University of Virginia ; Charlottesville, VA – news
By Brandon Brooks
Share on Twitter
Two weeks ago, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote a scathing critique of the Obama administration’s failure to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for committing crimes against humanity. Throughout the article, Cohen compares President Obama’s inaction to President Bill Clinton’s initial reluctance to intervene in the Yugoslav Wars. Despite the horrific conditions unfolding in Syria, one can understand the Obama administration’s reluctance to expand its involvement in the conflict. Striking the Assad regime in 2013 would risk immersing the United States in another intractable military conflict that the American public would be unwilling to support to its conclusion.
Cohen’s argument is not without merit. United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power voiced similar concerns while she was a member of the National Security Council, arguing the Syrian rebels deserved the United States’ support. One may even argue that such actions would be in keeping with provisions listed in the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect Agreement, of which the United States is a signatory. While it is easy to sympathize with Cohen’s desire to evoke this commitment, one might question whether the United States should apply this principle to rebel forces as well. According to international observers, several Sunni Islamist opposition groups have engaged in torture, kidnapping and ethnic cleansing. Dismissing these incidents would undermine the purpose of a humanitarian intervention; however, responding militarily would place the United States at odds with these rebel groups and their foreign patrons, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The latter event could diminish relations with a key NATO ally and endanger U.S. oil interests in the region.
This is not to say the United States should have supported the Assad regime, which appears to disprove the notion that autocratic governments are stable bulwarks against Islamic fundamentalism and political instability. While some argue Assad is the only figure capable of stabilizing Syria, his inability to defeat the rebels — despite military assistance from Russia, Hezbollah and Iran — casts doubt upon this assertion.
Furthermore, the outbreak of civil war in Syria is widely attributed to Assad’s intransigence. Unlike Abdullah II and King Mohammed VI, who made partial concessions to de-escalate anti-government protests, the Assad regime primarily relied on its security forces to repress political dissidents. As this continued, many Syrians decided to take up arms against the regime. As one would expect, groups allied with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have managed to exploit the subsequent instability and expand their influence. Indeed, many of these groups have earned widespread recognition for their performance on the battlefield. Recently, Jahhat Fateh al-Sham (a self proclaimed “former” Al-Qaeda affiliate) has been applauded for breaking a government siege on the rebel-controlled districts in Aleppo.
Ultimately, the Obama administration’s options in Syria were limited. In the past, the U.S. military has used no-fly zones to protect ethnic minorities and deployed troops to support multinational peacekeeping operations. However, there is reason to question the efficacy and feasibility of both these options. A no-fly zone would have likely raised tensions with Russia and Iran and would not stop the Assad regime from using non-aerial means of targeting civilian populaces. In regard to the latter option, few international actors expressed interest in taking action against the Assad regime. Additionally,68 percent of Americans opposed U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Despite these constraints, the Obama administration should press Congress to allocate funding to address the ongoing refugee crisis, which could provide additional food, water and quality health services to those living in refugee camps. Supplying humanitarian aid would remind refugees of Americans’ continued interest in their well-being and promote goodwill towards the United States. The administration should also continue to resettle refugees into the United States, which would undermine the notion that the Islamic State is an ideal society for Sunni Muslims. While critics may allege Syrian refugees undermine the country’s national security, I would argue this risk is negligible, as most refugees considered for resettlement to the United States are women and children.
The Syrian Civil War is a case with no easy solutions, a quagmire in which the effects of sectarianism, authoritarianism and fundamentalism have finally come to a head, with no end in sight. The White House’s reluctance to involve itself in this conflict is likely a result of this regrettable fact. While it is easy to sympathize with Cohen’s call for action, expanding the United States’ role in Syria would entrench it in a costly, prolonged war that becomes increasingly hard to justify to the American public, especially to U.S. military families.
Brandon Brooks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.