By David Lias
Is it possible to walk away from a crime against humanity?
Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Darfur – the list of mass atrocities since the 1990s is long. The systematic killing of thousands of civilians, the widespread displacement of many more civilians, sexual violence against women, and abduction and enslavement of children – these and other crimes against humanity are rampant in areas plagued by violent conflict.
But the 1990s also saw another trend in reaction to the atrocities: a series of efforts by the international community to confront crimes against humanity and protect civilians from mass killings and targeted attacks in conflicts. These efforts included tackling such thorny issues as sovereignty – often equated with non-interference in the internal affairs of a state – as well as developing new principles such as the “responsibility to protect.” This doctrine asserts that sovereignty includes responsibilities as well as rights and that in extreme cases, external intervention to prevent or stop civilians from being brutalized and slaughtered may be justified.
Despite these developments, ongoing crises continue. Naturally, we’re left to question the will and capacity of governments, international organizations, and even non-governmental organizations to take effective action in the face of mass atrocities.
The latest mass atrocity to gain our attention is in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched chemical weapons that killed more than 1,000 civilians in a suburb of Damascus. All 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have said, in a special report, that they have “high confidence” in this assessment.
President Obama has made a strong case that a military response is the proper action – not in order to get involved in the Syrian civil war or to oust Assad from power, but rather to enforce a long-standing global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.
He also took the proper step, we believe, last weekend, when he announced that he would have Congress debate and vote on a resolution authorizing military force.
I’m certainly not going to pretend that this is an easy, cut-and-dried decision for our president and members of Congress to make. It is extremely complicated, and it’s easy to feel a bit uneasy about what may be happening soon.
“War weary” is a term that’s gets thrown around a lot these days, and there’s good reason for that. We’ve had forces overseas fighting now for over a decade, and for a time they were on two different fronts.
War is a costly, messy affair, and I have been hopeful that a day will arrive soon when we no longer have American troops involved in what officially is deemed a “war.” I’m still hopeful that such a time is destined to arrive soon.
I think I understand, however, why Obama believes it is important to take military action against Syria.
The use of chemical weapons suddenly changed the playing field, or, to use a more fitting term, the battlefield.
I suppose one could argue that the 1,400 who died from a chemical attack in Syria pale in comparison to the tragic happenings in that country over the past two years.
More than 100,000 Syrians have died in that time in a bloody and very complex civil war. There are now 2 million Syrian refugees who’ve fled their country. Millions more have been displaced internally. So why draw the red line when 1,400 people are killed by chemical weapons?
One could cite, as the president has, that since 1925, the international community has declared that chemical weapons should be forever banned from the world’s battlefields.
There is, however, a more practical and immediate concern. Chemical weapons, especially those like sarin that are colorless, odorless, and highly lethal, are tools of terror. Already, the commanders of some opposition forces say they are reluctant to press their offensives lest they, or the civilians around them, be gassed again.
Christopher Dickey, writing for “The Daily Beast,” notes that Iraq’s recent history may be providing a valuable lesson to policy makers. In 1988 Saddam Hussein used gas to slaughter thousands of men, women, and children in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Three years later, at the end of the Gulf War, when he had been defeated in Kuwait, but his helicopters were still flying over Iraq, hundreds of thousands of panicked Kurds fled their homes and froze on mountainsides near the Turkish border. He had not used gas against them again. He didn’t have to. They knew its effects, and they were simply terrified.
Dickey notes that in an increasingly sectarian war, Assad could use gas as the ultimate tool for ethnic cleansing – unless he is convinced that doing so will endanger him and his regime.
It appears the only way to convince Assad, in the very complex setting of the civil unrest currently going on in Syria, is to enforce the red line we say can’t be crossed.
I can’t believe I’m about to write this. I’m as war weary as you are, but with the limited information available and using my own insight of foreign affairs, which I’ll admit is anything but keen, I am with the president.
I believe Congress should approve his request for limited military action against Syria. To do otherwise means walking away from a crime against humanity. To do otherwise means the U.S. will be blamed for further Assad-backed carnage to come.
What’s troubling is I have no idea if I’m on the right track here. I don’t know if military strikes will make things better or worse.
I wonder if anyone truly knows.