In a Gallup poll published last Friday, public support for U.S. military action in Syria is projected lower than it has been for any recent conflict. Despite increasing evidence that Bashar al-Assad, the embattled President of Syria, used chemical weapons last month against civilians, the American public has been reticent when it comes to attacking Syria, a country that has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since 2011. Fifty-one percent of Americans polled opposed any action, while thirty-six percent were in favor. Even internationally, polls indicate that few people want any western involvement in the war-torn country.
Much of this criticism is well-founded. There are immense problems and potential repercussions stemming from a proposed attack on Syria. Some of these repercussions include the potential escalation of the conflict, a strengthened Assad regime, or a vengeful crackdown on rebel forces that we support. However, none of these possibilities makes for a reasonable excuse for the U.S. to sit on the sidelines and watch Assad commit war crimes against his own people.
But why, some ask, should a few deaths from chemical weapons spur U.S. involvement when a few thousand deaths from conventional warfare have been met with little to no response from world leaders?
There is no doubt that killings such as those carried out by Assad are unforgivable no matter the manner in which they are committed. Unlike conventional warfare, however, the international community has long identified chemical warfare as particularly off-limits. It is the prospect of what chemical weapons could do, not what they have done, that worries me, and should worry the administration and Congress.
Chemical weapons are indiscriminate; with no targeting mechanism for gases, you could risk countless civilian lives for the few military ones you may take, simply due to a change in the wind. The horrendous side effects of nerve gas exposure cause immense pain and suffering, again with no clear target. As a result, a widely accepted international norm has emerged and evolved to prevent their use, and the United States — in addition to the rest of the world — has a vested interest in ensuring adherence, lest other dictators like Assad one day feel compelled to use chemical weapons on us in armed conflict.
Aside from the United Nations Security Council, however, there is no international body capable of enforcing such norms and punishing individuals like Assad who choose to break them. The Security Council has failed to act because of Russia and China’s refusal to risk ruining their already shaky alliances with Assad, and therefore multilateral U.N. approved action is out of the question. The U.S. alone, as a de facto world military leader, is in a position to send a message to Assad, and others like him, to make clear that his actions are unacceptable and will not be met with indifference from the international community.
The conflict in Syria has reached such a level that the U.S. should launch a full-scale invasion of the country, with the express intent of ousting Assad and his regime in retaliation for two and a half years of brutality against his own people. Yet enormous problems would arise when it came time for the U.S. to extract itself from such a conflict, and such an intervention would result in horrendous loss of life for Americans and Syrians alike. Furthermore, a full-scale invasion would be met with disdain from an American public with images of Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh in mind.
If we cannot remove Assad, however, it remains vital that we stand firm in our commitment to international custom, even if some are unwilling to devote full military resources to yet another conflict in that region. There are those who say punishing Assad for killing his own people simply by killing more of them is not the answer, and they’re right; but that does not rule out a strike on military targets.
If the strike fails to have any effect, further action may be necessary to deter Assad. In this case, however, we have, for the first time in many years, a watchful and skeptical Congress that is just as tired of war as the rest of us. If the operation turns into anything more than the proposed air strike, the public can be confident that Congress will thwart further action in the absence of truly imminent danger towards the U.S. No U.S. troops will be in harm’s way, at least not under the proposed action.
Assad has committed crimes against humanity, and the precedent we would set by not responding would be devastating for long-term humanitarian interests. Our motives are clear, our methods are limited, and we have a duty to intervene. The U.S. cannot sit blithely by and allow these atrocities to continue to occur.