What is to be gained from U.S. intervention in Syria? Secretary of State John Kerry's speech last week focused on the Assad regime's probable use of chemical weapons and emphasized that the United States would lose credibility if Obama doesn't stand by the "red line" that he drew last year on chemical weapons use.
Kerry told us that "[i]t matters that nearly 100 years ago in direct response to the utter horror and inhumanity of World War I that the civilized world agreed that chemical weapons should never be used again."
But it also matters that the United States has used and condoned chemical weapons in the past -- the United States used agent orange in Vietnam, was allied with Iraq during its chemical weapons attacks on Iran in the 1980s, turned a blind eye to Israel's use of white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008, and used white phosophorus and possibly other chemical weapons in the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, leading to continued high rates of birth defects and cancers.
The United States has also supported brutal dictators -- Saddam Hussein (in the early 1980s), Suharto in Indonesia, Pinochet in Chile, and others. Can we seriously imagine that we have any "credibility" to challenge another country's use of chemical weapons? To think that the United States has suddenly decided to act on humanitarian principles in the case of Syria is dangerously naive.
The Syrian civil war is a complicated conflict that cannot be boiled down to Sunnis versus Shi'as. Economic conditions also played a major role in the uprising. Since 2006, severe drought in Syria has caused massive crop failures, reduced the incomes of small farmers and herders up to 90 percent in affected areas, and driven tens of thousands of desperate farmers into the cities, forcing them to compete for jobs with Palestinian refugees and refugees from the Iraq war. Climate change models project drought continuing to intensify in the region.
Although the United Nations identified serious humanitarian needs in Syria as a result of the drought prior to the outbreak of the war, only a third of the requested international aid actually materialized, according to a 2010 report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
Today the civil war has hundreds of rebel factions, some mutually hostile to each other, with a mix of economic, religious, and ethnic grievances. Foreign powers are manipulating this conflict to advance their own interests. For instance, Qatar was one of the first countries to start actively supporting rebels. Qatar has a strong interest in preventing a natural gas pipeline from Iran through Syria to the Mediterranean from being built. Qatar shares the gas field with Iran and is racing Iran to develop an export market for the gas.
Even though U.S. intervention in this conflict is presumably driven by strategic interest, not humanitarian concerns, helping to overthrow Assad's regime still seems like a dangerous bet. If Assad is overthrown, his allies Iran and Hezbollah will be weakened. On its face, this seems like a good outcome for the United States. But we cannot ignore the other possible impacts. If a Muslim Brotherhood or other radical Islamic regime takes over, it would likely provide greater strength to Muslim Brotherhood minority parties in Jordan and Iraq, further destabilizing them. And such a state could harbor and support terrorists targeting Israel or the United States. Already, we are seeing growing strength of al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting against Assad. Even Israel, while not friendly to Assad, has been cautious in this conflict, realizing that an extremist Islamic state could be worse. From a humanitarian standpoint, a rebel victory could also unleash violent oppression of the Alawites, Christians and other groups backing Assad.
In short, the situation in Syria is complex and driven by desperate economic conditions and decades of sectarian violence, oil and gas politics, and foreign interventions that have destabilized the Middle East.
If our ill-fated adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, shouldn't it have been that military interventions in this unstable region have the potential to go seriously awry?
Kunkel lives in Fayetteville.