Opposing Views: America Cannot Be Willfully Blind to Chemical Warfare

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series at Jaded Politics titled “Opposing Views”. Today we look at the issue of Syria from both sides. The following is an argument in favor of Syrian intervention.

Last week the world was reminded yet again what tyrants are willing to do in their constant need to suppress dissent and secure their grip on power. News reports and US intelligence confirmed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were responsible for killing over 70 civilians and injured hundreds more in the country’s Idlib province.

The general sentiment among leaders in Europe and the US was mainly a mixture of horror and outrage. Russia had in 2013 assured the world that, in compliance with existing UN resolutions and a diplomatic agreement with the US, the Syrian dictator no longer possessed any chemical weapons capabilities.

Of course, both President Obama and Trump each appeared to share a common, sincere and naïve belief that Russia could be a useful partner in the fight against ISIS. They badly miscalculated. Putin has used ISIS’s threat as a pretense to bolster Russia’s proxy dictator Assad (an ally of Lebanese terrorist entity Hezbollah) with roughly 80% of military strikes in its “ISIS campaign” actually aimed at non-ISIS targets, including civilian hospitals and schools in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Isolationist sentiment prevailed as some in both parties bought into the false narrative that standing up to Russian proxies inevitably leads to World War III. That trend was taking a substantial toll on US moral standing in the world.

Assad’s regime remains one of the top state-sponsors of terrorism. Hezbollah has reciprocated by overly intervening in the Syrian civil war. As one leader exclaimed, “It is our battle, and we are up to it.” Like other jihadist campaigns, Hezbollah’s top priority is the destruction of Israel, the top US ally and sole free market democracy in the Middle East.

Moreover, the consensus among Syria political experts is that Western countries’ hesitation to enforce international law has encouraged more violations from one of the world’s most repressive regimes. They maintain that roughly three years ago, Assad (aided by Russia) essentially called President Obama’s bluff in crossing  asserted “red line” – using sarin gas against rebel fighters. Though it was only a “bluff” in the sense that the Obama administration was not quite willing to retaliate militarily in the absence of Congressional approval. Obama had previously sought to back up his red line with a targeted bombing aimed at Assad’s chemical weapons facilities, Congressional members from both parties voted down the Use of Force Authorization.

Although there were several rationales withholding support, the most dominant was their own constituents’ disdain for again engaging a dictator in the region. One found many liberals, conservatives and libertarians all echoing similar rhetoric that assumed launching a limited strike on Assad would mean becoming bogged down in another drawn out campaign akin to those in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The administration then tried to resolve the situation diplomatically, ultimately trusting the Russians verify that Assad’s chemical weapons were eliminated.

When photos and videos emerged recently showing Syrians, including children, suffering from a brutal sarin gas attack, it became clear that the Russians had not bargained in good faith. Some politicians have continued adhering to the same misguided isolationist talking points which they resorted to after Assad’s previous chemical attacks against his own people. But events since that time continue undermining these politicians’ claims that the US has no national interests in assisting any Syrian rebels, or at a bare minimum, in ensuring that Assad is not able to achieve victory using chemical weapons that were first banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

The hesitation has emboldened most repressive regimes and aggravates the likelihood of war rather than reducing it. Self-described “non-interventionists” actually offer little more than a repackaged version of isolationism. In their effort to prevent war by ignoring threats to our national interests and those of our allies, it frequently leads to a bad case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

When dictators violate essential rules of war, Western countries can either try to enforce them by diplomatic means, respond decisively through a military strike, or offer some harsh rhetoric on television and social media condemning the regime’s actions. Critics assume that because the Syrian airfield was not completely annihilated by the US missile strikes, the US did not achieve its objective of deterring Assad or Russia.

Virtually no one, even the most hawkish politicians in Congress, are proposing large scale troop deployments to Syria. However, they warn that permitting chemical attacks to become the norm in that region or anywhere will not be a remote threat for long.

Some liberals and conservatives operate under the delusion that there is zero link between Assad’s tyranny and many Syrians being willing to oppose him. Despite claims to the contrary, there were in 2013 an appreciable number of relatively moderate Syrians who may have been able to consolidate non-Jihadist opposition. Air and logistical support likely would have sufficed to meet that objective. Many have since been wiped out by Assad’s forces and Russian attacks.

The claim that we risk a larger war with Russia has been rebutted by decades of evidence demonstrating that standing up to Russian proxy dictators does not inevitable result in open war. If anything, history has affirmed time and again that appeasing such leaders merely bolsters their ambitions for territorial expansion. Permitting Russia to continue strengthening its sphere of influence in the Middle East, just as in Eastern Europe, actually increases the chances of a larger war breaking out.

Just for starters, the America can also increase diplomatic pressure on Russia at the UN and other venues to stop vetoing every effort on security council at sanctioning members of Assad’s regime. Other military options exist besides invading Syria. Special ops forces can provide logistical support to rebel elements who meet stringent conditions. The US could help organize a regional Sunni-led coalition to take out ISIS because clearly, after two years, Putin and Assad have their interests served by keeping some sort of ISIS presence. Moreover, it would help ensure that once ISIS is hopefully destroyed, the resulting power vacuum is not quickly filled in by another emerging Jihadist group such as al-Nusra Front.

President Trump stated that the attack changed his “attitude” on Assad, one can infer that he no longer sees his “America First” foreign policy strategy (which initially appealed to “non-interventionists) and advancing the interests of human rights as being mutually exclusive. Whether this signals a serious effort to bolster US moral standing or merely an isolated deviation from a hyper-realist foreign policy, remains to be seen.

It was only days before the recent sarin gas attack that Secretary of State Tillerson indicated the US does not consider removing Assad a top priority. Now after the attack, Tillerson has told Russia that they can either stand with the US and our allies or continue to side with Iran and Hezbollah.  The response was not consistent, but it surely has not been a net loss and is far superior to not acting at all. Russia and Syria were both given a heads up that strike was imminent, allowing them the chance to move their own people out of harm’s way.  This is not going on the warpath.

By moral standing, we are talking about the United States’ credibility on the international stage when attempting to persuade countries on any course of action. It is not just an abstract concept but something that eventually has a tangible impact if more countries doubt our willingness to offer more than harsh rhetoric in these situations.

One Senator pointed out a propaganda strategy used to undermine American interests during the cold war – the narrative that the United States only cares about human rights when it does not burden us at all.  The American public have become so conditioned to retrenchment and shrinking of US sphere of influence over the past decades that we think any assertive foreign policy posture inevitably results in full scale war.

Modern informational warfare has been effective at making false flag theories take hold and spread on social media. Russia and Syria specifically make that argument literally every time these reports surface when all out intelligence points to Assad regime being responsible. It’s a convenient rationale for his government to rely on. That he would use them again was reasonably foreseeable and indeed many did predict this turn of events.

Fairly informed people who buy into these claims recklessly ignore the reality that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons (chlorine and sarin, among others) over 200 times since 2012.  They also ignore intelligence reports confirming that Russia knew about the sarin attack in advance and even tried to cover it up by launching its own bombing missions at a nearby hospital.

While 57% of Americans support the limited strike against Assad, the Syrian dictator and Putin are betting that American political leaders and the public at large are not willing to take the steps necessary to force Assad out of power. They may be right.

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