrian people. It will be no more effective than the sanctions we have already imposed have been, and for one real reason.

Diplomacy has been described as an iron fist in a velvet glove. In order for your words to carry any weight, they must be backed by a demonstrable willingness to use force if needed. If we take that willingness to use force off the table even before starting negotiations, we send a message to our adversaries that we aren’t really serious. President Obama, along with many Congressmen and Senators, has already declared that we will not put boots on the ground in Syria. Based on those statements, Assad, and the rebel terrorists for that matter, already know that whatever response we choose, it will be one they can safety ignore for the most part, and continue on about their bloody work. Our show of force will fail even before it is launched, and more Syrian civilians will die while we watch, and while our political class pats itself on the back for having taken stern measures to stop the killing.

I say no.

I say that if we decide as a nation that we cannot in good conscience stand aside and do nothing while a country slaughters its own citizens, then the action we take must be effective, and not designed merely to provide political cover for our government. I say that we have to commit from the start to doing whatever it takes to protect the Syrian people from their government, or we should stay out of the way and let nature take it’s course. We either do it right, and succeed, or we stand by and do nothing.

And folks, doing it right means boots on the ground. You may not like it, and as a father of one pair of those boots, I sure as hell don’t like it. But that’s the simple truth.

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