Two months after videos and reports surfaced accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against it’s own people, White House officials announced that the Syrian government had crossed a red line. The decision was made to send direct military and financial aid to the Syrian opposition groups to make them “as strong as possible.” However, this would mean that for better or worse, the United States would become inevitably tied to the fate of the ongoing Syrian civil war and it’s winners and losers.
With the aftermath of the uprisings in Egypt and Libya still fresh on the minds of many people, the Obama administration’s record of intervention in the Middle East and North Africa has created plenty of controversy in its wake. Like Libya, Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups (including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shia and Arab Sunnis) ruled by a dictator, President Bashar, al-Assad, who’s family has been in power in Syria since 1971. Like Egypt, when the Arab Spring spread to Syria and peaceful opposition formed to demand that President Al-Assad step down, the U.S.’ s response was both tempered and conflicting at times, even as the government began brutally cracking down on protestors. Unlike Egypt, Libya, or any other post- Arab Spring nation, Assad has not only refused to step down, but this peaceful uprising has now turned into an almost two-year-long civil war with several groups taking up arms to fight the government. This civil war has cost the lives of 5,000 Syrians per month and caused millions more to flee their homes.
For months, human rights organizations and NGOs have been pressuring the Obama Administration to proactively intervene in Syria as the conflict and destruction surpassed that of Libya and it became increasingly clear that Al-Assad was indiscriminately targeting and killing civilians to get to the rebels. As red lines were drawn by the internationally community, Al-Assad habitually and defiantly crossed them. However, until last week, the U.S. has provided little more than food aid to the displaced because, while the devastation and loss of life are pretty evident, who’s in charge in this complex conflict isn’t.
As the conflict in Syria has progressed, several groups, factions, and national interests have gotten involved. On the political side, the Syrian National Council, an opposition organization in exile has been plagued by infighting and a lack of clear leadership. The fractured political situation is also reflected on the ground with no central command leading the Free Syrian Army, defectors from the military who have taken up arms against the Assad government. This lack of structure and leadership has made it easy for radical Islamist and Al Qaeda-affiliates less interested in gaining Syria’s independence than using the civil war to create a strict Islamist state to infiltrate the rebels and create splinter groups.
Thus, even though we’ve known about Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons for at least two months now, the U.S. has been cautious in how best to engage with the unorganized Syrian opposition even as victory in this civil war tips toward Assad’s troops, bolstered by help from Hezbollah, Russia, and Iran. Last week the Administration decided to bypass the Free Syrian Army and provide military aid directly to the Supreme Military Council , crossing their fingers in hopes that no aid falls into the hands of extremist.
This may not be the ideal option for those who would prefer clear-cut winners and losers, and obvious good guys vs. bad guys scenarios. Unfortunately, the world operates with more nuances than that and thus requires nuanced approaches to problem solving. Short of American troops on the ground, heavy military arms may be our best option to drastically shift the outcome of this civil war and save lives. Yet, as the Egyptians know too well, when the dust clears, we cannot be certain that the Syrian people will be left with a government that respects the ideals that they’ve fought for or one that can be counted on as an ally to America. However, like the Clinton Administration during the Rwandan Genocide, when lives are at stakes, history will judge this administration more harshly for failing to intervene at all than for intervening under less than optimal circumstances.