September 1, 2013
By Gabriel Bernadett-Shapiro/USC Annenberg’s Digital News
“We should ask ourselves whether we are advocating a strike based upon an emotional reaction to the use of chemical weapons, while disregarding the larger context of the conflict.”
LOS ANGELES: The decision facing the United States today is whether or not to launch a military strike against the Syrian Assad regime. For the past five months I’ve worked for Syria Direct, a news organization which reports on the Syrian civil war. My involvement with the organization has given me insight into the conflict and I’ll sum up the most important conclusion: nobody thinks this can be carried off without a hitch.
Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has recently added to his lengthy list of atrocities by using chemical weapons against a civilian population. The most likely military action against Assad would consist of a “targeted and limited strike,” which would comprise Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at military targets.
But is that really how a strike on Syria would go?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a man with his back to a wall and a vast arsenal of weaponry as the only thing between him and the end of a noose. For this reason, Assad’s rulebook is necessarily sparse and in a conflict where many factions are vying for control, the consequences of his actions are limited. By contrast, the rulebook of the U.S. is filled on every page and the consequences of military intervention are broad.
Take a Tomahawk cruise missile strike, for example. First, there is no guarantee that a strike against Assad’s forces would be limited to military casualties. Civilians may die in such attacks, or suffer in other significant ways. For example, if Assad’s forces are demolished, services provided to Syrians by the military could mean countless families starve or lose access to medical supplies.
In fact, this particular strike option almost seems to be a guaranteed disaster, given recent reports that indicate Assad has bussed civilian prisoners to military airfields, in order to discourage outside strikes on Syrian military bases.
The United States can’t use brute force to push Assad towards the negotiating table, and it doesn’t stand to reason that an act of aggression would deter him from using chemical weapons in the future. And in a bizarre twist, it would increase the likelihood of him utilizing chemical weapons, because an American intervention provides him with an excuse to use all military options at his disposal.
The other important question to ask is why we as Americans are considering military action in the first place? What is it about chemical weapons that invoke our ire? More than 100,000 people have died in the Syrian Civil War, at the highest estimate; deaths from chemical weapons represent 1.5% of the total number of lives lost.
Keeping perspective is an important part of decision-making. We should ask ourselves whether we are advocating a strike based upon an emotional reaction to the use of chemical weapons, while disregarding the larger context of the conflict.
The vast majority of deaths have been a result of more ubiquitous and mundane weapons systems, which don’t provoke the same emotional reaction as YouTube videos of twitching children. This may play on our need for retribution, but it is a need we must resist.
Many have characterized this as a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation, in which an impotent and hypocritical U.S. will be forced to wait out the conflict. But this argument paints in broad strokes and misses the fact that we are already deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, and have been for some time.
Whether it’s former Ambassador Robert Ford meeting with the opposition, providing arms assistance to the rebel forces, or the commitment of over $195 million dollars in aid to help internally and externally displaced Syrians, the U.S. is actively engaged in providing assistance (albeit while avoiding direct military action).
Where does this leave us?
When you end up playing by the other fella’s rules, you will always lose, regardless of how you felt you played the game. If America allows itself to be seduced into retaliating, it will be viewed as the aggressor.
Let’s face it: the conflict has been going on for long enough that Assad can use chemical weapons against civilians and STILL maintain military support. This should tell us something about the determination of his backers.
What the U.S. should realize at this point is that when we are faced with a choice between two poor outcomes, we should leave the game altogether. We should play by a new game, one that has more equitable rules.
This could mean thawing out relations with Russia and coordinating efforts to quell the conflict on both ends. Or it could mean appealing to the economic concerns of middle-class Syrians who have been hesitant to pick a side, unsure where their future lies. Or it could be an entirely different approach which we can’t think of when our finger is on the button.
But right now, the game we are playing is unbalanced and heavily favors our opponent. We must table the discussion of a strike, and work towards options which are more favorable to our interests.