Less than a year after President Obama gave his famous “red line” speech, declaring the U.S. would involve itself in the civil war in Syria if it confirmed “chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he is finding himself, well, walking a thin line.
To say the least, it has been a rough couple of weeks for the president. Facing relentless attacks from Congressional Republicans for the so-called Benghazi cover-up and this week’s IRS controversy, the last thing Obama needs is to be drawn into another conflict in the Middle East.
On April 26, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed the findings of a White House letter to congressional leaders that said the U.S. now believes “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin.” Obama’s “red line” was officially crossed. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also recently told U.S. media he has evidence that Syria employed chemical weapons against opposition forces.
Sarin is a deadly nerve agent many believe Saddam Hussein used during his 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, which killed some 5,000 people. In the 1990s, a Japanese terrorist group called Aum Shinrikyo in Japan also used the deadly gas in two attacks that left 21 dead.
What is being called the “Syrian Civil War” began on March 15 when popular demonstrations across the country demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the “presidency” in Syria since 1971. Needless to say, the peaceful demonstrations turned violent once Syrian soldiers opened fire on the protesters, igniting a conflict that the United Nations says has killed more than 70,000 and displaced some 1.2 million.
While everyone agrees the situation in Syria is terrible, nobody seems to agree on what the White House should do. This week in a TIME op-ed, Senator John McCain and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued for and against a U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict.
McCain called for an indirect intervention, where the U.S. would train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces, strike Assad’s aircraft and Scud-missile launchers and station Patriot-missile batteries outside Syria to create safe zones across the border. According to McCain, “For America, our interests are our values, and our values are our interests.”
Brzezinski took the opposing view, claiming the threat to American interests would only be increased by U.S. intervention, which would galvanize the anti-Western al-Qaeda fights in Syria and result in the conflict spreading beyond Syria and possibly drag the U.S. into direct conflict with Iran. A better strategy, Brzezinski argued, is to “seek Russia’s and China’s support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be ‘persuaded’ not to participate.”
No matter how you spin it, the situation is messy and Obama is right hold back – for now. We have done the Cowboy “running in with guns blazing” thing before and the U.S. cannot afford another costly Middle Eastern quagmire. The best course of action would be to take elements of McCain and Brzezinski’s approaches – use our military to support well-vetted freedom fighters on the ground through training, providing supplies and maintaining air support while also building an international coalition with Russia, Turkey and China as key players. At the same time, we ought to lead humanitarian efforts to help the millions of refugees left homeless and hungry by the conflict.
While the U.S. cannot be expected to intervene everywhere, the Syrian tragedy has gone on long enough – and destroyed too many lives. If the U.S. does not step up to lead the international community to stop it, who will?
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