U.S. Needs New Policy in Syria

Andy Monserud

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It seems, miraculously, that the Syria situation has calmed down –– from the American perspective, at least. Bashar al-Assad, the East Mediterranean nation’s dictator, recently agreed to a plan, proposed by Russia, to hand over his nation’s chemical weapon stockpiles to the United Nations for destruction. Late last week, the Obama administration agreed to the plan. This comes in the wake of fierce debates over possible U.S. intervention in Syria, proposed by the Obama administration as a response to the revelation that Assad’s regime has extensively used chemical weapons on rebels in its two-year civil war.

Since the U.S.’s indiscriminate use of chemical defoliants and other weapons in Indochina, chemical weapons have been, in the words of a fellow Whitman student, “a big no-no” in international law. But international laws against war crimes have been broken before, without any of the consequences that the United States threatened Syria with this month. Even leaders who commit genocide, the war crime that necessitated the very formation of the United Nations, are usually captured and prosecuted after the fact, when they have been removed from power by civil unrest or other political forces.

On Sept. 12, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an opinion piece in The New York Times criticizing the U.S.’s actions in the Middle East over the past 30 years.

“Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us,'” wrote Putin.

He also suggested that the chemical weapons used in Syria may have been a ploy by rebels to force international intervention. This claim seems a little far-fetched, but not impossible. Putin is right to question America’s push toward war in Syria; the United States has created unnecessary hostility and turmoil in the United Nations and further alienation in Middle Eastern countries.

Still, the war had plenty of public support. What, exactly, allowed the Obama administration to establish this red line of action against Syria in the first place? Sarin gas, the most potent chemical weapon that the Assad regime is accused of using, has a long and gruesome history. Since its invention by Nazi scientists in 1938, sarin gas use has been rare, but not unheard of. Saddam Hussein made the world’s first confirmed massive sarin attacks in 1988, when he bombed Kurdish people in Northern Iraq with sarin and its fellow nerve agents cyclosarin and tabun as well as with mustard gas. Hussein also used chemical weapons including sarin in his campaigns against Iran in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s even been suggested that U.S. intelligence and military personnel in the region were aware of these offenses and tacitly allowed them. So use of chemical weapons seems to be an unforgivable offense only when convenient –– and many Americans have been baying for involvement in Syria since the civil war there began in 2011. Popular opinion has shifted somewhat since then, but Americans’ outspokenness against Assad’s atrocities early on greased the wheels for the tense situation of the past few weeks.

Hopefully chemical weapons will remain a grave and rare offense. But Putin has been right about one thing: The United States cannot remain the policeman of the world indefinitely. In history classes we study exceptionalism as a thing of the past, a dinosaur, and so it should be. America is not the only country in the United Nations –– it’s time we considered opposing views. Furthermore, if we threaten war every time another nation behaves in a way we don’t like, the haze of anxiety and paranoia that settled over the United States in late August is liable to become a permanent condition. Nobody, here or overseas, wants to deal with that.

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