Top image credit: Aljazeera
Congressional Democrats are correct about President Donald Trump getting official Congressional permission if more operations are to be carried out against Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime. But while this procedural battle is obviously important, there are other and perhaps more central concerns if the US is going to push forward in Syria. In the wake of the bombing of Shayrat airfield, here are some of our considerations:
Bashar al-Assad has crossed the red line before, and he will again.
Bashar al-Assad is a killer. At the very start of the Arab spring, al-Assad showed no hesitation in quashing protests. At first, this meant arrests and beatings. Soon after, he resorted to allowing police and security forces to fire weapons into crowds of protesters. When that proved futile, al-Assad used his army to literally lay siege to cities across Syria. They stationed snipers on rooftops and blasted into cities in armored tanks. When the opposition continued their efforts to depose him, he turned to using illegal chemical weapons against civilians.
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, back when it was still called the Syrian unrest, students in the southern city of Daraa painted a series of anti-government slogans on their school. An innocuous enough act, al-Assad chose to perceive it as a dire threat to the stability of his government. The students were kidnapped and tortured. They were not, as so many sources characterize them, the “spark of the revolution:” The spark of the revolution lies with the dictator who will use and has used any means to suppress the rebellion.
The United States and its allies can draw as many “red lines” as they want. The truth of the matter is that the only red line for al-Assad is the one that results in his removal. Short of crossing that line, al-Assad will bomb, gas, and murder however much he pleases. This is particularly important when thinking about how the U.S. ought to intervene in Syria, if that is the plan. Remember this crucial fact: When al-Assad gets cornered, it won’t be the United States that feels the brunt of his wrath. It will be Syrian civilians.
Missiles and bombs are useful, but they don’t win wars.
Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been epicenters of US attention in the Middle East, but if these regions are to survive with some semblance of stability, the US needs to reconsider their use of drone warfare.
One easily enough understands why American politicians are generally comfortable with drone strikes. The drones are extremely effective at targeting enemy garrisons, and they can do so without risking a single American life in the process. They are the pinnacles of military technology, capable of flying extremely long sorties and of loitering for long periods of time. They provide excellent surveillance footage of enemy-held areas, and when it comes to bombing, they are deadly. But it is their seemingly indiscriminate bombing that makes them so dangerous in these countries, and to the US’s reputation.
Nearly 3,000 civilians have been killed in strikes across Syria and Iraq, at minimum. This civilian casualty number is unacceptable. Imagine losing family members to an attacker you never see, only to hear that those responsible are the very people pledging to assist you. If the US can’t win a war against Bashar al-Assad or the IS without killing scores of civilians, then it winds up being no better than them. Since the beginning, the Syrian Civil War has been fought with civilian blood. Bashar al-Assad retaliates against protests and the FSA alike by killing innocent people. The IS makes a point of murder and uses human shields whenever they can. Syrians are plagued by militaries that have no regard for civilian life, so any successful US military effort in Syria should be accompanied with a greater effort to protect civilians from becoming collateral.
It’s by no means easy, in these cases, to wage war without civilian casualties. But the US has the largest military budget in the world, presumably enough money to wage a comparatively responsible war. And it must come down to having American personnel fighting on the front lines.
War is risk, and war is sacrifice. Bombing and drone strikes kill enemies well enough, but they do nothing to fill the void left behind. While troops on the ground can have both a stabilizing and destabilizing effect based on their actions, bombs will only ever destabilize. This means that human troops sympathetic to Syrian citizens are the only means of waging a successful war.
If the war in Syria is fought only with bombs, then the future of the country will look remarkably similar to the realities of other Middle Eastern countries where the United States has fought. Striking and killing will eliminate IS leaders and prominent terrorists, but the civilian toll of removing one IS official creates instability where stability was the intention. American troops would risk their lives fighting such a war, but their efforts could bolster a stabilizing military intervention.
Military action without humanitarian aid is irresponsible.
President Trump seems moved to action over the chemical bombing of Khan Shaykhun, as well he should be. Al-Assad’s most recent Sarin strike should result in his expedited removal from office. But Trump can’t go to war in Syria without considering the humanitarian aspect of the conflict. Footage of Syrian children dying is stirring, of course, but it’s also not new. Syrian children have been dying for years, and if President Trump is going to have sympathy, it must be for all of them.
The Mediterranean crossing is deadly. Syrians by and large don’t have the money to pay for safe passage, so they float across the sea on barely buoyant rafts and boats, and in the hands of unsavory smugglers. The iconic images of drowned children arriving in Greece shouldn’t fade from anyone’s memory, much less Trump’s. These migrants are now living as refugees, and in many cases, they’re destitute and stateless.
Donald Trump says that accepting Syrian refugees is dangerous. He says it allows the IS to infiltrate the country. He has a clear distrust for Muslims, as do many of his voters and advisers. He has called for “extreme vetting” of immigrants coming from majority Muslim nations, and has tried to ban all travellers from Syria, including those with visas, from entering the US. He has also cut the government budget for spending on foreign aid work.
The strike at Shayrat airfield was proportional, but it wasn’t enough. The United States must accept Syrian refugees. If President Trump continues to resist accepting refugees, then he should understand that the next dead child whose picture appears on the news might be, in part, dead due to his policies.
The US must balance careful diplomacy with Syria’s needs.
It’s genuinely difficult to push past the fundamental truth about this conflict, which is that Bashar al-Assad is a murderous dictator who has to be pushed out of office. He has violated international law and committed war crimes. But much of the focus in Syria, especially after the US strike on Shayrat airfield, has been on US-Russia diplomacy.
That US-Russian relations don’t break down in Syria is utterly necessary. Any breakdown of relations in Syria will prolong and worsen the conflict there. But Russia supports the al-Assad regime and the US supports the Opposition, which means that the US and Russia have always been fighting one another over Syria. Sure, certain policies to keep the Russians and the Americans from meeting head-to-head in Syria were frozen yesterday by the Russian government. Their withdrawal from these agreements, particularly that of deconfliction, may indeed increase the risk that Americans and Russians accidentally attack one another in Syria. But the notion that Russia and the US are in a perilous diplomatic situation isn’t news. Deconfliction and agreements like it were designed to make the proxy war between the nations look and seem less like war, but their real function was to lessen the extreme tension between these two governments.
The fact of the matter is that Russia is dead wrong on Syria. Bashar al-Assad is one of their few foreign friends, and as such Russia feels an urgent need to protect him from ousting. But that means that Russia is actively killing people trying to overthrow a murderous tyrant. Now, conflict with Russia should be prevented and de-escalated wherever possible, but the US cannot prioritize their relations with Russia over the removal of Bashar al-Assad. If the US plays an instrumental role in toppling the al-Assad regime, their efforts will absolutely be a detriment to the US-Russia relationship. This should not hinder the effort to depose the dictator.
The US needs an intervention built on understanding where it’s gone wrong in the past.
There are so many valid reasons to resist and worry about US military intervention in Syria. The track record for American intervention is abysmal. In Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we launched military interventions, each of which was marred by failings. With guns and bombs, we’ve toppled brutal dictators only by propping up others. In trying to stabilize the countries we fight in, we’ve planted the seeds for armed terrorist groups to gain large amounts of territory. There is no question that, if the US has been in a decades-long war for the Middle East, we’re losing it.
But doesn’t mean there’s no way to improve. The US has made numerous mistakes in the Middle East, but one can hope that a new intervention in Syria could be built on understanding and avoiding history’s errors. That being said, I’m not confident that Donald Trump is the President to wage a measured, responsible, and successful war in the Middle East. In truth, his tempestuous personality, lack of experience, and incapacity to learn all point to his inability to do well in any wartime situation. But somebody has to help Syria’s oppressed; they’ve been without help for far too long.
This war wouldn’t be for the United States. Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons are not the alleged WMDs of Saddam Hussein. For starters, Bashar al-Assad actually has chemical weapons, and he’s actually using them. But they pose no threat to the United States. Unlike the wars against the IS, the Taliban, and al-Qaida, we would not be fighting terrorists who took lives on US soil. The war against al-Assad would not be so directly in the name of America’s interests abroad. But it would end years of brutal repression for the Syrian people. Maybe, hopefully, if fought with tact, intelligence, and responsibility, it could actually help Syrians find stability under a government that isn’t actively trying to kill them.
The US has made many mistakes in the Middle East. In truth, it’s done more harm than good. And it is of course possible that a military intervention in Syria would yield more mistakes and more harm. But it’s also possible that war could lead to peace. What Syria needs right now is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. What it needs after that is responsible governance. The United States is poised to clear that path, not through war and violence, but through a mixture of military, humanitarian, and diplomatic relief.