Last week, the United Nations agreed on a deal to remove chemical weapon stockpiles from Syria. The deal is a milestone in the ongoing Syrian civil war, but fears persist that neither Syria nor Russia, the country that introduced the deal, can be trusted. Was the United States right to take the Russian deal, or should we have proceeded with military strikes on Syria? Our writers decide. Photos by Sunny Kang and Quentin Heilbroner.
I’m a Medill sophomore from Cleveland, Ohio. I consider myself very socially conservative, and my Catholic upbringing certainly helped shaped this. My individual life experiences and introspection have strengthened these foundations, so my beliefs are the product of both religious and personal means.
I am slightly more moderate when it comes to fiscal matters, but I still fall within the realm of conservatism. Both my dad and maternal grandfather lost their fathers at a young age, so their stories of hard work and self-determination to make their own living have inspired me. I firmly believe in the power of the human spirit, and the oft-cited Chinese parable of “Give a man a fish ... teach a man to fish ...” perfectly sums up my belief on the government’s proper role. I am not opposed on principle to most federal programs, but I believe that their aim should be to make themselves unnecessary over time. The government should focus less on instantly solving its citizens’ problems and focus more on helping the people forge their own solutions.
For a region that has been practically been in constant conflict for the past few millennia, insinuating that the Middle East has never been in worse shape should be done with great care. Nonetheless, as the death toll crossed 100,000 recently (with 41,000 of those being innocent civilians), Syria’s ongoing civil war could very well be the most heinous thing we’ve seen thus far.
On Sept. 10, President Obama addressed the nation in an attempt to persuade members of both parties to support an un-manned military strike on Syria. Choosing to take this route would be a decision of grave miscalculation, which could lead to months, or even years of unhealthy further involvement in the region.
To deny that Assad’s actions constitute a flagrant and appalling human rights violation would be a dangerously short-sighted remark, and I fully believe that Assad should receive the justice he so well deserves. However, achieving this end by an intimidating military act is not the answer. The state of widespread chaos that consumes Syria at this moment is far too great at this time for an overwhelming act of force to bring about beneficial change.
Of the rebel groups that oppose Assad’s regime, most are unorganized, many are as equally violent as the current government, and some even utilize terror tactics themselves. Should a military strike succeed in ending Assad’s use of chemical weapons and even force him out of power, who would take over this staggering country? Surely not the United States military, because President Obama himself is responsible for pulling the US out of a similar setup in Afghanistan. There is not currently a faction stable or large enough to sustain a legitimate government in Syria, so the President’s plan simply cannot lead to positive results.
To be perfectly frank, President Obama simply waited too long. The horrifying actions of Assad have been well-documented for several years now. If Obama had wished to stop the Syrian leader from committing his acts against humanity, he should have seized the opportunity before Sarin gas ignited the conflict to new heights. By waiting until the conflict became the decimated stalemate it remains today, Obama faces an even greater crisis. Without the support of the allies that aided the United States in Iraq, his hand has been forced to either act alone or consider strategies from other sources.
Although President Obama never wishes to succumb to the pressure of Russia and all the rivalry that entails, it must be assumed that the Russian plan is the best one concocted at this time. When President Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times the day after Obama’s address, it shocked me in two ways. First and foremost, seeing the leader of one of America’s most historical adversaries writing candidly to the American public impressed me very much. Secondly, Putin outlined a plan which (much to my surprise), strikes me as the most effective way of dealing with the crisis as it stands today.
Russia’s tenuous position as an ally (in name, at least) of Syria and the Assad regime grants it a fair amount of leverage in the situation. It should be noted that Putin’s address seemed to exonerate (or at least speculate contrary to the rest of the world) Assad for the Aug. 21 attack by blaming it on rebels, and he most certainly paints the Syrian government in too optimistic of a light. Putin’s plan to have Assad gradually turn over control of the weapons to Russia and international control to be dismantled is by no means a perfect scenario, but it greatly outweighs a military strike which could add another country to the list of Middle East wars of the 21st century (by a Nobel Peace Prize winner no less).
Because Putin took the gigantic step of addressing the American public with his plan, I truly believe that he bears no ulterior motives regarding the Middle East or Assad’s chemical weapons. Now is not the time for widespread mistrust and discord. Now is the time to atone for the mistake of letting Assad’s tyranny go on for far too long, and take the most peaceful route possible to save thousands more innocent civilians (and American soldiers) from dying. We cannot end this terrible civil war today, since Syrian allies like China, Iran and Hezbollah will not let the United States attack without resistance. What we can do is take a massive step forward in repairing relations with Russia and the global community as a whole by taking a unified stand against Assad and his chemical weapons without initiating another war.
I’m a terminally undecided Weinberg sophomore from a little place smack dab in the middle of America's heartland: Manhattan. Politically speaking, I'm all over the map, with a deep-seated hatred of following party orthodoxy and an obnoxiously pragmatic streak, but I average out somewhat left of center, especially on economic issues.
My upbringing and current residence in New York City have shown me the best and the worst that liberalism has to offer, while the years of my childhood living in a tiny, conservative Massachusetts town have (I hope) kept me from being totally insulated in that liberal bubble. Living in these two worlds has given me no choice but to see how at least some people from each side (if you can even call the two major parties "sides") live, and I personally believe that the best way to truly understand an issue is to be able to understand the arguments made by those with whom you disagree. Nuance is so often and so easily thrown away in favor of alarmist donation pleas and sound-byte sloganeering, and it's making our political process more toxic by the day.
I get it. We're tired. Ever since President George W. Bush began America’s nonstop Middle Eastern tour over a decade ago, we’ve been pelted with headlines from places most of us couldn’t find on a map with names we can’t pronounce or even spell, while our economy ceaselessly stumbles and Congress ceaselessly functions so badly it makes CAESAR looks like it’s run by the Swiss. We’re broke, we're war-weary, we're mad at pretty much everyone in politics right now, and now the president who ran on an anti-Iraq War platform in 2007 is telling us that we really, really, really should be attacking one more country? It’s only natural to roll your eyes and think, "You got to be kidding me. The last thing we need is another war."
And yet, I found myself supporting – and strongly so – a strike against Syria. Not any strike, but the one specifically outlined by the Obama Administration, in which not a single American soldier would so much as step a boot on Syrian soil. The proposed action against Syria would have been much more in line with the precise and short-lived strikes against Muammar Ghaddafi’s forces in Libya taken by many of our NATO allies than with the devastatingly costly and open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that have so deeply (and rightfully) shaken the morale and the public image of the United States to its core. Due in large part of the belligerence of our foreign policy over the course of the last decade, that message had been drowned out by the sound of talking heads on the left and the right shouting "WAR!" and not feeling the need to explain further.
The distinction in this case is that Syria used chemical weapons (in this case, the nerve agent sarin) against civilians, multiple times. Some estimates number the cumulative sarin-related casualties in the thousands, while others place it lower, but regardless of the specific number of civilians killed or wounded, sarin is classified as a weapon of mass destruction (although an administration attempting to make the case for war against a Middle Eastern country might not want to use that exact terminology) by the United Nations. While war will unfortunately always occur (at least for the foreseeable future), wars fought with this type of weapon quite feasibly become relics of the past, if only those who made the laws against the use and stockpiling of sarin were willing to enforce them.
Russia, a Syrian ally, offered a deal that the United States accepted, involving the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapon stores (which have not been fully revealed to the global community, but which are considered by some – although not proven – to be among the largest in the world), and indefinitely delaying American involvement against Syrian military forces. Although it is certainly better than allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government’s crimes to go unpunished, the fact is that this has sent a message that the international laws against chemical warfare will not be enforced, as long as there’s a powerful ally to broker a deal.
With a limited strike on Syrian military targets – and no American boots on the ground or goal of Western-forced regime change – the United States and its allies (yes, we still have those) could have sent a clear message that there are some lines in warfare that simply cannot be crossed without retaliation from the global community. If a government chooses to repress its citizens, that is not a battle for the United States to fight. But if that government begins to poison entire neighborhoods of innocent civilians – including those in schools and hospitals – that cannot be allowed to stand. This isn’t about just the Syrian civil war, or even about the stability of the Middle East. It’s about whether or not tyrants around the world can be permitted to butcher innocents in order to strengthen their grasps on power.
The chances for the United States to act as a force of good in this world have become increasingly rarer. In the past decade, the U.S. has bungled wars, lied to its allies and the entire world to gain their support, and even spied on its own citizens. President Obama’s proposed Syrian strike – had it been carried out in the manner that his administration claims it will be – was one of those rare chances for the United States to show that it is still capable of making the world a more secure place. After so many years of unnecessary and painful wars, the American public’s recalcitrance towards even a hint of military action is certainly understandable, but it’s a shame nonetheless that when presented with a chance to stand up for something good, the United States stepped down from the task.