Gates of Fire: A Brief Opinion on the Syrian Crisis

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on August 26, 2013.

On Sunday, August 25, CNN and other news sources reported that American military action in Syria might be imminent.[i] This came shortly after the announcement that the Syrian government almost certainly used chemical weapons against its populace. U.N. inspectors are inbound to Syria (allowed in most likely because President Bashar al-Assad fears an invasion), while the Syrian, Russian, and Iran governments all warn America not to get involved.[ii] Meanwhile, a small fleet comprised of United States Navy warships is positioning itself in the Mediterranean near Syria, in preparation for possible strikes.

I have followed the Syrian civil war off and on for the last two years. President Assad seems to be a man of enormous arrogance; like many dictators, he clings resolutely to power, claiming (and perhaps even believing) that he has broad popular support. The people of Syria now live in a country that is rapidly becoming an anarchic ruin. I can’t even imagine the agony of living in such a hellish place right now.

However, the rebels have shown themselves to be less than purely altruistic. The rebels are split into many coalitions, several of which are affiliated with schools of paleoconservative Islamic thought (both the Salafi movement and al-Qaeda sympathies are represented).[iii] The Syrian government and rebels alike have tortured children and used children for military purposes.[iv]Rebels have killed at least one Catholic priest. And in one infamous case, a rebel named Abu Sakkar cannibalized the corpse of an enemy combatant, an act that rebel General Salim Idris only half-heartedly condemned.[v]

My point here is that there is no truly blameless coalition opposing the Assad regime. Certainly, there are millions of suffering civilians in Syria – recall those abuses against Syrian children – but the militarily active rebel groups can be just as scary as the Assad regime’s goon squads. There’s not exactly a bunch of good guys, at least from a geopolitical perspective, currently fighting in Syria.

It is my opinion that military strikes by the United States against the Syrian government will be akin to throwing gasoline on a raging fire. Even if the Assad regime is destabilized, there will be no clear political successor to form a provisional government. Rather, these various rebel groups, comprised of different ethnic groups and adhering to different political ideologies, will fight each other to become the one ruling party. Additionally, as these rebels jockey for U.S. support and U.N. recognition as the obvious successor to Assad, some coalitions will likely attack the United States armed forces, as happened in Iraq. Overall, it is a monumentally bad idea for the United States to bomb Syria or send troops there.

The latest Reuters polling shows that most Americans do not want a U.S. attack against Syria. Nonetheless, our government is moving warships into position, and the sort of controlled news leaks that are often seen before military strikes have begun reaching the press. These are ominous signs. Why should we start dropping bombs on Assad’s government when the rebels are frankly just as vicious?

I think that the diplomats and top brass of our government are enslaved by the notion that they can intervene in a foreign country with little knowledge of the local culture. Our leaders think they can take foreigners and turn them into satellite semi-Americans, living under nominally democratic governments. This concept has been put into practice over and over in the last 120 years, in the Philippines, Haiti, Korea, Nicaragua (and other South American states), Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The results have largely been disastrous.

All of those countries or geographic regions had insurgents fighting against the Americans or the Americans’ clients. New regimes that received American backing (South Korea and various South American dictatorships spring to mind) were autocratic and oppressed the local inhabitants. American-style democracy has generally failed to take root, since foreigners have their own conceptions of democracy that differ from the conceptions of the U.S. State Department, and since we have an incredible tendency to back the wrong team. (Remember, we armed the Taliban against the Russians, and thereby gave fuel to the fires of radical, distorted Islam.)

But even after the particularly egregious cases of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where the U.S. military utterly failed to change local hearts and minds, the U.S. government keeps getting involved militarily in foreign wars. Consider the most recent incident, when President Obama bombed the forces of Libyan Prime Minister Muammar al-Gaddafi. In the end, Gaddafi lost power, and then he was killed. Well over a year later, democracy has not taken root in Libya; the Libyans have split into factions and fought each other; and America’s reputation in North Africa has not improved at all. I believe that the Libyan scenario would repeat itself in Syria. Indeed, a Syrian conflict could get even worse, for we would risk drawing the ire of the Iranian military.

Nonetheless, even as I point out the limits of U.S. imperialism, the Syrian civil war continues. The children continue to suffer, the people starve, and formerly prosperous towns are reduced to rubble. Even though I do not believe we should launch an attack, I do believe that we have a moral responsibility to do something.

As such, I call on President Obama and our government to approach Syrians of all political persuasions directly and call for an immediate ceasefire, to be followed by a peace conference held at a neutral location. Instead of arming morally suspect rebels, our government should call for both the rebels and the Assad government to lay down their arms and start talking seriously. Assad has yet to fall from power, and the rebels clearly are still furious with their president. It’s time that both sides sit down and hash out a deal. Additionally, the U.N. would more likely rally behind peaceful negotiations than behind another case of American militarism run amok.

I don’t mean to sound idealistic or naïve here. I’m utterly serious about talking peace in Syria. American military strikes will be a disaster. In contrast, a ceasefire would stabilize the region and calm the Iranians, who seem both frightened and threatened by the chance of American involvement. For a time, Syrian casualties would drop. Moreover, to help make these negotiations work, President Obama could reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rather than alienating Putin with a military strike against Syria, our President could offer Putin a chance to co-sponsor the peace negotiation.

Assad’s regime is monstrous, and probably deserves to be toppled from power. As it is, though, the Syrian civil war has no clear resolution, so a negotiated peace is the only viable option to make the Syrian civil war end quickly. Regrettably, the U.S. fleet hovers in the Mediterranean. Once again, the U.S. appears to be headed down the path of militarism.

President Obama has made some notable mistakes in his tenure, including his failure to advertise the Affordable Care Act effectively, being too aloof from Capitol Hill, making the ax-like sequester deal with the GOP, and intervening in the Libyan civil war. The President may also have erred in regard to the NSA, since the ongoing story about the PRISM surveillance program continues to raise difficult questions about the use of government power. But make no mistake – armed intervention in Syria would be the biggest mistake of Barack Obama’s five-year administration.

Mr. President, please do not bomb Syria. Call for peace instead.


[i] Greg Clary, “Key U.S. Lawmakers: Expect Strike in Syria,” CNN, August 25, 2013, accessed the same day, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/08/25/key-u-s-lawmakers-expect-strike-in-syria/?hpt=hp_c2.

[ii] Frederik Pleitgen, Hamdi Alkhshali, and Josh Levs, “U.S. official: Almost no doubt Assad regime used chemical weapons,” CNN, August 25, 2013, accessed the same day,http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/25/world/meast/syria-civil-war/index.html?hpt=hp_t2; James Rosen and Jennifer Griffin, “Syria warns against foreign involvement in conflict; Hagel says US prepared for ‘all contingencies,’” Fox News, August 25, 2013, accessed the same day,http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/08/25/us-naval-forces-move-closer-to-syria-hagel-suggests/.

[iii] Aron Lund, “Freedom fighters? Cannibals? The truth about Syria’s rebels,” The Independent, June 17, 2013, accessed August 25, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/freedom-fighters-cannibals-the-truth-about-syrias-rebels-8662618.html.

[iv] Sophia Jones, “Children in the Syrian War: Tortured by One Side, Recruited by the Other,”The Atlantic, June 14, 2013, accessed August 25, 2013,http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/children-in-the-syrian-war-tortured-by-one-side-recruited-by-the-other/276876/.

[v] Paul Wood, “Face-to-Face with Abu Sakkar, Syria’s ‘heart-eating cannibal,’” BBC News, Syria, July 5, 2013, accessed August 25, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23190533.

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