Syria, Chemical Weapons and the US Response

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My source inside of Syria contacted me today. He’s a Syrian journalist in Damascus covering the ongoing civil war. He doesn’t want me to use his name, but I trust his information – I’ve literally put my life in his hands when I worked on a project in Damascus back in 2009.  After giving me his update, his big question to me was this: “Is the US going to attack?” 

That’s a question on a lot of people’s minds. I’m sure Syrian president Assad wonders if President Obama will make good on his “red line” threat – a promise that if Assad’s government used chemical weapons against civilians there would be repercussions from the US.  (To see commentary on what Obama actually said, click here for a CBS report.

The Background of the Conflict: 

The current conflict in Syria began in March of 2011. Protesters wanted current Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to resign – part of the larger Arab Spring movement against dictators in the Middle East. Protests turned into armed conflict between the two sides. So far, more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict. 

Chemical Weapons Use:

The organization, Doctors Without Borders, has confirmed that chemical weapons have now been used in Syria. The report says that more than three hundred are dead and thousands were harmed by the attack. My Syrian contact also confirmed this to me earlier today. He went to the site of the attack, saw the dead – mostly woman and children. It’s horrific. 

Using chemical weapons is against the Geneva Convention and is a war crime. But, to be clear, so is murdering any civilian by any method. Who’s responsible? Most intelligence sources, including my contact in Damascus, insist Assad’s regime is behind the attack. Not everyone agrees. And we may never know the real truth. Such is the frustrating nature of the “information” age – more information, less consensus of truth. 

To Bomb or not to Bomb?

So, what will happen next? Obama has to decide if he will make good on his threat to act – and if he does, to what extent. It is in no way a simple issue. 

Here are some possible scenarios:

  • Obama could do nothing. This would satisfy the isolationists who think the US should keep out of everything that doesn’t directly impact national security. But he would continue to lose internationally credibility and doing nothing may embolden US enemies.
  • Obama could authorize a limited attack – a slap on the wrist of sorts – and fire off a few cruise missiles. It won’t mean much. And it won’t change anything. But Obama will be able to say he did something. Still you have to factor in the possibility of a retaliation from Syria and/or Iran (Hezbollah) – probably directed towards Israel. And Israel will not be passive. 
  • The US could authorize sustained force and attempt to end the conflict and change the regime. But then you’ve got to deal with who takes over after Assad. And no one knows who that will be. There always seem to be unintended consequences when nations try to shape the outcomes of other nations.  My contact in Damascus assured me that while al-Qaeda (or those inspired by al-Qaeda ideology) are certainly part of the rebel force against Assad, they will not be the ones who take over the country. They have the money, he said, but not the numbers and influence. Ask Egypt what they think about that – few predicted the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood when Mubarak was ousted. 

I asked my contact what he thought about possible US military involvement. He told me that they were waiting for it – that they needed it. When I brought up the issue that many people around the world are tired of the US taking on the inconsistent role of moral policeman, he told me, “It doesn’t matter, someone will always lead. It’s better if it’s the US.” 

In the end, global leadership has become more and more difficult. It’s hard to lead in a world with hugely varying interests, competing world-views, no consensus of truth and no clear end-game. Debates will continue. Disparate facts and conspiracy theories will abound. More innocent people will lose their lives. 

As the story continues to unfold, you will find, at its heart, a battle for truth. What’s right, who’s right, what happened, who’s responsible, what motivates people to act and who has the right to impose which values upon whom.  There’s a prescient passage of Scripture that while written a couple of thousand years ago, seems appropriate for today. It says that in the last days of earth, people will be “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7) And now we wait for the next chapter – certain to come in multiple versions. 

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