Raise a hand if you didn’t know Bashar al-Assad was a bad man before this weekend. Raise the other if you didn’t know that women, children and the elderly were suffering and even dying in Syria’s brutal civil war.
OK, now raise your right foot if this newfound knowledge has you excited for another long American war in the Middle East, because that’s what a good number of politicians and pundits are clamoring for.
If this weekend was not the first you’d heard of any of this, however, there is very good reason not to commit to war or regime-change in Syria, and nothing shown on TV or the internet over the weekend changes that.
During both of President Barack Obama’s terms, Assad’s regime launched dozens of chemical attacks killing hundreds of people. On March 25, 2017, after a new president took office, a chlorine attack hit eastern Syria. Five days later, Syrian warplanes wounded between 50 and 100 with sarin nerve gas. Four days later, chlorine gas killed two children and injured dozens. The next day, April 4, a sarin attack killed dozens and wounded hundreds more, prompting President Donald Trump to launch a missile strike.
The global effect of this limited but severe action was immediate: Russia was warned about American commitments, China was place-checked while visiting Mar-a-Lago, the world was alerted there is a new boss in town and he will not tolerate a dictator so flagrantly violating international law.
The effects for Syrians were less concrete. Assad could still kill as many people as he wanted with tanks, bullets and nooses without generating the kind of media interest that got him in trouble the first time. Between Jan. 13 and Feb. 26, four reported chlorine attacks killed four people, and in March, 29 people — mostly children — were injured in one. But then something changed: President Trump announced that the United States would be leaving Syria, pundits across the spectrum lost their minds and a new, brutal chlorine attack was captured on camera. (RELATED: Chemical Weapons Warfare Has Plagued Syria For Years)
While chemical weapons of any kind are banned, chlorine is a very different type of animal from sarin. Chlorine is a chemical with industrial and personal uses, and unlike sarin, is not a city-threatening weapon of mass destruction– and couldn’t be unless the entire city gathered together in the same crowded basement.
“Chlorine has a host of commercial uses,” chemical weapons expert De Bretton-Gordon told Business Insider in 2014. “Actually, it’s not very toxic. Sarin is probably 2,000 to 3,000 times more toxic. You and I can buy chlorine in a shop.”
The distinction is either lost or ignored by pro-war voices hitting the media circuit. The drumbeat to war that had been growing louder since the withdrawal announcement hit a full-stride after the attack footage hit America’s TV screens.
“If you have the opportunity to take [Assad] out, you should,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reliably pro-war Republican, said Monday morning on Fox News.
“Israel is extremely worried about a possible U.S. withdrawal from Syria because that would allow Iran to move in and consolidate a massive military presence in Syria, which is a direct threat to Israel,” former Bush speech-writer Marc Thiessen said later Monday, making a great case for an Israeli military campaign but not an American one.
Israeli “President Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria and he will go after not just Iranian proxies but Iran itself,” Thiessen said later, “so if we withdraw and allow Iran to move in and fill the vacuum it could spark a cataclysmic war with Israel in the region and that’s just one of many reasons why he shouldn’t withdraw.”
“You need to have a long-term military presence on the ground,” he added, “to help the good guys stay over and help the good guys stabilize…. So we need to stay in there, keep them down, protect Israel so that Iran doesn’t use Syria as a base to attack Israel.”
Assad is “a monster,” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said as justification for deeper American involvement, asking the United Nations’ chamber how many images of dead children it would take to force action.
Just days after declaring the job near done, the president on Monday promised “we’ll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours.”
The terrible truth is if children killed in criminal war justifies military intervention, Myanmar, Yemen, Congo and Sudan better get ready for America’s Marines. Even if we raise the bar to murdered children plastered on YouTube and Twitter, Mexico should start preparing for the National Guard the president ordered to the border to march further south. It’s not difficult to look abroad and find “monsters to destroy” — not in the age of the internet.
War costs billions. American men and women die. American families are ruined. And not just that, we’re already massively committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, with smaller contingents scattered in war zones around the entire planet.
Assad was as terrible a man last week as he is this week, civilians were killed in war last month as they will be this month, but it is the just interests of the United States — not upsetting images or even friends such as Israel’s worries — that must dictate where to send our men and women to fight and die.