This article is part of an ongoing Hero Project series offering veteran’s perspectives on the conflict in Syria and the prospect of a U.S. military intervention. Click here to read the last installment, where Brian Van Reet, an Army veteran who earned a Bronze Star with Valor in Iraq, argues against attacking Syria.
I have spent most of my career in the policymaking arena, where struggles and skirmishes were bureaucratic, but I also served in uniform for 20 years as a soldier and an officer. I mobilized to Bosnia, helping to end a civil war that claimed 350,000 lives and threatened the stability of Southeast Europe. In 2006 I deployed to Afghanistan, joining the tens of thousands of other service members who have worked to keep the Afghan people safe from extremists and free from oppression so they could have the opportunity to shape their nation’s future. I believe that the Syrian government’s crimes are contemptible and pose a national security threat to the United States. Though there is now some chance of a diplomatic resolution based on the Russian response to Senator Kerry’s statement that the U.S. would back down if Syria turned over its full stock of chemical weapons, this outcome remains unlikely. If a peaceful solution to Syria’s aggression does fail, an American military response will be necessary and I would serve again there if called upon.
I don’t relish the idea of U.S. military intervention in Syria or take the costs involved lightly but I believe that action is necessary to prevent further slaughters by Assad’s army and to deter risks to our national security by using appropriate force in response to chemical weapons attacks.
Though it would have been better to act in concert with a UN Security Council resolution, or for NATO to take the lead once the Russians and Chinese blocked a Security Council response, the United States still has a responsibility to act even if it must do so alone. Given the threat posed by Assad, and the possible consequences of doing nothing, the imperative for military action is more important than our need to seek international consensus on how to proceed.
While Assad’s disregard for civilian life during Syria’s brutal civil war is horrific enough, it would not constitute a vital national security interest by itself. He became a danger to the United States when he used chemical weapons, including during the August 21 attacks that killed over 1,400 men, women, and children, and in doing so crossed a red line that has been accepted across the world for almost a century.
This evening, President Obama will speak to the American people, and to the world, about why he believes that limited, tailored, and targeted attacks may be the only way to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. The president has already made clear what he believes is at stake: the lives of more innocent Syrians, wider destabilization in the Middle East, increased weapons proliferation, and a signal to the world that the development and use of outlawed weapons will have no consequences.
The president is correct. This is not only about a civil war in Syria; the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons projects Syria’s internal war out and threatens America’s safety. It is this threat, posed by Syria’s use of weapons that violate multiple international treaty obligations that demands a military response. The U.S. national security interests involved in Syria include reducing the threat of chemical attacks at home and abroad, ensuring the security of our allies, and maintaining an international system which enforces its own regulations and thereby extends protections to the United States. We cannot allow a world in which Iran, North Korea, and other actors believe that chemical weapons can be used against American forces or our allies. Nor can we risk allowing Syria to transfer such weapons to Hezbollah or other actors who might then use them against American soldiers abroad or citizens at home.
Echoing the debate in Congress and among policy experts, there is significant public opposition to not only “boots on ground” in Syria, but even to limited coercive strikes against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities. Critics cite a range of issues: Is it really in U.S. national interest to strike Syria? Can strikes deter Assad? What is the next step if they do not? What about civilian casualties? Is this a prelude to a ground intervention? Will Assad or Iran respond by attacking Israel? These are all legitimate concerns and resistance to the idea of committing American forces abroad after a dozen years of battle in Afghanistan and Iraq is entirely rational and the “war weariness” justified. But there is a powerful and necessary argument to be made for intervention that can explain, despite the common weariness and reticence, why the events in Syria may ultimately demand military action.
Syria is not another Iraq or Afghanistan. A strike on Syria is not a prelude to a decade-long counterinsurgency campaign with 100,000 U.S. forces on the ground. The plan, outlined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marty Dempsey, is to strike targets that will change Assad’s calculus about using chemical weapons. The targets may include Assad’s air force or his key military and intelligence headquarters but the aim of those strikes is not to topple a government and install a new one, as with Afghanistan and Iraq. The belief among some opponents of intervention that Syria will inevitably devolve into a quagmire like Iraq is the result of a flawed perspective that looks at a current conflict only through the prism of the last war we fought. Syria is no more Iraq than it is Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan, or Bosnia. While it may “rhyme” a bit, Syria has its own particular dynamics.
In many ways we are already part of the conflict in Syria through both our diplomatic efforts, including the channels opened yesterday by Secretary Kerry, and our provision of lethal and non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. Those who assert that this is not our fight, however, and that we ought to just sit it out are presenting a false option. We’re already involved as we have been for some time; the question is whether the nation’s leadership will now follow through on the obligations made in its name.
It is true that we have not always felt compelled to intervene in comparable circumstances when brutality in other nations has violated the laws of war and international norms, but as Thomas Jefferson reminded us, nations must “keep pace with the times” and evolve. When Jefferson said that, “we might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors” he was declaring that adaptation and moral progress in our laws and the use of power are basic tenets of our nation.
If we do strike Syria it will likely be with some partners—France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have each offered support—but if we do not strike, the consequences of not enforcing such a basic international norm will fall on the United States alone. We must consider the damage to our standing in the world that would result from U.S. inaction. The loss of our authority and stature will have a direct impact on our ability to cultivate alliances and deter potential enemies in the future. Thus, our failure to respond to Assad’s brutality and his flouting of the laws of war—the moral imperative—creates a new security threat by undermining our credibility in the international arena. Part of the job of being a superpower is maintaining credibility, it’s the currency we use to influence, project power, and lead coalitions of other nations in programs that we believe are beneficial to our interests.
It would be disastrous for the moral standing and influence of the U.S. to turn our backs now on the inhumanity being committed in Syria and abandon the responsibilities of our power and position in the world. How will we be able to advocate for human rights or stand for “American values” if we fail to act now against such an atrocity? Would our allies accept our reliability as a partner? Could we hope to deter our enemies through threat of action alone? Would our word still mean something in the world? If not, we will endanger Americans at home and abroad who depend for their safety on the belief among our allies and our enemies that our nation honors its promises and doesn’t make idle threats.