Discourse around Syrian intervention needs more nuance

The established political factions of the United States nearly unanimously greeted the recent intervention in Syria, in the form of shooting 59 tomahawk cruise missiles at At Al Shayrat airfield, with approval.

The Democrats, despite their disdain for Trump’s policies in general, on the whole welcomed the intervention. After all, it was Obama and the Democrats who originally pushed for congressional authorization to similarly intervene in Syria in 2013 only to have congressional Republicans deny the Obama administration approval. This need for congressional approval for military ventures, enshrined in the constitution, was ignored this time around as the Trump administration unilaterally ordered the intervention. The Democrats have since had to carry out the uncomfortable task of declaring their support for the missile strikes while constantly adding in that they would have loved to been asked permission first. Congressional Republicans, unsurprisingly, are not as wedded to the sanctity of congressional approval this time around.

There are powerful reasons to object to the recent intervention in Syria, and a diverse political grouping ranging from die-hard Trump supporters to the far left have voiced them. The past two decades of military intervention in the Middle East have proved disastrous.

There is little doubt that if the US had not invaded Iraq, there would be no ISIS, and that the 2011 military intervention in Libya failed to bring about a democratic government out of the rubble of the Gaddafi regime. In fact, the two problems have merged, and a branch of ISIS has expanded by taking advantage of the fractured state of Libya.

There is also an argument specifically from the left-wing, that although an intervention in Syria could possibly help bring about a peace settlement, ideally one in which the Alawite ruling minority cedes a greater amount of representation to the repressed Sunni majority, the Trump administration is the last government that could effectively prosecute such a course. Trump and broad swaths of his administration have displayed deep bigotry toward Muslims and Arabs, and Trump has displayed a certain carelessness towards the human costs of war by approving the disastrous strike in Yemen that left innocent civilians and a Navy SEAL dead.

However, there can be no denying that a strong moral and legal case for intervention exists.

Using sarin gas, as the Syrian government has done, is a clear and contemptible violation of international law. And although people are quick to draw an equivalency between the Syrian government and the large segments of the rebels that are religious extremists, it can not be denied that the greater part of the half a million people that have died in the conflict have been killed by government/pro-government forces. Syria in 2017, and even Libya in 2011, are wildly different from Iraq in 2003. Saddam killed many people, but there was no massive and methodical slaughter of hundreds of thousands. Comparing Syria to Iraq to advocate for non-interventionism does a disservice to the sheer horror of what the Syrian people are going through.

Yes, we must remember the errors of Iraq and Libya, but we must also remember that perhaps 800,000 tutsi would not have died in Rwanda if an outside actor had decided to intervene, and that the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians by Serbia would have been total if not for a US-led NATO intervention.

Basically, intervention has to be taken on a case by case basis.

Although for now I support, with a considerable degree of reservation, a measure of intervention in the Syrian conflict, I condemn those who have sought to paint the non-interventionists as supporters of chemical weapons strikes and lovers of the Assad dictatorship. There should always be a place in political discourse for those who advocate peace, even if it might not always be the best option.

When that political vision and its adherents are subjected to McCarthyite suppression as un-American, like many objectors to the Iraq War were in the emotionally fraught environment created by 9/11, hawkish elements are emboldened to be more aggressive on the war front than they would be otherwise.

There is still a crucial way that establishment Democrats and anti-interventionists of all stripes can unite regarding the Trump administration’s policy in Syria, and that is by demanding that the administration produce a coherent strategy and realistic set of aims in Syria.

The generals of the USA are highly competent, and will in all probability fulfill their military objectives, but they are not diplomats. Without a clear vision of a negotiated peace to strive for during the fighting, the American war machine will roar onwards unrestrained.

Demanding a comprehensive plan, to be debated over by the public, can potentially narrow the scope of the intervention as opposed to just giving Trump a carte blanche by either fully supporting or denying intervention.

So far in this regard the Trump administration has continuously contradicted itself. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Bashar Al Assad must go while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that getting rid of him was not a priority. Tillerson has since said that the Assad era is “coming to an end”, but the fact that there was any contradiction in the first place speaks to a deeply troubling lack of coordination in the government.

Furthermore, the period of time in which Assad was in critical danger of losing power has long since passed. Since the fall of Aleppo, Assad continuing presence has been ensured.

He might not have the power, without the continued aid of Russia and Iran, to regain control over all of Syria, instead delegating power to a series of regime aligned war lords, but he will in all likelihood have a seat at the table whenever a peace or armistice is signed.

It would be more realistic for the United States to carry out a limited intervention in coordination with allies that involves further retaliations against the use of chemical weapons and attacks on foreign aid workers, and should include no fly zones over populated urban areas that have been victims of indiscriminate bombings and gas attacks against civilians.

The United States should be invested less in regime change and more in limiting the scope and scale of the war by decreasing the range of options Assad and his allies have. Deprived of its most deadly weapons, and having to rely only on its paltry amount of ground troops, Assad’s government might be more amenable to a negotiated settlement.

One that might not result in democracy, but might grant the Sunni Arab majority more representation and/or autonomy in relation to the dominant Alawites and certainly include amnesty measures for rebels.

For the moment, I tentatively support intervention.

But I will not get behind any and all strategies to carry it out. If the US ultimately decides to approach Syria with the Bush era  “Shock and Awe” strategy of troop surges and massive displays of force, then I will retract my support and return to total disagreement with the Trump presidency.

For now, as the US strategy towards Syria remains in flux, I will cling to the hope that we, as a nation, can do something to make sure that 500,000 more will not have to die.

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