Byrd: Listen to Latham on Syria


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The political conversation in the United States and many other Western countries has been dominated in recent weeks by the horrific revelations that Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad likely used chemical weapons against civilians in his attempt the quell the rebellion against his authoritarian rule that has torn the country apart for the past two years. President Obama has argued that a limited tactical strike against the Assad regime is necessary in order to dissuade future use of chemical weapons and to try to simmer down the red-hot conflict.

Political leaders however, should take some advice from Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who has said that any sort of military involvement in this crisis would be a mistake and would simply escalate the crisis. This is the attitude that our political representatives should adopt on the Syrian crisis, because any sort of intervention will simply lead to more death and destruction considering the nature of the crisis and what seems to be the American strategy for intervention.

The Syrian conflict is far too complex to fully examine in a few sentences, but the essential nature of the crisis is sectarian, religious warfare. Assad is an Alawite (a small sect of Shia Islam); however, the majority ethnic group in Syria is Sunni Arab. Alawites under the Assad regime have been given preferential treatment compared with the Sunni majority, causing tension between the two groups.

When the protests against Assad’s autocratic regime turned into all-out war, the long-simmering ethnic tensions were unleashed, leading to a provincial slaughter. With much of the Syrian opposition groups being sectarian in nature, it is no surprise that the rebels have engaged in countless acts of rape, torture, and murder.

This is very important to understand as it discredits the notion that the United States must unseat Assad in order to make way for the “good and democratic” rebel groups, who are just as barbarous as Assad. This leaves the argument the Obama administration is presenting, the idea that international norms against the use of chemical weapons must be enforced with military retaliation.

There are two main problems with this justification. The first is its base hypocrisy. International norms against the murder of innocent civilians, widespread rape, torture, and theft have been broken in Syria and around the world for years without any action from the West. Why are some international norms worth defending with military action while others are so easily ignored?

The second is that military intervention would probably do little but escalate the conflict. As the highly reputed humanitarian organization International Crisis Group has pointed out (and as Latham has argued), Assad is fighting for the very survival of his regime and has shown with his use of chemical weapons that he is willing to defend that regime with whatever despicable options are available to him, no matter the response. Also, the Assad government’s likely survival from the sort of limited strike the administration is proposing will only strengthen his position, portraying him as someone who stood up to the West and survived. At the same time rebel groups will be emboldened by Western support and will be less likely to negotiate and more likely to escalate an already cataclysmic situation. An American intervention would only pull both sides away from the already unlikely negotiating table.

The Syrian is a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. But if the goal of the United States is to end the suffering of the Syrian people, then it must listen to the advice of Latham and forgo a military strike, which would only undermine that noble goal.

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