In 1884, the British government dispatched a single officer to an obscure Sudanese town to oversee the peaceful evacuation of Egyptian citizens from the Sudan. The Anglo-Egyptian government had decided to leave the Sudan to self-governance in the face of national uprisings and the financial difficulties of governing such a large expanse of desert. The officer, Major-General Charles Gordon, remained longer than he was ordered and organized a defense of the city against the Mahdist Sudanese nationals. After a 10-month siege, Gordon, along with the entire garrison, was killed.
Thus, with British public opinion strongly in favor of reprisal, other African nationalist movements watching for any show of British weakness, and other European governments harboring imperial ambitions of their own in the region, Britain, which less than a year before wanted nothing to do with the Sudan, went to war in the Sudan.
The same question which a British citizen might have asked in 1884 comes to mind for many Americans today: What does an expanse of desert half a world away have to do with us?
The Syrian Civil War is a complex and little-understood event for many Americans. In fact, its complexity is precisely why the United States has refrained from outlining any solid foreign policy towards Syria to date.
But perhaps a refresher:
In 2011, Arab Spring protestors in Syria were violently suppressed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In response, the mostly peaceful protestors took up arms and began an outright rebellion to depose Assad’s regime. The rebels, with significant aid from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey, were likewise supported by Jihadist elements, including Al-Qaeda. Assad, in turn, was supported by his principal allies: Iran and Russia, the latter of which has maintained military bases in Syria since the Cold War. In 2014, a splinter group of rebels calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, broke off from the main body of rebels and invaded part of northern Iraq. The atrocities committed by ISIS have been universally condemned in the West, leading to European and American declarations against ISIS. Russia, with the stated purpose of making airstrikes against ISIS, has instead aided Assad in making air strikes against the Syrian rebels. The United States, unwilling to support Assad’s tyrannical regime or Jihadist backed rebels, has largely confined itself to strategic air strikes against ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq.
But the question remains: what does this have to do with us?
Like Britain, the United States has, in the past 70 years, forged an empire of sorts. It is not a vast territorial empire in the traditional sense, but a geo-political empire based upon economic dominance and military supremacy. As a former colony ourselves, the idea of colonial empire has largely been distasteful to American sensibilities. But if World War II propelled Americans from their traditional isolationist viewpoint to a more globally interactive perspective, the Cold War galvanized the American penchant for moralizing our foreign engagements.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as the sole remaining superpower. This global preeminence, however, comes at a cost. Maintaining global geo-political hegemony means being present in almost every facet of the contemporary world to assure that events turn out favorably to us and our allies.
So what are our Syrian options?
Doing Nothing: With Russian and Iranian backing, the Assad regime remains in power, thus continuing to act as an unfavorable counterbalance to American interests in the Middle East, and signaling to our allies in the region that we are unwilling or unable to take a stand against genocidal regimes. Russia’s dominance in the region is assured, thereby strengthening their ability to flout American and European diplomatic pressure in other areas, including Eastern Europe. Innocent civilians continue to suffer from a brutal regime and the reinvigoration of an unchecked ISIS.
Getting Involved: Boots on the ground regime change…we’ve been here before. A possible escalation with Russia and Iran, which are both using Syria as a proxy war for dominance in the region. Diplomatic means are available, of course, but what are the chances they will be successful?
Doing Something: Launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at an air strip to demonstrate that we mean business?
In truth, there are no easy answers. It is easy to say that it is none of our business, and perhaps it isn’t. But one can’t help feeling like one should help a bullied victim if it’s within one’s power to do so. This moral force, naive thought it may be, is a strong factor in our collective desire for a response. If we have the power to stop genocide, oughtn’t we to use it? There are at least two points, however, which we should consider.
First, Denmark is not asking themselves this question. Nor are most countries in the world. They simply don’t have the power to intervene. Our moral quandary is dependent upon our superpower status. The United States asks itself these questions because we have the power to intervene.
Second, it is not clear that US military involvement will produce our desired outcomes. One aspect of any traditional just war theory is that the action must have serious prospects for success. For the present, it’s not clear what success in the Syrian Civil War would look like.
Thus, with American public opinion strongly in favor of reprisal, other terrorist organizations watching for any show of American weakness, and the Russian government harboring geo-political ambitions of its own in the region, the United States, which less than a year before wanted nothing to do with Syria…