Should the world act in Syria?
Few international stories are more polarizing right now than the increasingly violent conflict boiling within Syria. An uprising against president Bashar al-Assad has turned into a full-blown civil war, at the cost of over 100,000 lives. Within the United States there is almost universal agreement on the need for an end to the conflict paired with near universal disagreement about how to end it.
The news that al-Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels (a claim which the U.S. government has concluded is accuratebased on intelligence gathered in the days immediately before and after the attack) has ramped up the debate on whether or not the international community should intervene. A United Nations Security Council resolution is impossible due to Russia and China’s commitment to the al-Assad regime. Even a strike by the NATO nations seems unlikely, with the British House of Commons voting against a proposal by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to use military action against Syria as a deterrent against future chemical weapon usage.
The United States itself is deeply divided with regards to a potential military strike. The House of Representatives sent a letter signed by 116 representatives, 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats, to President Barack Obama urging him to “consult and receive authorization from Congress” before ordering military action against Syria. Recent polling data shows an America unwilling to intervene in the Syrian conflict. An NBC News poll released Friday showed that 50 percent of the United States opposes taking military action; the same percentage believe that no action should be taken, regardless of al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people.
The arguments against involvement are simple. One commonly heard claim is that “we don’t know who the rebels are.” This reflects worries that if al-Assad falls, an even worse government could replace him; one run by Islamists, terrorists, or some other embodiment of anti-West sentiment. Essentially this argument boils down to “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” A similar concern is that if we take down al-Assad a power vacuum will occur, resulting in the strengthening of terrorist groups—such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and smaller cells—by giving them access to weapons and areas for training. Another popular reason to stay out of Syria is that the United States could get sucked into a long, drawn-out conflict along the lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fear is crippling our ability to deal with the Syrian crisis. It has happened before. After the fiasco in Somalia during the early 1990s, the Clinton administration—and the international community as a whole—was hesitant to involve itself in international crisis zones. This hesitation has been attributed as part of the reason that the United States did not intervene in the Rwandan genocide, a genocide which resulted in nearly one million deaths. America has sat out a conflict before and it did not end up well.
It is impossible to predict the ripples through history which an action can create, but preventable deaths are unacceptable. Deposing al-Assad might not end the violence—Egypt is a testament to that—but doing nothing has no chance of ending the slaughter of Syrian civilians. Every day Syria slips further and further into the abyss and the world is doing nothing about it.