Despite the 24/7 coverage of the constant calamities emanating from the dumpster fire that is the Trump administration, other things are, in fact, happening in other parts of the world. One of these is the Syrian Civil War, which will soon be entering its seventh year. CNN reports that this conflict has claimed about 400,000 Syrian lives as of October 2017, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the body count as high as 465,000 in March of that year. This war, which has seen massive civilian casualties and caused the largest refugee crisis in history has been going on since March 2011.
The Syrian conflict originated with the 2011 Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa which resulted in a massive transformation of that region’s geopolitical and governmental systems. Many regime changes came of this revolt with a wide range of outcomes. Most analysts agree that the Tunisian Revolution was probably the most successful, resulting in what many consider a true liberal democracy. Others, such as Egypt, saw regime changes with mixed or negative results, with the new regimes often emerging as even more authoritarian than the last. But Syria was a different case altogether.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a man who has arguably joined in the ranks of international infamy the likes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, proved himself more willing to crack down on these protesters than some of his contemporaries. Shortly after the Arab Spring protests began to erupt in Syria, and Assad, desperate to retain control of the country, ordered his troops to gun down scores of protesters in cities across Syria. This erupted into a bloody conflict. The opposition, rebels against the Assad Regime consisting of defected soldiers, Kurdish forces in Northern Syria, and many Islamic extremists, launched an all-out war on the Government.
Then the gas. In August 2013, over 1400 Syrian rebels and civilians were killed with chemical weapons, including deadly sarin gas, unleashed by Assad’s forces near Damascus. This has become a regular practice for Assad, who has been more than willing time and time again to prove his mettle against both the rebels and the international powers that oppose his regime. The most recent chemical attack was in October 2017 when Assad released sarin gas on a rebel-held town, killing dozens.
These chemical attacks have proven to be political flashpoints both for the media and Washington. When the attack on Damascus occurred, it evoked both condemnation and retaliation from the Obama Administration. While most agree that Obama failed to enforce his famous “red line” on chemical weapons, some argue that he was, in fact, successful in seizing many of Assad’s weapons in a pretty effective and peaceful way. And yet, Assad still continues to kill, starve and gas his people. Reports say Assad is even making new chemical weapons to replace the ones seized under Obama, in addition to those that Assad likely secretly stockpiled. So even if Obama was successful at the time the war, and the gas, rage on despite his targeting of these weapons. So why, then, are chemical weapons a constant tipping point for US intervention in Syria? How does that myopic attention paid to chemical weapons help the Syrian people (or the American people for that matter)?
It doesn’t. Chemical weapons are the wrong aspect of war upon which to base our foreign policy from both a philosophical and practical standpoint. Ultimately, by focusing on these attacks the media and our leaders sensationalize comparatively insignificant aspects of a conflict in which starvation and conventional warfare claim exponentially more lives than chemical weapons while failing to look at the big picture and drawing attention away from it. This is a pertinent issue even after Obama’s tenure. There is no reason to think that Donald Trump will be any different than Obama when it comes to dealing with Syria, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently drawing his own red line on chemical weapons.
Let us ask ourselves, has our fixation on chemical weapons actually done anything to mediate or resolve the conflict in Syria? Six years later, ISIS is routed and yet the Syrian Civil War rages on. The focus on chemical weapons is primarily political rather than moral. Obama and Trump have both used chemical weapons to grandstand about our great morality whilst simultaneously providing minimal retaliation. Who can forget when President Trump fired 59 tomahawk missiles at Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack, resulting in a rare instance of media praise for him. But despite all the media fawning and public approval, the attack on a single airfield was essentially useless, causing no major detriments to Syria’s military capabilities. It was all politics, and it worked for Trump.
Then there is the crucial moral perspective. This is the idea that we in the ‘civilized’ West won’t tolerate the cruel and inhumane methods these foreign dictators employ to kill their people (forgetting that we used chemical weapons on civilians in Vietnam which are still having an impact today). Of course, our position is morally inconsistent because we only seem to react to this one method of killing. While sarin gas is an undeniably cruel way to be killed, is it really leaps and bounds worse than the alternatives? There are jails in Syria where tens of thousands are being tortured and starved before being abruptly hanged. Starvation, a long, drawn out and painful way to die, is rampant throughout Syria due to poverty and resource shortage caused by the war. President Obama didn’t set a red line on torture. President Trump hasn’t fired tomahawks in retaliation for tactical starvation. There aren’t any, because they aren’t newsworthy enough for a White House press release, even if they are much more widespread.
Furthermore, it could be easily argued that Assad has, in fact, been emboldened by our disproportionate reactions to his gas attacks. Like Trump with his tweets, Assad uses chemical weapons to divert attention from the larger issue and make us fixate on something quite minuscule in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile, our consistent shock and horror are exactly what he is trying to evoke in his attempts to prove to the world that he, a man with everything to lose and willing to protect his position at all costs, is not to be trifled with. We are playing right into his hands.
Our priorities on Syria are completely out of whack. Whether you support intervention or non-intervention, the focus on chemical weapons and the occasional US strikes they invoke are bound to be disappointing upon closer examination. There is no great morality at play when we choose to home in on these attacks. It’s all politics.
Andrew Solender ’20 is a political science major, the Editor-in-Chief of the VPR, a former columnist for the Miscellany News and a contributor to the Poughkeepsie Journal and Psychology Today.