Waffling on Syria

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First, we have a leadership problem. Regardless as to whether or not I think military action in Syria is a good idea or not, if a president is going to make big “red-line” statements, then he should do what he says he’s going to do. Or don’t say anything. Obama said he was going to attack Syria to let Assad know that he can’t get away with using chemical weapons on civilians. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, gave a passionate, clear speech laying out the argument as to why the US has to respond militarily.

Meanwhile the UK said, thanks for the invitation, but no thanks. And the French said they might bring some popcorn and watch and cheer from the sidelines. So President Obama decided that maybe he should talk to Congress about it when they come back from vacation, thus delaying any attack on Syria for a while. The fact that Obama has not been able to get significant international support indicates that the argument for military intervention in Syria has not been sufficiently made. And no matter how politicians spin it, foreign allies and enemies are viewing the shift in Obama’s decision as a sign of weakness.

Now, having said that, to be honest, many good people are very divided over the issue of a US military strike in Syria. Americans are sympathetic about the horrible impact of chemical weapons use that they’ve seen on news broadcasts and on the Internet. No one with a soul can feel ambivalent about these images. But most Americans are tired of war and tired of being involved in foreign conflicts – especially without clear objectives.

Here’s what we know:

  • 1400 + men, women and children were killed in a chemical gas attack outside of Damascus.
  • Using chemical weapons violates international law.
  • The US’s primary goal for military strikes is not to change the Syrian regime.
  • Obama wants to send a message to Assad that chemical weapons cannot be used and will not be tolerated.
  • Any military operation would be limited.
  • President Obama has feeble international support for action against Syria.
  • The US President looks completely indecisive and weak in the eyes of the world. Our enemies are celebrating. Our allies are worried.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • We don’t know who did it. US intelligence says they have a high confidence level that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against their own people. The Russians say that Assad didn’t do it and that the US conclusions are ridiculous. (Of course Russian leadership is supporting Assad’s regime in Syria, so what else would you expect them to say?)
  • We don’t know all the possible explanations. Jonathan Alpeyrie, a photojournalist covering the war, and who recently spent 81 days in captivity at the hands of the Syrian rebels has recently shared his views. He states that things on the grounds are very confusing – and that there is the possibility that radicals inside the rebel forces are responsible for the chemical attack – to make things look worse for Assad. He also states that Assad is winning the war now and would have no real need to use chemical weapons at this time.
  • We don’t know what unintended consequences may result from the use of military intervention. Will more civilians be killed unintentionally by the strikes? Will Syria or Hezbollah attack US allies (Israel, Jordan) in the region?
  • We don’t know who would take over if Assad is actually removed from power in Syria. Some sources say that the Free Syrian Army would take the country in a democratic direction. Others say that the first generation of freedom fighters have either been killed or gone home and the current wave of freedom fighters are militants who, if victorious, would take Syria in an Islamist direction.

Doctrine of Responsibility to Protect:

If I’m not being cynical, the heart of the justification for bombing Syria is the doctrine of the responsibility to protect – the idea that if the innocent are being slaughtered and that if illegal weapons of mass destruction are being employed, that the rest of the world needs to uphold universal values of justice and the importance of life and stop the injustice.

If I’m being cynical, I have to ask, why is the US interested in this particular injustice? This is not the first use of chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war. I sat with Syrian refugees while working in Egypt more than 6 months ago who showed me videos of chemical weapons use. Was that not a red-line? Why was nothing done when Iraq and Iran were using chemical weapons against each other? What about escalating violence in the Congo? What about Southern Sudan? Is the motivation truly and solely humanitarian? Or are ego, pride and other interests playing a part. Did the president back himself into a corner and can’t get out?

The issue of protecting the innocent is important. The decision on when and how to act is also important. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer dealt with a similar issue when considering his responsibility during Hitler’s reign in Germany. He realized at some point that he could not stand by and do nothing. This is what he said,  “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

That statement is compelling – but unless it is combined with wisdom and all the facts, it might cause well-intentioned people to do very foolish things. International military intervention isn’t the same as personal responsibility to do good towards others. And in my opinion, if we’re going to attack Syria to only to teach Assad a lesson – and to change nothing else, we’re wasting our time. I try not to teach people lessons that I am sure they aren’t going to learn.

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