This weekend, President Barack Obama came before the American people to announce that our nation would engage in an overseas assault in Syria. He stood as our Commander-in-Chief, abandoning the slow, swelling preacher’s cadence distinctive of his speeches in favor of a firm, authoritative tone. He declared:
“I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.”
Two years, four months, 100,000 casualties and 2 million refugees later, the U.S. would finally intervene after a chemical weapons attack on August 21, 2013 left 1,000 Syrian civilians slaughtered. Crossing the proverbial red line, President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime had forced President Obama’s hand. Notwithstanding the public debate as to whether the United States’ decision to attack Syria is to save face or save lives, the pleaded to the American consciousness calling the horrors in Syria “an attack on human dignity.”
Guarding against a highly probable United Nations Security Council veto by Russia and China, Syrian allies and arms suppliers, the president pivoted the vote to strike against Syria to Congress. Choosing not to force the 113th Congress to end their recess, they will wait nearly two weeks until session resumes to debate and decide on his request to strike Syrian military targets proves a curious chess move. Given the record of this notoriously obstructive legislature, the passage of the Syrian resolution will prove a hard sell. Though the president may seek to call his opponents’ bluff, his delay of action was mocked as cowardly in Damascus.
Still, the U.S. Congress cannot (and perhaps should not) act in place of the world’s governing body, the United States’ move to intervene in Syria evoking the legacy of U.S. hegemony. While the burden of proof falls on Congress to determine whether Assad released chemical weapons, the president may still usurp congressional power and unilaterally authorize strikes on Syria through the War Powers Act. President Obama has merely asked Congress for its approval, but he doesn’t necessarily need it.
Remotely controlled military strikes have become a hallmark of the Obama presidency. Throughout his tenure, President Obama has wavered between ending old conflicts and beginning new ones. Having inherited two unpopular Middle Eastern wars, multivariate threats to U.S. national security and a war-weary populace, the president has resolved this conundrum by greatly expanding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles—in lieu of our soldiers, we will send our drones.
In spite of the gradual decline in military deployments, the overt and covert military operations authorized by this administration exposes the contradiction of a president who aims to end perpetual war while serving as the leader of a warmongering nation.
Since 1963, the United States has engaged in a direct, international military offensive every 40 months. Incursions in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya burn our collective memory, just as the bloodshed in the proxy and drone wars fought in Nicaragua, Pakistan and Yemen stain our global pursuit of democracy and security.
As we seek to end Syria’s alleged chemical attacks, we must remember the scourge of our history. Five days before President Obama told the nation it was our duty to uphold international law and respect the Geneva Protocol’s prohibition of chemical weapons, Foreign Policy revealed CIA reports that prove the U.S. helped Iraqi president Saddam Hussein gas Iran in some of the worst chemical attacks recorded.
The United States’ notable inconsistency regarding the use of chemical weapons begs the question, “Why Syria now?” Some argue that America’s interests stem from its omnipresent oil greed, not its altruism. Others cite national security interests that President Obama outlined in his recent speech as the determinate. The fear remains that the Syrian regime’s use of sarin “could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups” who could potentially harm our allies in the region (who are at times as punitive as Syria) and the American people.
Nonetheless, pundit forecasts and political posturing remain inconsequential to the tremendous harm facing Syrian civilians. In advance of U.S. military action, Sheila MacVicar of Al Jazeera’s America Tonight reported that the Assad regime is moving its weapons into densely populated civilian spaces, which means the pinpoint accuracy of tomahawk missiles to reduce collateral damage may be rendered ineffective. Additionally, the likelihood that strikes’ burning flakes of phosphorus could unintentionally release more chemical weapons poses another threat.
The United States has only left the Syrian people with two options: sarin or white phosphorus, an unconscionable choice.
I don’t know if striking Syria is the right thing for the United States to do, though I am haunted by the images of genocide in the country. I find myself disquieted that the U.S. wants to act individually. Despite the challenges of the UN Security Council, the president could wait for the United Nations’ report and receive UN authorization. I just question why there isn’t a more robust dialogue with NATO (North American Treaty Organization) to enact a multinational strike similar to the Libyan offense. And I wonder where the responsibility of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation lies in ending Syrian genocide.
What I do know is that the strikes will inevitably leave Syria broken and that it will take years, maybe even decades, to heal and that the families of those killed or disappeared by the missiles fired will never be whole again. As a child who witnessed my family endure the U.S. invasion of Panama, I know that the bombs my aunt first thought were Christmas fireworks unearthed a hell that no one should endure.
Limited aerial offensives that require no boots on the ground reflect the newest tactic of America’s wars—and the newest lie fed to the American people. Our level of engagement, no matter how limited the attack, is always long-lasting. History proves this. Two years later, Libya is a disaster of chaos and 15,000 American federal contractors that remain in Iraq post-conflict. The bureaucratic uncertainty and social fragmentation that remains after a dictator is deposed simply does not allow the United States to fully withdraw from conflict. When the United States strikes Syria, I know our government will inflict civilian casualties, it will illicit more sectarian violence and it will incite political instability that will keep us perpetually engaged.