I had always intended for my blog to stay focused on technology. However, recently, I can't help but feel the need to express my views on the crisis in Syria. I'm writing this, to a large extent, for my own benefit. I don't like to have strong opinions on matters that I don't know much about, so I've decided to do a bit of research and writing to better inform myself and hopefully, answer some questions.
Perhaps the reason I seem to have a strong opinion on the situation in Syria is because it is so confusing to me. Confusion is a strong feeling. The "real" media seems to be largely focused on whether or not chemical weapons were actually used in Syria. There are tons of debates and Congressional hearings over whether or not the provided proof is enough. There seem to be two important points that need proving: whether or not chemical weapons were actually used, and, assuming they were, whether or not Bashar al-Assad was, indeed, responsible for their use.
Here's the part that I can't seem to wrap my head around. Let's assume that Bashar al-Assad was, in fact, responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children. Why is that reason enough to justify military action? Does that imply that Bashar al-Assad is allowed to shoot, cut, and blow up Syrians at his leisure, so long as he does not use chemical weapons? That seems to be the obvious conclusion based on what I know so far.
I'll make no secret that I don't understand the situation in Syria anywhere near well enough. Few probably do. How did we get to this situation? Why is Syria in crisis in the first place?
I found a really nice timeline on BBC's website that gives a nice synopsis of the history of Syria in the 20th and 21st centuries. After reading through the synopsis, I'm beginning to understand that Syria, much like a good portion of the Middle East, has been ravaged by war over the course of the past century. I learned some basic facts. Bashar al-Assad came to power in June of 2000 after his father died. Throughout the last decade, there have been high tensions between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The US imposed many sanctions on Syria due to alleged support of terrorist groups and other violations of UN resolutions. A nationwide uprising began somewhere around March 2011. The uprising gradually became a civil war. Russia and China block UN draft resolutions on Syria, seemingly showing support for the Assad regime. Some arms embargos are allowed to expire, freeing EU countries to potentially arm the rebels. The alleged chemical weapons strike occurs in August of 2013; the Syrian government blames the rebels.
I felt more informed after reading through the brief synopsis. Syria is in the middle of a full-scale civil war. That makes some things easier to understand. Still, though I began to understand the tension present in the area, I still wasn't sure of the precise reason that the civil war gradually spurred up. Luckily, I found another nice article on the BBC website that helped clear the fog. The protests that began in March of 2011 were a result of the sanctions imposed on Syria by the Arab League, the US, and the EU. These sanctions had an extremely significant impact on Syria's two major sources of revenue - tourism and oil. The degradation in Syria's economy led to high unemployment and an interruption in access to basic needs. The reaction of the Syrian regime to these protests became increasingly violent, which, in turn, spurred more protests and more trouble. Soon enough, the protesters began to react with increased violence of their own. Despite the UN's efforts, the country proceeded to drop into civil war.
Though I'm sure I'm still far from understanding the situation completely, I now feel that I have a more solid grasp on the situation. There are other factors, such as the fact that 74% of the population is Sunni Muslim, and Bashar al-Assad and his administration are mostly members of the Alawite denomination. We've seen in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq, that this monopoly of power to one denomination tends to cause conflict.
I had hoped that at least some part of my confusion would dissipate after doing some more research on the topic. What I've come to find, however, is that my confusion has, if not stayed the same, even increased. The current conflict in Syria has been going on since mid-2011. It has resulted in the loss of many lives. The US has tried to maintain neutrality, but when chemical weapons (allegedly) came into play, suddenly there's reason for military action. I looked for answers in John Kerry's Statement on Syria.
Kerry's statement begins by addressing the concerns the media had been raising. The media draws inevitable comparisons to Iraq, which was invaded because of alleged possession of WMDs. At the time, the American public was assured that the intel on the WMDs was solid. However, as it turned out, Iraq did not have WMDs. The media's question is what's to say that won't happen again?
Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment. Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves.
Kerry goes on to describe the many sources that indicate that chemical weapons were used. However, I don't care all too much about all of that proof. I want to know why the use of chemical weapons, as opposed to bullets, knives, and explosives, warrant a military reaction.
This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons.
Sure, chemical weapons are horrible. War is horrible. The situation in Syria has been horrible for a good 2 years now. What's different about chemical weapons?
It matters that nearly a hundred years ago, in direct response to the utter horror and inhumanity of World War I, that the civilized world agreed that chemical weapons should never be used again.
This comes closer to an answer. Does that imply, however, that butchering people by other, more "conventional" means is more civilized?
It matters to Israel. It matters to our close friends Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon - all of whom live just a stiff breeze away from Damascus. It matters to all of them where the Syrian chemical weapons are. And if unchecked, they can cause even greater death and destruction to those friends.
Finally, something more concrete. However, this argument implies that merely the possession of chemical weapons is dangerous enough to warrant military action. Is the August 21st attack simply an instance of finally having enough evidence that Syria possesses chemical weapons? There are many other countries in the world that have alleged possession of chemical weapons, including China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Russia, and the United States itself. Clearly, possession is not enough of a factor to warrant military action. Syria's alleged willingness to use these chemical weapons, however, seems to be the "scare." However, if Syria wanted to attack US allies in the Middle East, chemical weapons are not the only method for doing so. I don't think that this sufficiently explains why chemical weapon usage warrants military action.
It matters because a lot of other countries, whose polices challenges these international norms, are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.
I think that statement reflects another big line of reasoning employed by the Federal government. This line of reasoning boils down to the US government's need to display its power. If that is the true reason, however, that still doesn't explain exactly why the alleged chemical weapons attack triggered this response from the US. Surely, there have been other opportunities to display the US's strength.
That means that some things we do know we can't talk about publicly.
I can't help but feel like there must be more to the story. Neither of the two reasons, even when combined, seem enough to warrant something as drastic as military action.
Another thing that I don't feel I know enough about is the result of a US military action on Syria. Obviously, we can't know exactly what would happen, but there is a significant degree of intelligent speculation that I don't feel aquainted with. One of the things that I keep hearing about is that if the US would perform a military strike on Syria, it would help al-Qaeda. I was curious to what extent this is true.
I found several articles, such as this one, that indicated that al-Qaeda is working with the Syrian rebels. Another article, however, points out that al-Qaeda constitutes for only a small presence amongst the Syrian rebels.
"They have a presence, and they've captured some territory. But [al Qaeda fighters are] in the minority," Major Issam Rayyes, a former Syrian Army communications officer who defected in June 2012 and now serves the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told The Weekly Standard. "Congress is making a mistake in thinking the opposition is al Qaeda."
Though al-Qaeda's presence may be small, it still indicates that al-Qaeda has sided with the Syrian rebels. Even if that presence is small, it is significant enough to have made an impact in the media. If one of the US goals is truly to show the US stands by its principles, I can see an argument that bombing Syria would not follow that ideal. That said, I don't feel that this is a very strong argument against potential military action, but I do think it is, to some extent, valid.
A more immediate consequence has been revealed recently in the form of Iran.
The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region.
Although I can't be sure to what extent this is true, it is obviously at least a significant threat. Russia and China have both also voiced their opposition to a potential US strike on Syria.
Putin is threatening to send a missile shield to Syria if the US launches an attack without the authority of the United Nations.
Clearly, a US strike in Syria would not bode well for the already ailing US-Russia diplomatic relations.
Aside from these risks, there is also a significant financial impact of such a strike. Current estimates place this cost north of 100 million dollars.
With all of these potential drawbacks, I fail to see a reason that justifies a military action in Syria.
As a result of making myself write this all out, I feel a good bit more informed about the Syria situation. I've learned more about the causes of the civil war in Syria as well as the reasons the US gives for wanting to perform a military strike on Syria. However, given all of that, I can't help but agree, to some extent, with what Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to say about the matter.
"In the case of Syria, the chemical attack is a pretext... The Americans try to play with words and pretend that they've become involved in this case for humanitarian aims," Khamenei told a meeting of the Assembly of Experts, a state body.
After going through the process of reading up on the news, I had hoped to be more illuminated about the issue. However, I seem to have uncovered more questions than answers. I've ended up more confused than I was to start with. There's still far more to know about the situation in Syria than I could possibly find out in a day, or even a month. It's an extremely complex situation that few, if any, probably understand fully.
The one questions I think I may finally have an answer to, however, is the one I posed at the beginning - why do chemical weapons warrant a military response?
UPDATE: September 7, 2013
Throughout my writeup, I mostly went under the assumption that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack on August 21. I hadn't really concerned myself with the issue of whether the proof is convincing enough, because that didn't seem as strange to me. The issue of WMDs in Iraq is still freshly engraved in our memory. It's only natural that we do our best to question any and all sources of information.
Today, I found an article in which 12 U.S. Intelligence officials claim that Assad was not responsible for the August 21 chemical attack. Members of Congress are also fairly skeptical of the intel on Syria. Now, while I didn't at first think that the issue of proof was as interesting as the "so what?", and I don't think that either of these articles is terribly reliable, I have come to realize that the issue of proof contributes to the larger picture in a significant manner.
The President seems very eager to engage in a military strike in Syria. In my eyes, that eagerness matches neither the reasoning nor the proof. I can't help but feel as though I'm missing something from this picture. We're likely all missing something from this picture. After reading through the proof that the White House has declassified, I couldn't help but feel that the information provided was extremely vague. The vagueness only further supports a claim that we're missing some significant piece of information. In fact, at times I almost feel that we're purposefully being fed the debate over the proof so that we ignore other issues. That line of thought comes dangerously close to a conspiracy theory. Maybe I'm over-thinking the situation.
The US seems prepped and ready for war, and I still can't figure out why.