Letting Syria Go

Are We Morally Responsible for Abandoning the Rebels?

The Ignored?: Syrian children wait in line to collect a free Iftar meal in the northern city of Raqqa during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on July 14.
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The Ignored?: Syrian children wait in line to collect a free Iftar meal in the northern city of Raqqa during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on July 14.

Published July 26, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.

The rebels in Syria are losing. Over the past two years of revolt — a conflict that has now taken 93,000 lives — there have been moments when Bashar al-Assad looked like he was on the ropes. But that is not the case anymore. And our own government officials know it.

Jay Carney, the president’s press secretary, who has repeated for the past two years that Assad’s days were numbered, is suddenly hedging. Assad “will never rule all of Syria again,” he carefully stated recently. As if this weren’t disheartening enough for the rebels to hear, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, made it clear in a letter to the Senate’s Armed Services Committee on July 19 that any American intervention would be prohibitively pricey and risky.

It’s time to ask ourselves: If Assad prevails, are we guilty in any way for abandoning the Syrians in their moment of need?

Certainly there are many compelling arguments against even the most humanitarian of interventions. Iraq and Afghanistan have scarred not only our political and military leadership, but also our collective willingness to break any country without thinking long and hard about what it will cost in blood and treasure to fix it. In Syria there is the added complexity that the rebels themselves have splintered into many warring factions, including Islamic militants who we have no interest in supporting. Engaging militarily in a region already convulsed by complicated revolutions and sectarian violence could have massive unintended consequences. For all the calls by neoconservatives (and even they have been fairly muted) to do something, it is not obvious how we would avoid stepping into another quagmire and possibly making the situation worse.

But there is practicality, and then there is principle.

For two years now, the president has insisted that it is United States policy that Assad step down. President Obama said he wanted to help bring about “a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians.” America would support this transition by “pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people.”

Nothing of the sort has happened.

What has happened is even worse. While the United States and the West have stood on the sidelines, both Russia and Iran have rushed in to support Assad. In addition to continuous shipments of heavy arms, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also recently delivered advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, presumably to ward off any international attack. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to pit against the rebels. And together with China, Russia and Iran are also propping up Syria’s economy. According to the Financial Times, the three countries are delivering $500 million a month in oil.

Against this massive effort, the American commitment to the other side — fighting to topple a brutal dictator — has been lame. A decision in June to have the CIA begin training the rebels and providing them with small arms has yet to even get started, and would take months to have any impact — time the rebels don’t have.

Can one blame General Salim Idris, head of the Free Syrian Army, who has come to this conclusion, voiced in an interview with The New York Times: “They do not want the fall of this regime; that is why they are not helping.” For him there is no other word for it but hypocrisy. “They have Russia and Iran and Hezbollah,” he said, referring to Assad and his supporters. “But these democratic countries that call for freedom, when you have people seeking freedom from dictatorial, oppressive regimes and need help, they do not give any aid.”

We cannot change how traumatized America was left by Iraq and Afghanistan. We have simply become, as a country, incredibly reluctant to inject ourselves into conflicts around the world and wary of the multiple, unintended consequences that follow these interventions. If you look for the outcry in the streets about the Syrian people, you will not find it. A few on the right like John McCain are calling for a no-fly zone. But otherwise, silence. There are also no humanitarians on the left echoing the calls that were heard in the 1990s over Kosovo.

This is who we are now. But we cannot have it both ways. America has become more isolationist by choice — Obama’s “leading from behind” foreign policy expresses the will of the people. And yet our leaders insist on speaking of our values as if they alone guide our actions in the world. It’s hard to make that case anymore.

We shouldn’t ignore this shift in our priorities. And most important, we should not try and escape its moral implications. General Idris’s voice should echo in our ears, it should bother us, but we should also learn to live with it — because we will hear it again. And if we have decided that as a society we cannot afford to be the protectors of freedom and democracy all over the world at any cost, we should honestly confront the reality that this is who we have become.

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