Time to Act in Syria

There is no denying that, at the present time, the nation of Syria is in a state of chaotic turmoil. It is ostensibly ruled by the dictator Bashar al-Assad, but his grip on power is tenuous due to the fact that his own people have had quite enough of him and are now in open revolt, leaving the nation in civil war. This is rather understandable, because al-Assad is a monster who uses heavy-handed police state tactics to dominate the Syrian people with an iron fist. When he doesn’t get his way, he has been known to bomb his own subjects. It’s estimated that since 2011, he has murdered some 400,000 people. Most of these have been innocent civilians, collateral damage to his policy of targeting population centers in his attempts to weed out the rebels.

Of course, the Syrian situation is complex, as the Islamic State also has a tremendous presence in the nation (particularly now, as they have lost many of their Iraqi holdings). Russian military forces are also involved, as allies of the brutal al-Assad regime, that enjoys close ties with Vladimir Putin’s government.

It is the IS factor in particular that has led some to call for the United States to back al-Assad as well, as he is ostensibly opposed to the Islamic radicals (who would, given their own way, seize power for themselves). In recent days, Richard Haas, American diplomat and President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has expressed this opinion. It is an ill-advised adaptation of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy that suggests that anyone opposed to the adversaries of the day is to be backed – regardless of whatever atrocities they may be guilty of, and Haas of all people should know better.

It is morally unacceptable for the United States to align itself with a brutal tyrant like al-Assad. This country simply cannot continue to claim that it stands for liberty and the rights of all people to be free when it simultaneously gets behind a madman with no regard for basic human rights. The Islamic State – a true and terrible threat, without question – will be combated and put down, and in time other dangers to national security will no doubt present themselves. The US should be ready to stand against them as a nation of principles, committed to fighting for what’s right; not a nation of convenience, joining forces with whatever monsters might (or might not) offer an advantage in the moment.

The honor of the United States is also at stake, because its position on Syria and Bashar al-Assad has always been clear. This was made only more stark under President Barack Obama, who famously drew a “red line” against al-Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons against his own people. It is unfortunate – both for US integrity and for the victims of chemical assaults – that Obama lacked the courage and conviction to back up his words, for when al-Assad did indeed deploy chemical weapons against the civilian populations, there were no repercussions from the United States.

At least, until recently.

Not long ago, al-Assad did it again, launching a savage, inhumane chemical attack against civilians in trying to harm the rebels. Realizing that inaction was not a viable option, the current American President, Donald Trump, quickly ordered a cruise missile bombardment against the airbase from which the weapons were initially launched. That facility’s capacity to act as a source for chemical attacks has now been neutralized.

Obviously, American military involvement of any kind in the Middle East is to be viewed with tremendous skepticism and treated with enormous caution. The last thing either that region or the US needs is for America to engage in another full-on Iraq-style war that builds a vast death toll, causes untold human suffering, and ultimately accomplishes nothing positive. But in this case, a quick surgical strike that involved no ground troops and carried no commitment for further American hostilities was able to put a brutal tyrant on notice that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated, damage his ability to do it again in the future, and keep a promise whose originator lacked the intestinal fortitude to stay true to it himself. President Trump made the right move, and he has been widely lauded and congratulated for his decisive action.

But beyond the practical benefits for the United States and for all people in discouraging chemical weapon use, there is a deeper, moral obligation in opposing the al-Assad regime and supporting its removal. This is the government of a brutal, reprehensible madman who thinks nothing of horrifically murdering his own people, and to tolerate his continued rule in Syria (or anywhere) is an affront to basic human decency. He must go, and the United States must do what it reasonably can to see him gone.

The way to accomplish this, however, is not with a war hawk’s fantasy of full-scale invasion. That was already tried in Iraq, proving to all the world that such a strategy is an unmitigated disaster. Change must come from within, from the people of Syria themselves, and they have already taken the first steps by choosing to rise up against the regime under which they struggle. They are to be commended and supported for their courage – not undermined by catastrophic American alliances with their tormentor.

Slater Bakhtavar
Slater Bakhtavar is an attorney, foreign policy analyst, author and political commentator. He is author of "Iran: The Green Movement." He has appeared as a guest on numerous network radio shows, including G Gordon Liddy, Crosstalk America, Les in the Morning, NPR, Jim Bohannon Show and VOA. He writes extensively on Iran.