If we can agree on one thing, it’s that the Arab awakening has shown that the path to democracy is messy and uneven, pitted with potholes. The Syrian civil war has been no less messy. As much as we might wish it were so, the battle lines don’t break down clearly between good and evil. But let us agree on one more thing: Bashar al Assad is evil. He’s killed 100,000 people over the past two years, and he added at least 1,400 more to that tally with a series of chemical weapon attacks last week. 426 of these were children. Syria is not Iraq, where we tried to topple a stable regime. Syria is Bosnia.
President Obama and the Congress must act swiftly to do whatever is possible to prevent this tally from growing. We have already waited too long; had we acted a year ago to prevent this slaughter, those chemical weapons might never have been released. Just as in Bosnia our presence was able to end the wholesale slaughter of one ethnic group by another, we have a chance here to prevent the continued deployment of nerve gas against civilian populations by the Asad regime. Instead, I fear that we have learned the wrong lessons from the Iraq debacle.
The ideal option, if this were a movie, would be to send in a Special Forces team to capture Assad and bring him before an international court for justice, or to offer a more precise version of the justice that he has offered his victims. But this is not a movie, and if there is a happy ending, it’s a long way down the road.
Despite the lack of easy options, we have a responsibility to prevent the continued use of weapons of mass destruction. It will not bring back the dead sons and daughters or the brothers and mothers of grieving Syrians. Indeed, our intervention will probably lead to more deaths. Assad has assured this by relocating prisoners to military bases and moving personnel into schools and hospitals. But it is the right thing to do. We cannot wait for the United Nations. The Security Council is built on a worldview that became outdated at the moment of its inception. Russia and China are far too focused on oppressing restive regimes of their own to show any sympathy for the plights of Syrians yearning to breathe free. We cannot wait for Britain, who has abdicated their leadership role in the council of nations. France, at least, is willing to stand up to enforce international norms. Would we really so shamelessly turn to isolationism as to let the French lead?
We banned the use of chemical weapons along with nuclear and biological weapons because we agreed, after seeing two world wars with their potential on full display, that their effects were too terrible, their reach too wide, and their power too great. Precedent requires that we enforce that ban. That we have shirked this duty in the past only gives us all the more urgency to do so now. We must show that their use – especially among civilian populations – brings not success, but rather swift destruction.
As a way to justify inaction, we complain that the opposition in Syria has been radicalized. This point shows only our own naivety. These are people who stood up to try and make their voices heard, only to get slaughtered by machine guns and helicopter gunships. They’ve lost homes, businesses, and neighbors. They’ve lost fathers and brothers, mowed down by bombs and bullets. They’ve lost children and mothers who huddled en mass in the basements that had protected them from attack after attack. Except that this time turned out to be different; the nerve gas followed them down the stairs into their places of refuge and the air around them turned to poison. In minutes, they suffocated as their lungs ceased pumping and their windpipes filled with vomit. And the ones who still remain have seen any evidence of their former lives crumble into rubble.
When your own government is the one trying to kill you, you have to look at the world differently. You can’t call the police or the fire department. Personal firearms and bomb shelters can’t stop the powerful weapons owned by the army. So you cling closer to your family; your friends; the people who you know you can trust. And then they’re killed. The war has gone back and forth for two years with no real momentum toward rebel victory. You have no hope left; not of peace, nor of rescue, nor of victory. Your life is in danger every moment of every day, and the human brain is not equipped for that constant risk and loss. So you cling to faith. You pray that your personal hell is temporary and the hell of your tormentors is never-ending. You hold onto the idea that that death isn’t the end of your story, and that you will someday be reunited with those who you loved and lost. You become “radicalized,” because there is nowhere else to turn.
The best way to handle that radicalism is not to withhold support for a democratic rebellion against a murderous dictator. It is not, as Sarah Palin callously suggest, to “let Allah sort it out.” It is to do what we can to change the momentum and end the war. Airstrikes are not a perfect option. Indeed, they are extremely flawed. But they accomplish much more than inaction without the risk of another broad-scale deployment. They won’t rebuild the homes that have been destroyed or bring back those who have perished. But maybe they can prevent further chemical atrocities and bring a quicker end to this war.