On the Syrian Civil War

Once again, Bashar al-Assad has been accused of killing dozens of people with chemical weapons. This comes almost exactly a year since the U.S. fired fifty-nine cruise missiles at Syrian forces in retaliation for a separate chemical weapons attack. In this case, numerous videos have surfaced depicting images of dead Syrians with the hallmarks of a chemical attack, although news outlets are unable to independently verify the videos due to the area being surrounded by Syrian forces. President Trump has claimed he would act within 24 to 48 hours at the time of writing.

The United States is in a unique position in the sense that it is one of the very few powers that has the ability to respond to such an attack with credible force. Israel, another power who has the ability to respond in the region, has already purportedly launched a retaliatory airstrike on the Assad regime in response, not waiting for the American response. The rest of the world, however, can either only condemn the act or provide assistance to the United States. President Trump has promised a strong response both against Assad and, potentially, his Russian and Iranian enablers as well.

The Russians, unsurprisingly, have bristled at the idea that they were complicit in the attack, and have claimed the entire story is a fabrication. The videos of suffocating children and dying Syrians are nothing more than a “hoax” according to the Russian ambassador to the UN. The Russians, in fact, turned the blame on the West, whom they declared to be the responsible party for the regions’ woes. The rest of the world has more or less ignored the Russian version of the story, and now it must turn to a simple yet excruciatingly complex question: How do you deter the Assad regime from committing war crimes and mass murder without destabilizing an already volatile region?

The answer to this is elusive, as both Democrats and Republicans over the years have mused about a range of possible responses, from diplomacy to arming rebels to all-out invasion. While the war hawks have yet to see their ideal scenario realized, diplomatic and limited armament tracts have been attempted, with little to show. President Obama's “red line in the sand” was crossed countless times, and the only victory gained was in the form of a promise made by the Russians that they would help Assad get rid of his chemical weapons. As evidenced by the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have died from these weapons since, that path has failed. Furthermore, arming the Kurdish rebels to attack ISIS while tacitly supporting their efforts against the Assad regime took a major blow when Turkey decided to take an active role in the war. Fearing the Kurdish rebels would spill over the border, Turkish forces decided to advance into Syria to beat back the Kurds, who were at that point fighting ISIS, Assad, and Turkey on three separate fronts.

War, however, is not and should not be an option again. After the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has hopefully learned its lesson when meddling in the affairs of volatile countries. This should be especially obvious when dealing with a state like Syria, which is divided along ethnic, religious, and political lines. That said, the Assad regime needs to understand that it cannot be allowed to gas its own people under any circumstances. It cannot feel safe to do so, even under de facto protection from Russia. The Russians, for their part, know better than to actively interfere in operations the United States conducts in retaliation for the regime’s actions. Neither Trump nor Putin desires open conflict between the two sides, and both will take great pains to ensure that no Russians are killed if the U.S. does decide to deploy missiles or airstrikes.

While this may be construed as a call for America to be the “police force” of the world, there is a substantial difference between using military forces in other countries simply because you have the capacity to do so, and using them to protect a population that cannot protect itself from genocide. This difference can be clearly demarcated and codified by US officials to prevent any “mission creep,” and the moral grounds for such a limited intervention are generally supported by the international community. While this may not work for all such cases, this specific scenario has played out in such a fashion that a military response is both expected and necessary to maintain legitimacy both in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of the Assad regime.

How this military response will manifest itself, however, is a different matter. The comparative advantage generally lies in some form of airstrike, most likely by missiles. This method generally keeps American troops out of harm’s way, and still causes enough damage to fulfill the obligatory response that arises from such a contingency. This method, unfortunately, does little to create lasting peace in the region, nor does it seem to effectively deter Assad from committing atrocities again, as we have seen.

There needs to be a concerted pressure campaign against the Russians, and to a lesser extent the Iranians, to remove their support for Assad. Assad has been propped up and allowed to prosper under the guiding hand of the Kremlin. Without this support, Assad would not be in a confident enough position to use his chemical weapons against anyone, because he would know that the international community would be united in their opposition against him. If there is ever a solution to the Syrian Civil War, it will have to be one that the entire international community can agree to support. If the United States and its allies desire to craft a solution everyone can agree on that supports the rights of Syrians to live in peace and without fear from their government, they have to find a way to isolate Russia and Iran over their support of these barbaric actions.