King's students on Syria: picking (losing) sides


This is one of a two-part series of op-eds on Syria by King's students for Professor Glader's Persuasive Writing & Speaking class. In August, a chemical attack left more than 1,000 Syrians suffering from excruciating convulsion before suffocating to death. With this, the Syrian crisis—already responsible for 110,000 deaths, 2 million refugees and 4 million internally displaced civilians—became too destructive for the international community to ignore any longer. The U.S. rightly feels compelled to act in some way, but unfortunately none of the present options look remotely appealing. Thus the President has to decide between four different ways to lose.

Should the United States help the rebels? No. In a recent statement, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to defend the rebels by saying that only between 15 percent and 25 percent of them are extremists. We don’t find those numbers encouraging, but that’s irrelevant. Secretary Kerry’s estimates were blindly optimistic. Accurate estimates of the 100,000 rebels paint a far more dismal picture: 10,000 are associated with al-Qaeda; 30,000 are Jihadists affiliated with other extremist groups; another 30,000 are “more moderate” Islamists, associating themselves with the famously moderate Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, increased infighting between rebel groups grown makes success against Assad even more unlikely. The rebels are bands of disorganized, terrorist-associated, helpless idealists. Helping them could means prolonging a lost and costly cause or, worse, assisting the establishment of an even more dangerous power.

What then? Should we assist Assad to end the fighting? No. An appeal to international credibility, or even basic decency, charges any leader not to side with despots who use chemical weapons against their own citizens. The attack in August was the worst of its kind in the last 30 years. Assisting the Syrian government was never a reasonable option, now it is plainly ludicrous. Assad is a ruthless, chemical-gassing, tyrant—the only question now should be on the scope of our action against him.

Emerging as the other key international figure, President Vladimir Putin has assumed the role of peacekeeper between the U.S. and Syria. Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times sharply criticized any idea of intervention, calling for a diplomatic resolution through the UN. It is a bit odd to see Putin appeal to democratic principles—the same Putin who champions heavy crackdowns on protestors and support for oppressive dictators. Russia may seem committed to global peace, but as Oxford Russia scholar Roy Allison argues, it is largely motivated by domestic self-interest and those countries that support Russian hegemony. Ultimately, Putin is a megalomaniacal puppet master who’s done nothing in his tenure as Russian President to suggest he won’t manipulate the crisis for his gain. Mr. Obama would be unwise to trust him.

With all possible actions sufficiently unappealing, many wonder if the U.S. should do anything at all. Why not just sit back and let the geopolitics flow naturally? This approach is also problematic. Political pressure is increasing in the US for some sort of action, most likely because inaction would severely harm to our international credibility. Mr. Obama has committed himself too deeply in the conflict to make a withdraw look like anything other than surrender. Worse, our inaction would mean that the conflict will likely rage on, leaving even more dead or hopeless.

When two semi-radical groups refuse to stop fighting, no winner can emerge. Sadly, the U.S. lacks a good solution. Obama can side with Assad, the rebels, the UN (Russia) or no one at all. With any choice, the U.S. loses.  The Syrian crisis is similar to other Arab Spring uprisings in its lack of resolution or alternative leadership. If the United States involves itself in the war without a realistic solution, it is bound to failure. Now the only option is to minimize losses, hope for a miracle and wish that we took action before things became so grave. All the while, citizens and refugees are caught in the crossfire.