Western nations accused the Syrian government of carrying out chemical attacks in Syria on August 21, which resulted in the death of more than a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The last time that a government used chemical weapons to attack its own civilians was in 1988. At that time, it was estimated that Saddam Hussein killed as many as 5,000 Kurdish citizens.
For many decades, the international community has had a ban against the use of chemical weapons. It is because he seeks to uphold this ban — in place since 1925 — that the president wants to launch a limited attack against the Syrian government. But the bigger question facing the international community, particularly the U.S., is what to do about the ongoing civil war that killed, thus far, tens of thousands of people. Despite repeated calls by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for the president to do more to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, their stated goal, however, could not be achieved without the U.S. getting deeply embroiled in another quagmire in the Middle East.
After the chaos and tremendous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people are weary about any foreign engagement. Any action in Syria will be rife with risks. Unlike Iraq, Syria is much stronger militarily. It has a sophisticated defense system. As a result, it would be very dangerous to try to create and maintain a no-fly zone as McCain and Graham suggested. Additionally, any action to “degrade” the military capacity of the Syrian government would require greater American involvement, which the public would adamantly oppose even with no American boots on the ground.
Syria has been ruled for decades by the Assad family who are members of the Alawite community. The Alawites represent 12% of the population. The insurgency to topple the Assad regime is dominating by Sunnis who constitute the largest group in the country. One of the rebel groups that are fighting to remove Assad from power is an Al-Qaeda affiliated group, the Jabhat al-Nusra. But it is not surprising that fighters with linked to Al-Qaeda are involved in the fighting against the Assad government. First, Al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization. Therefore, these fighters share the same religious identity with most members of the Sunni-led insurgency. Equally important, many rebel fighters are volunteers with no significant military training. Since it is likely that those fighters with ties to Al-Qaeda might have received some form of training, their participation must have provided a boost to the rebels.
Therein lies the problem. By providing more lethal military hardware to the opposition groups as McCain and Graham have been advocating, there is a distinct possibility that some of those armaments could end up into the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters even if the opposition groups are vetted before the distribution of those ammunitions.
The situation in Syria poses a big challenge for policymakers in Washington. The presence of Al-Qaeda sympathizers has exacerbated a situation that was already complicated. Because they could help win this civil war, it might, then, be difficult for members of the opposition groups to crack down on Al-Qaeda elements if they gain power. Another problem is that the insurgency does not seem to have a clear leader. As a result, it is quite possible that a power struggle could ensue if the rebel groups manage to defeat the Assad government. This power struggle would make it more difficult to stabilize the country.
Moreover, since Assad is an Alawite, a win by the rebels could result in a bloody massacre of members of the Alawite communities. It would be hard for Western nations to prevent this potential massacre since there would not be any peacekeepers in the country following the defeat of the Assad regime. Because the American government would have to provide substantial support to the rebels in order for them to win this internecine conflict, such a massacre would be at the very least an embarrassment for Washington.
The civil war has been a tragedy for Syria. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 people have been killed and two million people fled the country. Since there is no indication that the war is nearing its end, it is a given that more people and innocent children will continue to be killed and more civilians will continue to flee the country. The best way to deal with this tragedy and ongoing chaos would be for the international community, particularly the U.S., to provide major military assistance to the rebel groups and to participate in the overthrow of the Assad regime. Since the ouster of Assad would create a vacuum, the international community would also have to help the opposition groups establish a democratic system, or at least a functioning government.
But as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, it requires tremendous resources to remove a brutal regime from power in the Middle East. It could also take years, if not decades, to form a viable government that could provide adequate security after the removal of an authoritarian regime. But the American people would vehemently oppose this level of commitment.
The U.S. faces a perplexing situation in Syria. As the remaining superpower, there is a strong tendency on the part of Washington to act as the world’s police. In Syria, both action and inaction carry their own set of risks. If Washington decides to engage in large scale bombings of Syria in order to degrade the military capacity of the government and to provide more assistance to the rebel groups, the U.S. will become more entangled in this ongoing civil strife.
Additionally, Iran and Hezbollah are strong allies of Assad. They could engage in retaliations against American allies because of U.S. involvement, which could spark a regional war. Inaction, on the other hand, is also fraught with risks. The situation could continue to deteriorate. Assad could eventually gain the upper hand and end up winning the conflict. Because they are allies, a win by Assad would also be regarded by the leaders of Tehran as a victory for Iran, thereby strengthening their position in the region.
Although both scenarios are risky, taking major action against the Syrian regime could carry greater risk for Washington. Hence, in the face of this conundrum, it would best for the Obama administration to follow a prudent course and to disregard the suggestions of John McCain and Lindsey Graham to provide more lethal weapons to the rebel groups and to engage in heavy bombardment of military facilities in Syria. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. failed to impose its will on those two countries even after spending trillions of dollars and with the presence of a large contingent of troops. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. could impose its will on a country, which has the third largest pile of chemical weapons, and with a much stronger army than either Iraq or Afghanistan.