It looks like we're set for another showdown in the Middle East - this time a probable arial assault on Syria led by the US, France and Britain. According to reports from the group 'Doctors Without Borders' President Bashar Assad's government was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians outside Damascus on Aug. 21, killing 355 people.
In response, the Obama Administration has been ratcheting up its rhetoric against Assad, with Joe Biden telling an American Legion audience in Houston that, "No one doubts that innocent men, women and children have been the victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and there's no doubt who's responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated yesterday that the military was ready to take "whatever option the president wishes to take."
It seems entirely reasonable to assume that the 'Doctors Without Borders' account is accurate - Assad has a particularly nasty history of violence against his own people and has resorted to increasingly brutal measures to repress opposition groups in Syria. The civil war raging in the Middle Eastern country shows no sign of abating, and has caused a serious humanitarian crisis. Over 100,000 have been killed thus far, and the violence has created in excess of 2 million refugees. Assad is refusing to bend to international pressure to step down. The U.N. have now released a report stating that 'some chemical substance' was used, and it is clear; Assad is a ruthless despot with little regard for human rights. There is an argument to be made that an intervention in Syria would do some good. At some point, the international community has an obligation to stop brutality and human rights abuses if it can do so without causing more damage.
The problem is, if a consensus cannot be reached, does America have the right to intervene in another country in the name of human rights?
There are a few things worth bearing in mind when deciding whether to get behind another military intervention in the Middle East. Firstly, would it do any good? The answer to that isn't clear - it may or may not be constructive to bomb pro Assad forces and other strategic targets to quell the violence. Intervention in other country's civil wars is a notoriously risky endeavor with little guarantee of success. The US hasn't exactly had a good run of it in the past 60 years (the US exacerbated internecine warfare in both Vietnam and Iraq for example) so it's track record should be taken into account.
Secondly, does the US have the moral authority to attack another country for human rights abuses? For anyone with the vaguest understanding of history, the answer is pretty clear. The United States has a pretty horrendous record on human rights, most recently in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only did the US illegally invade both nations, it also committed numerous war crimes against their populations. In Fallujah, US forces used chemical weapons (white phosphorous) to flush out insurgents, and in Afghanistan, US soldier routinely committed war crimes against innocent civilians. The Wikileaks leaks showed the extent of US crimes in both countries, evidence that should definitively end the argument that the US wields any sort of moral authority around the world. To boot, America has a history of bankrolling despots (Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Mobutu Sese Seko, Mohamed Suharto, Pol Pot, etc etc) all of whom brutalized their own people with little acknowledgment from the American government.
Thirdly, what are the actual reasons why the US is considering an attack on Syria? Given there are war crimes being committed around the world on scales far larger than Syria it stands to reason that the US isn't getting involved due to its compassion for the Syrian people. Although Syria does not have huge oil resources, they are substantial (around 24% of Syria’s GDP, 25% of budget revenues and 40% of export revenues). There are also large untapped oil fields from the Lebanese border to the Syrian coast that, according to reports from Inseis, a Norwegian company, contain an amount of oil "equivalent to all of Kuwait’s reserves". China and Russia have both condemned the proposed Western assault, clearly a sign that they feel their interests are at stake. The Saudis have apparently just offered Russia a huge oil deal if they back off of their support of Syria, further proof that the world's interest has little to do with the plight of Syrians and more about their energy resources.
If Syria's main export were bananas, it's safe to say we wouldn't be hearing too much about it.
There's also the domestic political situation Obama is contending with. He's being attacked from all sides - the left won't leave him alone over the NSA scandal, the right is refusing to pass any of his legislation through congress, and the economy isn't exactly booming. A fail safe way of drawing attention away from a bad political situation is to have a quick, dominant war where the Commander in Chief gets to look presidential and patriotic. Obama knows the game he's playing and understands this could be an opportunity to boost his poll numbers. Hawks like John McCain have been banging the drums for war with Syria for months, and Obama could do quite nicely parading around the country with his old nemesis after bashing up Assad.
Americans should be very, very skeptical any time a bad guy is announced by their leaders. No one knew who Bashar Assad was a couple of years ago, yet now he is a bonafide evil doer who must be stopped at any cost.
It's a familiar script that has played itself out one too many times in recent years. The US government embroils itself in a war with a country most of its citizens know nothing about - it goes on longer than expected, it costs a lot of money, and lots of people die. There's also the exacerbated hatred of America and the increased threat of terrorism that comes from intervening in someone else's country.
Thankfully, the American public seems to be adamantly against an intervention in Syria, with polling numbers showing that a proposed war is less popular than Congress itself - a sure sign that it's a very, very bad idea.