A massacre that Obama can stop

David Meyers Former White House Staffer
Font Size:

For the past week, Americans have been glued to coverage of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. They are understandably outraged by the senseless massacre, and are demanding their government do something about it.

Yet most Americans are indifferent or unaware of the tragedy unfolding in Syria; a tragedy that makes the Connecticut shooting pale in comparison. And while the Connecticut shooting is over, the massacre in Syria rages on. President Obama can’t reverse the tragedy in Newtown, but he can help stop the bloodshed in Syria. And it’s time he does so.

Since the start of the Syrian uprising, more than 40,000 people have been killed. If the Newtown shooting occurred four times a day, every day, for a year, the number of casualties would still not total the number of lives lost in Syria.

And, as in Connecticut, the victims of the violence in Syria include innocent children. In May 2012, the Houla massacre claimed the lives of more than 100 people, including 30 women and 50 children, many of whom were executed at close range.

In recent weeks, the Syrian government has used increasingly violent and lethal attacks in a desperate bid to cling to power. Assad’s forces have launched Scud missiles into cities, and used military aircraft to bomb civilian population centers.

The Syrian people have begged for weapons to defend themselves; these requests have been denied. Meanwhile, countries such as Iran have continued to fund and support President Assad as he murders his own people.

President Obama has said his “red line” for intervention would be the use of chemical weapons. This apparently means that it’s open season on Syrian men, women, and children as long as weapons of mass destruction aren’t used.

But the Syrian opposition, through sheer tenacity and willpower, has managed to make important gains. They have seized weapons from the Syrian military, taken control of key pieces of territory, and maintained their morale — despite being abandoned by the world and greatly outnumbered and outgunned.

At this point, even the Syrian government realizes that it cannot prevail militarily. Farouk Al-Sharaa, who is still (at least nominally) the Syrian vice president, recently conceded this fact. But the rebels can’t topple Assad in the near future without outside help. It’s far past time we gave it to them.

Those opposed to intervention frequently cite numerous risks involved with doing so: we might arm al-Qaida affiliates, create instability in the region, or risk Syria’s biological weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Critics of intervention often use the presence of extremist groups in Syria to support their position. What they fail to mention, however, is that the presence of extremists groups is partly the result of our failure to intervene. By failing to help the rebels, we have forced them to turn to anyone who will help them, including these groups.

But many Syrians despise these extremists. By helping fund and arm the rebels, we’ll allow them to turn away from terrorists and extremists. And when Assad’s government falls, as nearly everyone believes that it will, we will have a much stronger influence in shaping Syria’s future.

Critics of intervention also claim that arming the rebels could escalate the conflict and create further instability in the region. But at this point, it’s hard to see the conflict getting much worse (outside of the use of chemical weapons, which Obama has already hinted could draw an intervention).

Moreover, our inaction has created more regional instability by emboldening our enemies, such as Iran, while at the same time weakening the Iranian opposition movement. (If they see we’re unwilling to help the Syrian people despite 40,000 deaths, they’ll conclude we’d never help them if they made another attempt to overthrow the mullahs.)

Finally, the fear of chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands is actually a factor that supports intervention — not vice versa. It’s only a matter of time before Assad falls. And if we have no presence in the country or no strong influence over the rebels, we’ll have an even harder time securing those weapons after Assad is gone.

President Obama can help stop the violence in Syria and save thousands of lives with the stroke of a pen. What happened in Newtown is tragic, but so is what is happening in Syria. It’s time the administration and the American people acknowledged that and did something about it.

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.