Too Scared To End War Crimes In Syria

It’s been two years since the Ghouta chemical attack in which Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s famous, yet inconsequental, “red line” by slaughtering upwards of 1,000 people with a single sarin gas attack. Air raids targeting citizens consisting mainly of shells, barrel bombs, and chlorine gas, have only increased. Last week Syrian government forces launched a brutal bombing campaign on the town of Douma killing at least 82 people and wounding hundreds. As has been typical of such attacks, it barely registered a blip in western news.  As the media shifts its view towards migrants heading for Europe and ensuing tragedies, such as the 71 Syrians who suffocated in the back of a truck heading to Hungary and the little Syrian boy that washed up on shore, let's not forget that Bashar Assad has gotten a pass to terrorize, torture and slaughter Syrian citizens. While the geopolitics at play in Syria are quite complex, the failure of the international community to put a no-fly-zone in place, or take any due action for the regime’s unremitting and blatant war crimes, rests heavily with the U.S. Congress.  

On March 5th the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 2209, which prohibits the Syrian Arab Republic from using chlorine gas in warfare. Further, it states in Chapter 7 that punishment will ensue for any breach of the resolution. Yet in clear defiance of the UNSC, the Assad regime has continued to pelt Syrian civilians with chlorine gas. recently, six casualties from chlorine attacks have been reported in the towns of Sarmin and Binnis. Several were children. This was well known and documented by the state department and analysts reporting to the UNSC. The silence of Congress speaks volumes to the cognitive dissonance and partisan hackery gripping Washington today. The inability of Congress to support the UNSC also shows a strong indifference to the rule of law.

Chlorine gas was used as a weapon for the first time in WWI. Nearly 100 years ago, the news of the devastation caused by those chemical gas bombs caused a great fear to ripple across the world. At the time, chlorine gas was world’s most devastating WMD. Thirty years later, the development and proliferation of nuclear arms buried that fear behind a similar yet exponentially more threatening one.This great fear of the 20th century has not only continued into the new millennium – it has flourished. Perhaps nothing is more telling than the role of the U.S. in further destabilizing the Middle East through a decade long war in Iraq based on undeniably false pretenses. While to date no one has yet to die from a nuclear weapon being used by any other state besides the U.S., many innocent people have been killed preemptively out of the fear that, if nuclear armament is achieved by particular states, the tragedies of Nagasaki and Hiroshima will be minor compared to what is to come. Our fear of the bomb is so great, it allows governments to get away with mass executions, torture, and an array of other injustices, as long as we believe - with no guarantee of a just trade off - that a nuclear warhead may never be used again.

Those fears, when addressed reasonably, need not be completely ignored. Nonetheless, the residues of our actions in response to this great fear have metastasized in unforeseen ways. It’s present in the form of ISIS and the battles raging in Yemen. It’s present in our sanctions on Russia. It still hovers over Cuba as we try to repair a massive crack in the vase of our shared interests. It’s present in our national security interests, often vying for the front-page headlines with the “war on terror” and stories about the economy. That’s why it’s front and center in our current negotiations with Iran.  To be clear, negotiations that are taking precedence over the brutality of Iran’s ally, Bashar Assad, against the civilians of Syria.  

The U.S. has long attempted to follow a now out-of-date policy of realism leaving the ambiguity of military action for the sake of moral provocations aside. But the U.S. can't do so with any legitimacy and still hold on to a notion of American exceptionalism and moral fortitude. Even if the U.S. claims its objectives in the Middle East over the last few decades have been just, those actions have seemingly cultivated the antithesis of the government’s intentions. It is thus the fear of certain threats – even when viable and necessary to address – that has led to a foreign policy incognizant of the reality left in its wake. By doing so 'justice' in the Middle East has been rendered merely a talking point or hashtag. The only feasible way to reason that the U.S. has taken the right approach to the Middle East over the last few decades would have to come from the perspective of utility (greatest good for the greatest number), but for that to be argued against the history of our chosen action and negligence, convincing evidence that more lives have been saved than have been lost must be something solid rather than mere speculation.

What is certain is that the failure of the U.S. to support the UNSC may lead other states to see the U.S. as an autonomous actor, one that despite attempts at coalition building, doesn’t enforce or support the efforts and objectives of the U.N. in the first place. If that’s the case, the countries' attempts to resolve global conflict, whether through diplomacy or war, may never be respected or aligned with the principles so many jingoistic politicians and so-called patriots claim to adhere to.  

While this may simply seem as a call to shift our reactions towards a lesser medium of WMDs – it’s not. Upon that first use of chemical weapons in 1915, Liddell Hart pointed out that they should be considered “the least inhumane of modern weapons.” Any other notion is simply the reaction of the fortunate people living life sheltered from the true brutality of war. In war, a quick death is always preferable to an extraneous one. The difference lies in that, as people are dying from bullets, bombs, collapsing buildings, mutilation – often exacerbated by a lack of medical attention – starvation, or many other countless horrors, those few days of hope while the victim suffers mercilessly, serves only the uneasy minds of those who have never seen war first hand. So is the fear of a nuclear threat and the preceding policies and action merely out of utility? Hardliners would say yes. But that conclusion is one that often comes too easily and without much regard for the future. It’s no question that sitting back and watching new threats rise out of our preemptive actions as nearby governments commit flagrant war crimes is damaging, not only our humanity, but to the rule of law necessary to protect it.

Being that the U.S. has assumed the role of policing the world (whether it wants to hold that moniker or not is another discussion), for the U.S. to have any credibility in the eyes of the world, we can not continue to turn a blind eye to the greatest injustice of our time – the violence in Syria and the exponentially expanding humanitarian crisis it's creating. By doing so we are complicit in destroying the dignity of law along with that of nearly 13 million displaced people and the over 220,000 dead. We are responsible for the migrants dying in the back of trucks as they try to escape the nearest thing to hell on earth; we are responsible for letting our fears take precedence over the suffering of others and for letting justice become a fiction. Until the international community takes a stand, and Congress backs the UNSC, the problems and tragedies pouring out of Syria will continue to cross boarders.