This past weekend, President Barack Obama announced his desire to intervene in Syria’s two-year-long civil war. Before he acted, however, he made the political calculation to forgo his prerogative to green-light military action and instead decided to seek the authorization of Congress. This means that Santa Barbara County’s congressional representative, Lois Capps — well-known for voting against the Iraq War — will once again have a say in whether the country deploys deadly force in a foreign land.
When she spoke at a Democratic Party Labor Day event, Capps received applause for voicing skepticism of the president’s plan to strike the Middle Eastern nation that borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. Whereas the president up to now has resisted any sort of intervention in the conflict pitting rebels against a repressive dictatorship that has resulted in about 100,000 deaths, Obama said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people behooves a response.
Many commentators have chastised Obama for painting himself into a corner last year when he stipulated that the use of chemical weapons was a threshold for U.S. involvement. “It’s probably unfortunate [for Obama] to have drawn a red line,” Capps told The Santa Barbara Independent. Chair of the SBCC Political Science Department Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar said, “As any poker player knows, you don’t have a tell if you draw red lines.” When widespread reports corroborated the Assad regime’s deployment of sarin gas on August 21, the president’s hand was forced.
Eskandari, founder of the Middle East Studies program at City College, was highly critical of the president’s insistence that the use of chemical weapons requires a military strike, pointing out that the U.S. stood by when Iraq employed such devices during its eight-year conflict with Iran. On the other hand, Capps, who has yet to stake out a position — because she is still getting briefed on the issue and because the president’s draft will be revised by Congress between now and September 9 when a vote will be taken — said, “the use of chemical weapons is a clear violation of international law” and “the Syrian people cry out for response.”
She knows firsthand because just two weeks ago, she visited Syrian refugee camps in neighboring Jordan with the international poverty-fighting organization CARE. Capps indicated that the most immediate response of the U.S. should be to ramp up humanitarian aid to Syria and its neighbors.
One motivating factor behind the president’s willingness to intervene is the rather recent idea that there are internationally recognized constraints on viable methods of conducting warfare. Not responding would give the impression that those regulations are merely hollow words. “We know that Assad will read our stepping away … as an invitation to use those weapons with impunity,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. “Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They are all listening for our silence.”
About that reasoning, Eskandari wondered, “What lesson is the world supposed to gather from this — that if you do something terrible to your people the U.S. will send some missiles and kill more people?” If that logic worked, he said, Assad wouldn’t have resorted to chemical weapons in the first place. He added, “When you have the chief diplomat of the U.S. advocating for war, you have a problem.”
Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at UCSB, argued conversely that the destructive power and psychological effects of weapons of mass destruction do make them qualitatively different. Moreover, he believes, without the viable threat of force, Assad has no incentive to reconsider his actions. “There is a possibility — and this is what Obama’s banking on — that a strike would bring Assad back to the negotiating table,” said Juergensmeyer. “The great lesson that Gandhi taught anyone who believes in peace and conflict resolution is that you need to have leverage.” Obama also made a “thoughtful” case for the power of force to promote peace when he accepted his Nobel prize, said Juergensmeyer.
Eskandari, who isn’t sure Obama has done anything yet to merit that prize, said a recent test case for Syria is the American intervention in Libya, but it makes for a far-from-perfect comparison. Whereas Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had absolutely no international support, Russia and China both have a strategic interest in the Syrian regime. Moreover, the British Parliament voted against any military action in Syria, meaning that the U.S.’s closest ally will be watching from the sidelines.
Questions also abound about the so-called “endgame” of military involvement. Reluctant congressmembers want to know what the U.S. can reasonably expect to achieve by intervening in a civil war. While the Assad regime is repressive, the rebel groups — including Islamic fundamentalists — are not necessarily a palatable replacement. Said Eskandari, “There are no secular moderates that come to power and stay in power in the Middle East at this point.”
Juergensmeyer believes that if he felt he had no way out alive, Assad may be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement. If he doesn’t care that much about his own life, Juergensmeyer said, he might fear that his defeat would lead to the slaughter of the Alawite Muslim minority to which his family belongs. He cited Lebanon and Ireland as two countries whose governments ensure representation from rival groups. In the case of Northern Ireland, he said, mediation was not possible until both sides decided they could not win.
United Nations efforts at cajoling Assad to step down having failed, Juergensmeyer does not believe there are really any diplomatic avenues open, whereas Eskandari lamented, “I think it is the sign of the decline of a great nation when the only tool in its toolbox is a hammer.” A war-weary public seems to agree. According to a Pew Research poll, 48 percent of Americans disapprove of military action in Syria while 29 percent approve. The big question is whether they will sway their representatives. However she votes, Capps has definitely heard the message. Her constituents, she said, have “an overwhelming lack of interest in military intervention.”