Last spring, I wrote a column calling for American intervention in Syria. The need has only become more urgent in the intervening months. In recent weeks, definitive evidence has come forth that Bashar Assad utilized toxic Sarin nerve gas on his own people, killing as many as 1,200. This represents the use of chemical weapons in a magnitude that has not been seen since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988. The precedent set by enabling Assad to remain in power unchallenged, after all that he has done to his people, is a horrid one. What happens over there matters here for a number of reasons, and I wish to lay out the case for definitive intervention that would result in regime change.
1. The taboo against the use of chemical weapons is one worth preserving. Chemical weapons are an equalizer that allows smaller powers to unleash a large amount of destruction for a limited cost. They are also indiscriminate, causing fatalities amongst combatants and non-combatants alike. Assad has now utilized them a number of times without repercussion. Allowing him to escape punishment now will only encourage future use. What message does this send to would-be-despots? A world with more chemical weapons is a more dangerous place. Increased proliferation could well see more attacks like the one perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, in which nerve gas was released on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. It is well worth it to take a firm stance now against the use of chemical weapons by nations on their own people.
2. American credibility is also at stake. Aside from the humanitarian reasons that I will detail later, there is an incredibly selfish reason for America to lead an intervention. President Obama, on Aug. 20, 2012, at a news conference at the White House stated that “a red line for us is [when] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” This line has clearly been crossed. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed the intentional use of Sarin nerve gas by the Assad regime. The administration has endorsed this chain of facts, so backing away now from its established rhetoric about a “red line” will damage American credibility. Syria is not the only issue in play. Multiple signals are being sent based off of our response and Iran is most certainly watching. What leverage will American negotiators have when dealing with Iran’s nuclear program if we allow Syria to walk over our line in the sand? Credibility and resolve are important components of a robust foreign policy and compromising them in the name of expediency is a dangerous game to play.
3. Regional stability is also an important consideration for the United States. Syria has become a potential breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists. The longer the conflict drags on, the greater the chance that a larger number of young men will become radicalized. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the fight against extremism still exists. al Qaeda affiliates in many countries still seek to threaten the United States, and Syria provides them with a battleground to train a new cohort of soldiers. Many of these combatants are from the European Union and possess passports that will enable them to freely travel throughout Europe. The sooner the conflict ends, the less time these would-be-terrorists get to hone their craft.
These are three self-interested considerations for why the United States should seek to intervene in Syria. There is perhaps one more reason why action should be considered: the humanitarian impact. Over a 100,000 people have perished with around 1.7 million displaced. This represents a catastrophic loss of human life. Sympathy shouldn’t always dictate policy, but who else is there to ease the suffering of the Syrian people? When a state turns against its own population, those people have no choice but to rely on the international community. The dictum of “never again” is uttered after every genocide and act of mass violence perpetrated by a dictator. It is starting to sound like a hollow claim. It is in the United States’ self-interest to promote peace and prosperity, to stand against despotism and mass murder. Poverty and war breed resentment and radicalize individuals. Terrorism is borne out of desperation.
The United States should move to provide substantial military aid to vetted parts of the Free Syrian Army along with implementing a no fly zone over government controlled territory. Without putting boots on the ground, America can still help give the rebels the upper edge needed to drive Assad to the bargaining table. It might not be possible to remove him from office, but by changing the balance of power, at least we could prove American resolve and give Assad a reason to negotiate.
Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.