By Lock Bailey
One may criticise the United States’ involvement in other countries and in other regions’ affairs and do so justifiably. Yet often within the very same condemning breath one may also plead for the United States’ involvement and intervention in another area of the world. The Civil War in Syria is one such tragedy that yells such ambivalent commands to the doorstep of the White House.
The Syrian Civil War rolls steadily on – this month marks the third anniversary of the conflict. Protests and demonstrations stirred from Aleppo to Damascus in March 2011. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions only months earlier gave to Syrians a hope in toppling the Assad regime and forming for themselves a representative democracy. Yet this March the number of dead is over 140,000 and counting – many of whom never picked up a gun.
The protests ended only a month later in April 2011: Bashar al-Assad directed his military on his own people like blood drunk hounds: men shot and stabbed, women and girls raped, intellectuals tortured. He no doubt took notes from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who in 1981 (Bashar aged 17) ended a mass demonstration in Syria. He burned neighborhoods and slaughtered thousands.
Assad’s malevolent tactics of murder are unending in ingenuity. Although weak in number and outdated in technology, Assad’s air force has killed over 20,000 Syrians by dropping ‘barrel bombs’ on neighborhoods. Once hit, the barrel vomits flame, boiling oil, and scraps of machinery.
The calls to intervene are divergent in definition within the United States — few desire boots on the ground even though military might is a trusty go-to for many Americans. US Senator John McCain called President Obama’s neglect of Syria ‘shameful’ and called the President’s threat to bomb Assad’s forces ‘cosmetic’ as it would only clear his own conscience by saying, ‘Well, we responded’, And then move on.
Although not a justification, Obama’s threats came soon after the knowledge of chemical weapon use in Syria. The UN confirmed the use of chemical weapons on civilians but cannot in surety prove the government’s involvement. Opposition groups claim nearly 1,400 deaths happened between March and August last year. This revelation reminded the international community of the 1925 Geneva Convention outlawing chemical weapons.
The US’ Central Intelligence Agency has been providing arms to the Syrian opposition since summer 2013. It is uncertain how many guns and bombs are delivered and even less certain as to whom ends holding them. Of course, the US hopes for moderate fighters. But jihadists like Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nussra Front and the ISIS make a considerable portion of the opposition. Al Qaeda disavowed this last group, the ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), a month ago for being unpredictable and arbitrarily violent—believe it or not. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the ISIS is now the strongest force in northern Syria, according to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In fact, the history of western intervention with Syria is exhaustingly detailed, but one event is clear and open to public records. The United States and the United Kingdom attempted assassinations of three Syrians in 1957: the head of military intelligence, the army chief of staff, and the leader of the Syrian Communist Party. After this failure, the US and UK jointly funded paramilitary groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in hopes of a coup d’état. It never panned out.
The US is again supplying weapons to the opposing side in Syria. Arming the opposition poses risks if not in the here-and-now then certainly in the long- run. “In reacting to one human tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another,” said Henry Kissinger on the crisis. The examples in US military history are rife in this regard. In the 1980’s, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and the US supplied guns and intelligence to the Afghan Mujahedeen. Members included jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden whom used the learned intelligence and the acquired weapons to form Al-Qaeda in 1988-89.
Religion further entangles the fray in Syria. Some claim the Syrian crisis to be a civil war between Sunni and Shia. It is not so simple. Assad is Alawite, a minority religion in Syria. His wife is Sunni. Iran is Shia but supports Assad. Hezbollah is Sunni but supports Assad. And the opposition forces are diverse religiously—even more so. The long oppressed Kurds are mostly Sunni, and then there are the Druze, and the Arab Christians and several other minorities in the mélange.
To add to the complexity, over two million refugees have left their homes. Each hopes to find food and water and blankets in neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Jordan. Yet each host country feels the economic burden of the refugees under their aegis. These monetary burdens add to defense insecurity and a then higher risk from groups like the ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
Also, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said just recently that the world has “failed Syria.” Noting that because of this failure, the world at large is all the more unstable and all the more at risk of the jihadists pouring into the conflict, mobilising and building into stronger and more formidable enemies to the free world. Even US generals have expressed doubt in a peace treaty between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition as the opposition has little organisation and no overarching command to stand as representative and signatory to the treaty.
The United States sees the photographs of the dead girls and boys and knows of the chemical weapons, the millions fleeing and the 140,000 killed. The United States knows of the conflicts listed above and the volatility of military intervention and violence of any kind (as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan readily show). The United States knows of the ineffectual use of economic sanctions and trade embargos on the Assad regime and of the unlikely cooperation of Russia and China.
So is there nothing we can do? Will we again wait too long to intervene?
Through all of this, there has been one solo and quiet voice of reason steadily imploring a possible, albeit a small, plan to the international community to stop the Syrian Crisis.
Eli Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor, wrote: “Why not warn Assad that, unless he stops the murderous policy he is engaged in, he will be arrested and brought to the international criminal court in the Hague and charged with committing crimes against humanity?”
Surely, in the very least, we can try it.