As I write this, the United States is still recovering from the political and cultural trauma of a solid decade of war. We still have troops in Afghanistan, we still have military bases and private contractors in Iraq and we’re witnessing in real time the consequences of the NATO action in Libya. It seems inconceivable that we’re considering yet another incursion into yet another sovereign Arab nation. Yet many are advocating exactly that: direct military action against the Syrian government and its leader, Bashar al-Assad. Those who believe the U.S. should take a hand in the crisis in Syria are, for the most part, simply responding to a horrible situation with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, having compassion for other human beings isn’t always the same as doing the right thing. Military intervention in Syria would be a catastrophic mistake, a clear indication that America still refuses to learn its lessons.
For almost two years, the uprising in Syria has been characterized by extreme violence on the part of the Assad regime and the Syrian military. The death toll since the conflict began is approaching 70,000 and the count of displaced refugees is larger, with the United Nations reporting 5,000 people fleeing across Syrian borders every day. Some people are calling it a true civil war. On a purely emotional level, it makes sense for anyone with a humanitarian bone in their body to ask why the U.S. and the UN have not intervened already. On a rational level, there are rock-solid answers to that question.
One of those answers is the UN Security Council, which has failed to come to a consensus on Syria. Russia and China have vetoed all proposals for an international military action against the Assad regime. The reason for this is primarily to do with another Arab nation: Libya.
Muammar Qaddafi was certainly an authoritarian dictator, but since NATO got involved in the Libyan uprising and Qaddafi was killed, life for the Libyan people hasn’t exactly been wine and roses. The country is fractured along a number of different political and religious lines, and there are weapons everywhere with soldiers who know how to use them. More than 500 armed militias remain abroad in today’s Libya, leading to a continuation of the fighting and an escalation of suffering. In particular, people who were loyal to Qaddafi have been the victims of physical and psychological torture by the militias, who don’t have anyone to reign them in. Libya may be free of dictatorship, but the country remains in a state of chaos. Moreover, Qaddafi’s ouster led directly to the recent rebellion of the Tuareg people in Mali, a conflict that is still unfolding today.
As we debate action in Syria, Libya stands as a warning of what can happen to a region when foreign powers come in to try and solve its problems. Nations are not isolated; intervention in one area will lead to consequences elsewhere. That is why Russia and China are so reluctant to give another gung-ho Middle Eastern rescue effort their stamp of approval.
To his credit, President Obama has been similarly reluctant; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently admitted that a plan formed last year to arm the Syrian rebels was rejected by the White House. Unless Russia and China relent in their determination to veto, a Syrian intervention would violate international law. The logistics are questionable, as well, since our weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists rather than the Free Syrian Army. For that matter, the Free Syrian Army has proven to be something less than noble heroes fighting bravely against an oppressive regime; they’ve committed their own atrocities over the past two years, many of which have been documented on video. And if we help them take their country back from Assad, we then have to deal with the question of what happens next.
The biggest deterrent, however, is that America can’t take another war right now. We don’t have the political will, we don’t have the money and we don’t have the right. Syria is a sovereign nation. The things happening there are horrible, but they’re still happening in another country, meaning that we don’t get to decide the outcome. It’s time the U.S. gave up the idea we’re some sort of global police force, keeping the innocent civilians of the Arab world safe from evil dictators (who we placed in power so we could get cheap oil). There is no magical American solution to this uniquely Syrian problem.
Originally published in The Lumberjack as one half of a point-and-counterpoint series (http://www.jackcentral.org/opinion/columns/opinion-u-s-should-know-better-than-to-get-involved/article_8edb09ec-e007-5ac0-8c87-4e6eb2c05268.html)