My opinion of Obama has yet to solidify. Perhaps it never will. Ultimately, after all, nobody is either just good or just bad, and our President is no exception. His performance as commander in chief has been a complex array of the shades between black and white. Syria’s civil war, in this manner, is much the same.
On one hand you have a dictator-turned-tyrant. His tactics grow increasingly brutal as his desperation to maintain power escalates. Assad saw what happened to his peers; he saw Ghaddafi lynched and Mubarak imprisoned. He knows he can’t just step down now, that any outcome in which he doesn’t win ends with his death, likely at the hands of a raging mob. His actions are the evil and dangerous product of a frantic state of mind.
But that raging mob is dangerous, too. They are no longer just the passionate citizens we saw two years ago, fighting for democracy against a dictator, but have been joined by rogue mercenaries and extremists, several of which share ties with al-Qaeda. These new factions enjoy unchecked encampment in rebel-controlled territory and without doubt will seek power in a post-Assad Syria. That chaos aside, the opposition as a whole trails closely behind their dictator in its count of crimes against humanity. Both have blame in the widespread rape of women and children, use of child soldiers and human shields, torture, and executions.
In fact, it is the rebels’ holing up in the residential neighborhoods of Ghouta that brought on August’s horrendous chemical attack. Assad’s military had tried and failed to retake the area, and, worn, resorted to gas. They launched missiles tipped with Sarin from afar, and in the days that followed, increased their shelling of the paralyzed community. Over a thousand died from the gas alone. Hundreds were children. It was a barbaric and unforgivable chapter in a barbaric and unforgiving war.
On Aug. 20, 2012, President Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons was his “red line” for involvement in Syria. Some speculate that his response to last month’s attack is solely to avoid flip-flopping, that his “red line” was just a bluff that he must now fulfill. That, they say, would explain why he deferred to congress the decision of whether or not to strike. From this train of thought, one would imagine his administration grateful for the recent turn of events, spawned accidentally by Secretary of State John Kerry, that hint at a possible non-military solution.
When Kerry remarked that a US air strike could be averted if Syria gave up its chemical weapons, the offer was largely received as rhetorical. But Russia, Assad’s strongest ally, saw opportunity in Kerry’s inadvertent peacekeeping. They urged Syria to take the deal, Syria accepted, and the suddenly the White House fell into an awkward state of limbo, campaigning for strike-support from an already hostile public while simultaneously having opened the door to a more peaceful resolution.
It was not until Obama’s speech Tuesday evening that the ambiguity of the week’s events solidified, and that’s when I realized how delicately he’s handled the Syrian crisis from the start. Whether or not his red line in 2012 was a bluff, he’s held to his word in a manner that, while still assertive and firm in leadership, respects the democratic process, the business of another nation, and his own people’s best interests.
The speech was delivered concisely, and with an unusual air of passion. Obama appealed to emotion, confronting listeners with images of civilians ”foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath,” and the somber visual of a father “clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.” And while some may shout propaganda, I find it hard to believe that anyone, even a President hardened by leading a nation through four years of war, could be so cold as to not feel tugged to intervene, especially when graced with the capability to do so.
But Syria’s civil war is theirs, not ours. We have no business fighting for a country whom we do not understand nor partake in, no matter our emotional instincts. Any involvement on our side would end disastrously because it would be both without Syrian patriotism and without comradery, not to mention the fact that in aiding the rebels, we would inadvertently be aiding terrorist organizations as well. So as sad as it is, this war is for the Syrians to fight and for the Syrians to finish amongst themselves. Obama recognizes this and respects it. He made clear that his proposed strike is not designed to intervene in the civil war, that he “will not put boots on the ground… will not pursue an opened-ended action like in Iraq or Afghanistan… [and] will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like in Libya or Kosovo;” but instead that he seeks solely to deter Assad, and any other dictator, from using chemical weapons again.
But in case that reasoning nor the idea of children convulsing on the floor weren’t enough to persuade the more self-centered of us Americans, Obama also argued in the name of national security. Allowing Assad’s chemical weapons use to go unpunished would not only aid in the violating of international law, but would put US troops – or God forbid civilians – in danger of chemical attacks should future enemies be emboldened by today’s lack of retaliation. Sarin is a weapon that “can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant.” Do we really want something like that, no matter the circumstances of its use, to go unchecked?
Finally, and though the greater part of his speech was spent garnering support for a strike, Obama concluded in acknowledging a willingness to pursue diplomacy, while noting he will maintain an aggressive military posture should that diplomacy fail. After his speech, I have no doubt in my mind his willingness to strike should it come to that.
And if it does, is a strike worth America’s resources?
If you answer no, I implore you in the same way our President did Tuesday night to watch the videos of dying children on a cold hospital floor, to see for yourself the atrocity that has poisoned your fellow human beings. Consider the precision and speed with which we can strike, and the objective: destroying Assad’s chemical weapons. This is not about getting involved in Syria’s civil war. This is not about taking sides. This is not even about democracy. This is about humanity. For any capable nation, is that not enough?
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safe in the long run, I believe we should act.” -Barack Obama, Sept. 10, 2013.
*The views in this article represent the opinion of the author, and not those of CisternYard News.