By Zac Losey
When considering the conflict in Syria, there are many different lenses through which one could examine the conflict, all of which will likely lead one to different conclusions about the situation. As Americans, we are all inclined to ask what we should do as a country – but our ultimate goal in such a situation is to figure out what is best for us.
Humanitarians are likely to focus on what is best for the people affected, with the ultimate goal being the minimization of suffering. Christians, depending on the flavor, would likely combine the previous goals: doing what is best for the country while trying to minimize suffering. That said, I’d like to go ahead and get a couple of things out of the way: (1) I am in no way an expert on Middle Eastern culture or the current situation in Syria. (2) I have no idea what is the ‘best’ course of action or if there even is one. No matter what happens, no matter what America does or doesn’t do, there is going to be appalling suffering. Instead of pretending like I know what’s best, I’d like to simply consider some facets of the conflict that may be useful in forming an informed opinion on what the United States should do, if anything.
Hopefully, we’ve learned from Iraq that we can’t simply invade another country and think that will fix everything. Things are more complicated than we make them out to be — especially other cultures. While we may see ourselves as the grand liberators of the oppressed, the rest of the world does not. A ground invasion is absolutely stupid – it would simply accelerate the violence and rouse anti-Americanism among extremists. It would also cost a lot of American lives.
What about the rebels? Arming them with the hopes they will topple the Assad regime and end the bloodshed is naïve. Doing so would empower jihadists and is likely increase the conflict between rebel factions. We made that mistake before when we armed the Taliban back in 1996 during the civil war in Afghanistan. The administration has indicated that it is in favor of missile strikes, but doing so is unlikely to deter the bloodshed or turn the tide of the war.
So if there aren’t any good options, why all the talk of intervention? After all, America seems pretty unaffected by all this. The problem came with Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. It’s a big deal. The distinction between conventional weapons and chemical ones is not arbitrary.
War is going to happen; there is no getting around it. You might think that how the killing happens doesn’t matter, but in the case of chemical weapons it does. Conventional weapons are easy to target at enemy combatants, but chemical weapons are not. They do not discriminate between civilians and combatants. Thus, they are usually pretty ineffective at helping one side defeat another. While they may give one side an advantage, they are almost guaranteed to cause massive civilian suffering. Civilians everywhere are better off if no one uses them. The Geneva Convention banned their use for those exact reasons. However, the regulation is not easily enforced and this ‘norm’ against chemical weapons use is frail.
Ignoring Assad’s use of them could dramatically weaken this norm because it is so fragile, but it is not so frail that it isn’t worth protecting.
Invasion is clearly a bad idea, as is arming the rebels. It seems to me that intervention of any sort seems to end poorly, but I can’t help thinking that the use of chemical weapons cannot be ignored. It’s a crime against humanity, and the hard-won norm against their use is worth protecting. So while missile strikes probably won’t ease the suffering in Syria, end the war or affect the Assad regime all that much, protecting the norm against chemical weapons is a lot easier if everyone knows violating it will earn you a some inbound cruise missiles.