Recently, Barack Obama has called on Congress to approve a military strike on Syria. The proposed strike would be an air and sea support mission. The White House believes that the Bashar Al-Assad government has crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons against its own people, killing hundreds of civilians. The Syrian rebels fighting to topple Assad deny they have used chemical weapons and instead point the finger at the Assad regime for the responsibility. The Assad regime denies the allegations and blames the Rebels instead. In between all this blame game, about 1,300 people have died because of the chemical gas. Due the fast-changing course of the Syrian conflict, the US may well have already struck Syria by the time this commentary is printed. In any case, the important question is: what is at stake for the US national interest and what are the consequences if a strike does happen?
The U.S. must be more careful than ever in taking any military action. However, it will not just stand by idly to watch the Syrian people get massacred either. As a “guarantor of international order”, the US sees it as a moral obligation to do something about such a large scale incident, as one CNN report put it.
Already out of a fresh war of Iraq and on the way to ending another in Afghanistan, the cost for striking Syria could be hefty. However, the US has already declared that five warships loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles have moved, and are awaiting orders in the Mediterranean. The Tomahawk missiles are long-range missiles that can travel up to 1,000 miles. Each one costs about $1.2 million dollars. The missiles, however, will guarantee that no US troops will be in close range to Syria if it strikes back. Although the Syrian government has warned that it will retaliate against any aggression, its military capabilities are limited according to US officials. Syria has anti-missile ships with a range of 62-186 miles, according to the US
Obama has made it clear that US troops will not be involved on the ground, suggesting lower causalities and costs for the prospective operation. A mission on the ground also seems unlikely because the US is lacking essential international support already. The British parliament has rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s plea for joining the US in coalition to strike Syria though France favors a strike and Germany’s parliament has not yet declared support or opposition.
Meanwhile players such Russia and China, both strong allies of the Assad regime, are against any military action and both are on the UN Security Council thus enabling them to block armed intervention on the part of that international agency. Moscow does not want the US to shape the Middle East and wants to protect its military and economic interests in the region. Beijing is opposed to the use of chemical weapons and wants to wait for a UN mandate and warns against “prejudging the results” of the chemical weapons.
Obama has the option to take unilateral military action by the War Powers Act of 1973, but he has insisted he will not go at it alone.
The debate over whether to strike Syria is a lingering one. Why, for instance, has the US decided to strike Syria now? Wasn’t the hundreds of thousands of people dying in the conventional civil war not enough to trigger a US response? The US argues that a “red line” has been crossed as the use of chemical agents and biological weapons have been banned by international law ever since the 1925 Geneva Convention. But why didn’t the US do anything when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to gas the Kurdish population living in Iraq?
The moral questions have created a complex debate. People are divided and opinions on striking Syria differ significantly. Recent polling shows that about 80 % of Americans think Obama should get a congressional approval first before striking. Meanwhile, the announcement of Obama’s intent to strike has sparked protests around the country including here in Berea.
The rest of the world feels the US should not strike Syria. Many who are against the strike believe it will be a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan. Civilians will die in the war and even if the US topples the Assad regime, the next person in-charge could be even worse for US interests. There is a growing fear in the region if a strike occurs. Syria’s neighbors and other key regional players like Jordan, Qatar, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, and Israel are all on alert. Israel has warned that it will not tolerate an attack on its soil and will respond with retaliation. As a close United States ally, it is possible that Israel could find itself a proxy target for attacks by the Assad government or non-state-affiliated militias like Hezbollah of Lebanon. People in Israel are rushing to buy gas-masks in case of an attack.
Lebanon, which is already facing a growing number of Syrian refugees, is also fearing the worse. Sean Lee – an academic who studies civil conflicts in the Mediterranean and Central African Regions raises the question of whether the US realizes it is fighting on the Al Qaeda side, pointing out that the Syrian resistance has close ties with Al Qaeda. Lee further points that this war is nothing more than “scoring ideological points” by what he refers to as the “Western Narcissists”.