US Intervention Is Not About Syria, Chemical Weapons or Humanitarianism

Zaatari Web

US intervention in Syria would not be aimed at relieving the humanitarian crisis on the ground. If that were the case, it would've already happened. President Obama's strategy for an intended strike is largely reliant on the use of Tomahawk missiles, which were armed with cluster bombs and deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan despite UN disapproval. Even armed with a warhead deemed acceptable by the UN, a strategy of airstrikes without boots-on-the-ground is incongruent with protecting Syrian civilians. If ever the aim were to deter a current humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, and to do so without a long-term military presence, the US would cut funding for the brutish Egyptian military coup, something that goes against the legality of US foreign policy. Instead, a daft debate about the definition of coup ensued. If engaging Assad's regime were for the proliferation of democracy, the notorious claim made to defend the last decade of US involvement in the region, Congress would reconsider the $360 million package to be dispersed this October to the Jordanian Mukhabarat (secret police), who's campaign to suppress media coverage of Herak protests violates the few political tenants liberal and conservative Americans equally hold dear.

Another peculiarity at the forefront of this conflict is the outrage leveled at the use of chemical weapons. For the past two and a half years artillery, bombs, and missiles have killed over 100,000 Syrians and displaced millions. Chemical weapons are vile, yet just one weapon from the multitude used to kill civilians. Many of the displaced Syrians who came under fire from other "ethical" means of warfare have been physically and psychologically mutilated. Yet, US condemnation is seemingly only being leveled at one type of human suffering. Outrage at chemical weapons is thus more about the observer and his imagination than the victim. I'm reminded of Mark Twain writing on the French Revolution and the misplaced disgust of observers, "Our shudders are all for the horrors of minor terror, the momentary terror, so to speak; were as, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold insult, cruelty and heartbreak?"

 Deeming chemical weapons morally abhorrent, yet accepting the collapse of buildings on its inhabitants, shards of metal ripping through the cheeks of children like those I've held at the Za'atari camp, and the displacement of millions of injured people as just retribution, is morally bankrupt. It's easy to believe that death comes with less suffering if it happens quickly. However, in the context of war, it rarely does no matter the weapon du jour. Even when the shelling finally ends, regional life is filled with decades of disease, terror, pain and slow excruciating death. Obama's Red Line was thus either a slip of the tongue, or at best a means to buy time.

Before the advent of the atomic bomb chemical weapons were the first products of modern warfare with the potential to topple entire metropolitan areas. They were therefore considered the utmost threat of the early 20th century. By all means the capabilities of a contemporary air strike, let alone nuclear proliferation should have antiquated such beliefs. However, it's still not uncommon to hear the claim that chemical warfare is more horrible than other contemporary methods of killing since the area of coverage results in a greater number of civilian casualties over soldiers. Such a position holds not the sheer number of deaths but the lack of accuracy to be the atrocity. When considering that overwhelmingly those killed by the US drone program, the most targeted method of warfare in history have been civilians, this argument is as nonsensical as smoking to avoid a run in with lung cancer.

During the dawn of modern warfare, public horror at chemical weapons came under criticism by the intellectuals of the day. Many saw it as a propagated distraction used to shift conversation away from the ghastly terror already taking place on the battlefield. Historian Liddell Hart pointed out after the Germans fired on British soldiers outside Ypres in April of 1915, that gas is, the least inhumane of modern weapons. In the worst-case scenario the victim dies, yet he or she does so in one piece. The question of pain is meaningless to anyone who has spent time at a hospital or medical facility with victims of war who are missing limbs, trying to learn how to talk again, or just get some rest without flashbacks jolting the sweat from their brow. It should not be overlooked that an argument against the ethical application of a particular weapon is in turn one favorable of another, yet the end result and trail of destruction is often the same. From what I've seen, for some, even when the war ends the fallout continues to be grim for years, for some it continues for a lifetime.

It's easy to say all war is bad. That is, that there is no reason to ever enter a war. While that's true more often than not, pacifism should not give way to complacency, when it does, it delegitimises the anti-war effort. Soon the horns of jingoistic laziness are heard over the suffering of others. Should the Holocaust have gone on as the lesser of evils, war being the worst? The humanitarian disaster sprung from the Syrian Civil war demands attention. When considering the growing sectarian violence, the economically destabilizing refugee crisis, and the dubious interests of proxy elements with their hands in the Middle East's cookie jar, a proper military approach is unclear. Any military misstep could trigger larger complications; let it be known, the Cold War is alive and well in the Middle East.

Last month over 1,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence making it Iraq's bloodiest month in over five years. Many of the deaths resulted from the Syrian Civil War and growing tension between Sunni and Shiite factions. In one case Sunni extremists setup false police roadblocks near Sulaiman Pek, 100 miles north of Bagdad. They checked IDs and killed 14 Shiites based on their religious and ethnic affiliation. Last month the Royal Court of Jordan confirmed with me that, due to the increasing sectarian violence, each month of last year brought an average of 500 Iraqi refugees into the country. That's of course much less than the 40,000 Syrians who, as of Monday, are waiting at the Jordanian border hoping to flee a possible strike by the US. Sectarian conflict has been on the rise in Lebanon, Turkey, along the Sinai, and in many other pockets throughout the Middle East. While this conflict has many similarities to the Iraq war, the regional impact is much more vast, especially in the light of a civil war in Egypt and the alliance of Syria, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. With Saudi Arabia providing arms for many rebels in the south, The US alliance with Israel who has already fired on Syrian arms convoys to Hezbollah, and Russian ships off the shore, this conflict could potentially cause the biggest problems of the Middle East to converge.

Syria itself is divided into several entities with different visions of its future, from Assad's regime, the Nusra Front, the less fundamentalist factions of the FSA, the Kurds, to the countless militias forming daily. If Assad is removed, violence against the ruling class Alawites, who make up 14% of the Syrian population, will very likely ensue as retribution for the Sunnis Assad had gunned down while sleeping in their homes. The only way to make sense of any western involvement in the Middle East is to see it as a way of diminishing the negative long-term outcomes across the region. However, in military intervention there's a thin red line between deterrence and exacerbation; that's where the United States should direct its concern.