By Jesse Van Mouwerik
This September, on the day before 9/11, president Barack Obama addressed his nation, making a case in support of American military strikes against Syria’s Assad Regime. It is the opinion of this writer that the United States should not take military action, but that is not the main point I hope to communicate in crafting this article.
photo from therawstory.com
RECAP OF EVENTS:
In the briefest of recaps, Syria has been fighting a civil war since 2011. The conflict began when the Assad Regime answered the democratic demands of peaceful protesters inspired by movements in nearby Tunisia and Egypt with murders, kidnappings, and eventually mass shootings. It has since escalated into a civil war claiming the lives of over 120,000 people and has created millions of refugees in neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.
Very recently, there has been evidence suggesting that thousands of those dead Syrians have been killed by the regime using chemical weapons, a form of warfare that is recognized as illegal among the international community. The Obama administration’s main case for military strikes has been to enforce the international ban on chemical weapons and legitimize US military pressure on dictators who would be tempted to use them, not to end the Syrian Civil War.
The main case against American military strikes has been that the conflict could escalate into a greater, more costly endeavor like Iraq and Afghanistan did, and very possibly kill more people then it would supposedly save. Equally weighty is the argument that toppling the Assad regime could allow jihadist forces to take control of Syria and replace Assad with people who are far more dangerous and unpredictable, which has been Russia’s main case for arming the Assad regime and discouraging American strikes. Additionally, even if jihadists didn’t take control the country in the event of regime change, the destabilization of Assad could mean unprotected stockpiles of chemical weapons that terrorist groups could potentially seize and use far more liberally than any government would.
WHAT’S TO BE LEARNED:
There is hypocrisy in both America and Russia’s arguments. Moscow’s desire to prevent further conflict requires a serious blind eye towards an array of crimes against humanity that go well beyond poison gas. But Assad, although a dictator, is partly Russia’s dictator. He is willing to facilitate Russian military and economic interests, many of which hail back to the cold war. Washington’s supposed goal of preserving international law is also matched by a desire to demonstrate American military strength in a post-Bush era that leaves many in the world questioning America’s ability to effectively project its power across the globe, another cold war ideology.
Of course there are Americans who are very much against intervening in Syria, and somewhere in Russia there are likely to be people who disagree with Putin’s platform on the matter, but what’s most important to me about the current Syria discussion is the fact that whatever argument anyone gives on what to do or not do, there is no outcome that is clearly morally superior to the other. It’s been said before, but there really are no good options in Syria. Given the choices of bad and worse, the United States and Russia are supporting the action that they believe will most legitimize their own country’s power.
Putin wants stability in a region not too far from his own borders and continued Russian military access to the Mediterranean through Syria, and Obama wants an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that America is able to uphold the laws of a decades old international order that recognizes the United States as an almost hegemonic world power. Both of these platforms have a logical backbone to them, but the moral arguments come second to national interests. It’s the lipstick on the pig that is Syria’s horrific civil war.
This is not to say that the world is but an arena of cold, Machiavellian schemers absent any humanity. There truly are serious moral questions posed by this most recent conflict in Syria that we should be asking, but equally important is the context in which people ask them. And it’s not just an issue of what the bigger players plan to do. Whether your are a citizen of the UK, France, Germany, or even Syria, it’s worth remembering that governments do what they believe will put their country in the strongest position.
The best question for us to be asking is not whether or not American or French air strikes are the right course of action. There is no right course of action that can fix this war. I would suggest that people are much better off considering how they can help limit violence not just in Syria, but in any part of the world. There is little moral solace to be found in the decisions made by one nation state about another, so the only real answers come from how we choose to involve ourselves in the lives of others. Perhaps democracies can pat themselves on the back for having institutions that often facilitate some civility, but all of it still depends on what individuals choose to do every day.
There is no getting around the brutality and the naked aggression of the Syrian civil war towards its own citizenry. This issue of stability not only in Syria, but also in many Middle Eastern countries will only intensify as oppressive but arguably stable dictatorships face uprisings. These uprisings may, in the long term, give way to a future that is hopefully peaceful, and perhaps even somewhat democratic. But when the only short-term certainty is more bloodshed, people who are truly concerned about the outcome of this conflict are probably best off looking for ways in which they can help the victims instead of merely condemning or condoning the power-motivated decisions of their country’s foreign policy.