Red hands and red lines: the complexity of “peace” in Syria

Michelle M. Riches

Writing Intern

The glaring red hands of an anti-war group appeared behind Secretary of State John Kerry as he testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday. Kerry, who protested the Vietnam War, discussed the conflict in Syria. “We have no intention of assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war,” Kerry said, “But this is not the time for armchair isolation. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.” (CBS News)

The Syrian government’s alleged use of sarin gas led the Obama administration to call for missile strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad and the rest of the military leadership for using chemical weapons. In addition to fierce opposition from Congress, the American people are weary of war.  According to a Pew Research poll, only 29 percent of Americans support limited military action. (CBS News)

By June, over 100,000 people had died in the Syrian conflict, and that number continues to rise. Until now, however, the US has avoided action, diplomatic or otherwise.

Though it may be difficult to tell after a decade of war in the Middle East, the situation in Syria is not the same as that in Iraq in the run-up to the Iraq War.  Chemical warfare is against international law and all but five nations are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention: Angola, Egypt, South Sudan, North Korea, and Syria. In August 2012, President Obama said, “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Assad has now crossed that red line. (CNN)

Obama’s red line seems to be the primary reason he and his administration are pushing for military action. His position and that of many other political figures is that the US will lose credibility by not taking action against Assad. They not only believe that Assad will continue to use chemical weapons, but also that other nations will realize that they can do the same without consequence.

For the first time in far too long, we have a decent amount bipartisan agreement on a national issue. President Obama, Speaker John Boehner, Secretary of State John Kerry, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator John McCain, and many other prominent political figures agree that we must take action immediately or that the consequences could be dire. Although we are still awaiting congressional approval for military action, President Obama can call for missile strikes without their agreement.

The military action that the Obama administration would like to take could potentially harm civilians in Syria and create further problems for the US in the Middle East. That same action could prevent Assad from using chemical a second time and provide proof to other countries that our red line with chemical warfare is absolute.

There is no right answer. Getting involved in this conflict now could either help or hurt the people of Syria: there is no way to determine which. It is apparent that Assad cannot be expected to act rationally, since it was obvious that the US would face this predicament if he used chemical weapons. Even after US intervention, Assad may still continue to use sarin gas.

However Congress votes on this issue, we cannot continue to box ourselves in with red lines. It is difficult to say whether we should strike in order to maintain international credibility or not strike at all: the effects of both may be detrimental. Neither of these options will bring peace to Syria. Peace is not another war. Peace is also not standing by idly, watching another nation crumble to the ground, allowing its president to murder another hundred thousand people, or force another million people from their homes.

We should do everything in our power to help the people of Syria, but we must always consider diplomacy before military action. Sadly, we should have considered this a year ago, instead of drawing a red line that we do not intend to enforce.  Getting involved now might dissuade Assad from using more chemical weapons, but it could also harm many civilians in the process.

As human beings, we have the obligation to protect others from harm and to pursue peace. Turning away from the Syrian people in their time of need is not peace. If peace really is the goal, the question at hand is whether military intervention is our best option. If it is not, we must work together to find another option, because turning a blind eye is not the answer.



CBS News-