Op-Ed: Despite risks, now is the time for US intervention in Syria

President Obama’s policy toward the Syrian civil war, and particularly Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in that conflict, is being tested. At the time of writing, the United Nations inspection team in Syria has not yet confirmed that chemical weapons were used against Syrian civilians, but all signs indicate that the rumors flying from Syria are true.

On Sunday, August 25, Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook quoted an AP report stating that, “A senior [Obama] administration official says there is ‘very little doubt’ that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in an incident that killed at least a hundred people last week.” Médecins Sans Frontières, the international aid group providing medical treatment to Syrian civilians, claims to have treated roughly 3,600 patients in three Damascus-area hospitals, all of whom exhibited “neurotoxic symptoms” consistent with exposure to chemical weapons.

While Mr. Obama is right to wait for more information before deciding upon an appropriate response to the attacks, he will not be able to put off making a decision for much longer.

Mr. Obama clearly hopes to avoid committing the same strategic blunders in the Middle East as his predecessor, and his caution is admirable. However, he is coming dangerously close to over-correcting. Simply by establishing a “red line” for the Assad regime last year, Mr. Obama backed himself into a rhetorical corner that demands a response. If the United States fails to retaliate for Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons, other American diplomatic initiatives around the world could be severely compromised.

The Economist has gone so far as to assert, “If Mr Obama does not keep his promises [to intervene], [the United States] will no longer be much of a force at all.” Preventing the Assad regime from committing further atrocities against its people is a key element of current international expectations regarding the responsibility to protect those in need.

Like it or not, America has stepped willingly into the role of international policeman in the past twenty-odd years, and the case of Syria is only one more in a long list of humanitarian problems that the United States will either address or, as was the case with Rwanda in 1994, overlook and later regret not addressing.

Intervention itself is a complicated endeavor. There are several US naval assets currently positioned within striking distance of Syrian targets that could fire opening salvos in an intervention similar to coalition actions in the 2011 Libyan Civil War. However, these strikes require effective targeting, which could become complicated given Syria’s population density. The strategic objectives of such attacks are even murkier, and past cruise missile strikes have had limited effect.

One alternative would be the deployment of special operations forces to secure Mr. Assad’s remaining chemical weapons arsenal. Troops have been stationed in Jordan for at least a year awaiting orders to execute similar missions. While securing these weapons would resolve many of the issues currently vexing Western powers, the Obama administration’s reluctance to commit any US assets in Syria likely means that such a high-risk operation is not on the table.

President Obama—like any good leader—should gather as much information as possible before making a decision on US action in Syria. However, like any good leader, Mr. Obama should be willing to make unpopular decisions. While intervening in Syria might not be a popular option in the US, intervention is necessary for America to maintain its reputation as a global force for good, and to uphold international law. In the best case, the United Nations will lead the charge against Mr. Assad. If not, Mr. Obama should be willing to use America’s power to remind Mr. Assad that international rules matter.

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Categories: Middle East/North Africa, Politics

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