Why you care about Syria

We’re back, and the results are in. In the case of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, the initial evidence points to Sarin gas as the weapon, and the fingerprints on the smoking gun seem to match those of one Bashar al-Assad.

Nearly 1,500 people perished in a coordinated nerve gas attack that occurred on the 21st of August in the suburbs of East Damascus. Very many victims were civilians, and over 400 of these civilians were children. This is bad.

Map of sites in Damascus attacked by chemical weapons

Nerve gas sites in Damascus

Chemical weapons are so deadly because they kill anything and everything in their path – with no distinction between soldiers, civilians, or even children. In this case, even the carcasses of livestock, pets and pigeons were found en masse.

Sarin in particular is odorless and colorless. If inhaled as a vapor, the effects are immediate. In liquid form, one drop on an adult’s skin causes death within minutes. Either way, the results are horrendous.  This is nasty, nasty stuff.

So chemical weapons are bad.  We knew that when they were used in 1988.  We knew that when they were used in WWI.  We knew that when the Geneva Protocol was signed to outlaw their use in 1925.

The larger issue at hand is that 100,000 people have perished in Syria’s civil war already.  What we have on our hands is a humanitarian crisis 30 months in the making.

The goal of the United States is to end the bloodshed and chart a (more) peaceful path forward for Syria, likely without Assad in power.

More: Three U.S. options in Syria

Do nothing
Bad idea.  This would guarantee that more bloodshed occurs.  Eventually the conflict will end, but we don’t know who will be in power.

That matters because those chemical weapons can be turned against our allies in the region. Turkey, for example, shares a 500 mile border with Syria.  Israel and Jordan also have cause for concern.

Pursue a limited military engagement
Limit Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons, which will reduce his ability to gain the upper hand over the opposition.  His regime won’t be toppled outright (also bad, see below), but he could be forced to the negotiating table.

This is what the President (and from indications, the U.S. Senate) supports, and is probably the least bad option.  It is acceptable given a few conditions:

1. No ground troops
Nobody wants another Afghanistan. ‘Nuff said.

2. Ensure protection of our allies
We must defend our allies against retaliation by the allies of Syria (i.e. Iran).

3. Don’t overdo it
The last thing we want to do is create another Bin Laden.

Arm the rebels
Bad idea again.  Many of the rebels are just as violent as Assad’s forces, and there are Al Qaeda elements among their ranks.

If they win, then what?

We don’t know who they are, so we don’t want their hands on chemical weapons.

Further complicating matters, the weapons we provide today could be turned against us tomorrow.  One word: Mujahideen.

As the nation discusses whether to act, it benefits us to reflect on a moment when we had the opportunity to intervene in a humanitarian crisis, but chose to wait.

Bill Clinton, when reflecting on the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people were killed (mostly with machetes) had this to say:

…If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost.

We have an opportunity to learn from our past and not repeat the failures of history.

Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees

Thankfully, a consensus is building.  The resolution for action in Syria passed the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee 10-7.  In the House of Representatives, John Boehner and Eric Cantor (who normally can’t agree with Obama on what time it is) support the President on limited action in Syria.

International consensus is growing as well, with Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK announcing new British evidence of chemical weapons being used.  Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France,  Turkey and the United Arab Emirates all support a limited strike, and according to the Secretary of State, Arab nations have offered to foot the bill as well.

Astonishingly, Vladimir Putin even left the door open to allow a UN Security Council resolution against the Syrian government to go forward, under certain circumstances – a vague, but promising gesture that could leave him diplomatic room to maneuver.

This chemical attack, as horrible as it was, is proving to be the spark that lit a tinderbox to focus global attention on ending the bloodshed in Syria.  We must act because it is in our national interest.  We must act because it is the right thing to do.

This is not Iraq in 2003.  There is no pretense here. There are only facts – and we must act.

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