**I wrote this a few days before the UK, US, and French joint operation targeting chemical weapons facilities in Damascus. Right now, these strikes do not seem to have inflicted civilian casualties, for which I am grateful. It is unclear whether the targets were of any value to the Syrian regime, and indeed whether the attack will do anything to prevent future chemical attacks. I stand by the premise of this article: if the US or any other country can do something to stop the Syrian use of chemical weapons, they should.**
What is there to do about Syria? The civil proxy war in this tiny Biblical nation—sharing a border with America’s closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel, as well as NATO ally Turkey and still semi-occupied Iraq—may well be remembered as the defining event of the early 21st century. By this I do not mean to predict that the civil war currently raging in the country will grow to worldwide proportions, as some fear, nor do I mean to minimize other events from this century (the September 11th, 2001 attacks, the Iraq War, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, North Korea’s successful nuclear program, the rise of China etc). What I mean is this: while there were important events in the ten years between 2001 and the start of the Syrian Civil War in Spring of 2011, seven years ago, no single event has revealed more about the shape of the world at the start of this new century than Syria has. The world’s only superpower grapples with its conflicting beliefs in human rights, and its unwillingness to become entangled in another mid-east conflict. A large group of previously silent isolationists are ascendant. All the major players in the region lay their cards on the table. Iran, Turkey, Russia, Iraq and Israel choose to champion different players in the conflict in pursuit of their own goals. There’s open resistance to the post-cold war idea that America’s hegemony is unquestionable. Russian troops are being killed by US airstrikes—something which did not even happen at the height of the cold war. Meanwhile, the refugees fleeing Syria are prompting a resurgence of the nationalistic European rightwing. Whatever possible conclusion becomes actuality, whether it be a broader war, a silent American retreat and return to autocratic normalcy, or something else entirely, future historians will consider the period between 2011 and 2020 a key timeframe for understanding 21st century world power dynamics.
For America, the September 11th attacks were met with the same response as was the Lockerbie bombing years earlier: immediate and through retaliation. The country was shocked, a lot changed in the cultural, in government, yes. But it was essentially a moment of reaffirmation: the devastating attack did not demoralize America, it invigorated its resolve. The same can be said about the Iraq war, at least at the start. The idea of removing Saddam Hussein dated back to Bush I. It was carried on through the Clinton administration who bombed and starved the Iraqi people to no avail. The Bush II invasion was not iconoclastic in any sense. Nor was the policy behind it new or unique to Iraq. Since the end of the Second World War, America has—to varying degrees—stood behind the idea state sovereignty is not a license to practice ethnic cleansing, war crimes, etc. Yes, sometimes we have been impotent to do anything about it (see the horrors of the North Korean slave state), and sometimes we have given it a pass—in retrospect wrongly given it a pass—when it benefitted the realpolitik agenda of America’s global Cold War (see Operation Condor). But, the idea persists. Critics claim that America has no moral right to criticize human rights abuses in other countries. America is not perfect, but compared to the other forces acting in Syria (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, Turkey, and Israel), America comes off looking better than most. If the standard for action is moral perfection, the action will be taken by those who are morally despicable instead of those who are merely morally decent.
When I predict that the Syrian Civl War will define the rest of the century, what I mean is that the world’s response will forebear the moral landscape of this century like World War Two did for the 20th century. If the regime of tiny, morale-weary, non-nuclear Syria can use chemical weapons on its own women and children with no response from America or “the West,” then the moral landscape of the world has fundamentally shifted. Before the nineteen forties, the attitude in the US was that other countries’ affairs were their affairs. That changed when millions of our soldiers were dragged into a war most people hadn’t wanted before the Japanese attack on Hawaii. These men encountered all the normal chaos of war they trained for, but they also encountered something new: the mechanized, scientific, culling of millions and millions of people in specially designed camps in China, Germany, and Poland. The systematic extermination of human beings, live vivisections, scientific murder. After the war, the world powers together decided to hang the perpetrators. After that, the excesses of Stalinism were the basis for America’s entire foreign policy; the purges, the gulags, the censorship; these were—often overzealously—held up as the very antithesis of America values and, therefore, a justification to act as we wished to make sure no new country had to live through these horrors.
I am not pro-war. I think that Iraq was bungled as badly as a conflict that lopsided can be bungled. There are many criticisms I could lay against Bush II and those others involved with the decade long misadventure: the shortsightedness of purging the Iraqi army of Baathists (who would, now unemployed but with families to feed, bring their experience to al-Qaeda and ISIS), backing an ineffective and corrupt Prime Minister, ignoring the sectarian nature of Iraqi society, downplaying diplomatic resolutions, falsely claiming Iraq had nuclear weapons, falsely linking Saddam to 9/11, etc, I will never criticize the idea that Saddam should in an ideal world, have been brought to some sort of justice. We should never have accepted him as a legitimate leader, prolific torturer that he was, mastermind of an ethnic cleaning that he was, war criminal that he was. Perhaps we should have removed him after we liberated Kuwait from Iraqi troops, as some wanted to do. Perhaps we should have exerted more diplomatic pressure to remove him in the years leading up to 2003, perhaps we should have used military force, but just been smarter about it. I do not know. We must accept there are things about the world which we can’t change, sometimes because any attempt to change things would cause circumstances to become worse. However, we cannot go back to thinking that those things are none of our business, regardless if we can do anything about it. Crimes against humanity are called that because they are not just crimes against the individual victims, but against the whole of human civilization. Dictators and warlords may get away with crimes because they are powerful, but they should never get away with crimes simply because the global community is apathetic. The first eventuality I can live with, the second I cannot.
I do not know what “regime change” in Syria would look like. I don’t know if it would be as easy as it was in Iraq, or whether Russia is serious when it says it would fight American troops to keep the Syrian despot in power. If Vladimir Putin believed America had the stomach for another war, I do not believe Russia would have gone all in on Syria. Perhaps, then, just the appearance of moral fortitude would have been enough, in a different world, to wrap the conflict up years ago. Perhaps if the Syrian regime believed there would be serious consequences for gassing civilians, torturing prisoners and dissidents, using live ammunition on peaceful demonstrators, or dropping barrel bombs on apartment buildings, they would not have done these things. It is possible, likely even, that a US attack on Syria would have disastrous consequences. Maybe Syria would become a failed state like Libya, or a terrorist breeding ground like Iraq. Discounting the fact that it is functionally already both of those things, we must weigh the consequences of attacking against those of standing by and watching. Those consequences might be harder to trace back to the source, but they are just as important to evaluate. What will the world look like if we collectively give up on human rights? On justice? If we give tacit permission to dictators to act as they please as long as they leave us alone, the 21st century might look a lot more like the first half of the 20th when the world chose to ignore the Ottoman genocide of Armenians than it will like the second half, when international criminal courts were created to punish perpetrators of crimes against humanity.