They walk from pedestrian to pedestrian, offering shoe services or selling pieces of gum for a thousand libra (around 66 cents) a pack, and they all have the same desperate cry for help: “I am Syrian, I am hungry, please help me.”
I pass this group of around 10 small children on the 15 minute walk from my apartment to the American University of Beirut. They have dust-covered hair, tattered clothing, and worn-out sandals. Their presence serves as a daily reminder that while the diplomatic steps recently taken by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are productive in preventing the use of chemical weapons, they do not put enough pressure on the Assad regime to begin the march towards ending this humanitarian crisis. In order to do this, the United States must hit the illegitimate Syrian government with controlled military strikes.
In my four weeks here in Beirut, I have seen how successfully a country can recover from a civil war. Lebanon was engulfed in its own brutal civil conflict lasting 15 years, which came to an end in the early 1990s. While there are still political and security issues yet to be resolved, Beirut is home to tremendous optimism and progressiveness. Every few blocks there are luxurious apartments being built, and there is an ever expanding upper-middle class eager to spend its wealth within its own communities that are far more socially liberal than other countries in the region.
Lebanon is a shining example of how a country in this region can return from the brink of collapse, and Syria can certainly follow suit. But the U.S. must force Assad to the negotiating table, and, as of this moment, striking him hard, and striking him now seems as though it is the only option.
Over the past two years, the revolution in Syria has grown from a peaceful movement on the list of the Arab Spring uprisings, to a humanitarian catastrophe, generating refugee and casualty statistics so large they rival those of Rwanda, Sudan, and Kosovo.
This mass exodus, along with increased Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region, have been caused by an influx of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, Shiite militias from Iraq, and covert troops sent from Iran in Syria. All of this is in support of Assad (who is Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam), and has emboldened the regime to be more aggressive in targeting the Sunni civilian population in Syria (Sunnis compose the vast majority of the opposition fighters).
In order to end this nightmare for the region, the world needs to put Assad on the defensive. The only way this can be accomplished is through military strikes.
Whether we like it or not, we are the only superpower in the world, and indeed the only country capable of striking the highly technical targets that have been proposed by Obama.
Our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan has left us war weary and rightfully intimidated by any military action in the Middle East. But President Obama has stated numerous times, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has confirmed, that the proposed military action would strike targets that would cripple Assad’s military machine that are irreplaceable in the near future. These targets include: 10 air bases, six military facilities, three armored brigades, two mechanized brigades, and three missile sites using our Sixth Fleet, which is currently stationed in the Mediterranean off the coast of Lebanon.
In a column titled “Arm and Shame,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the U.N. Security Council is useless because of Russia and China’s blind support for Assad, as he secures Russia with a naval base in Tartus, and China uses Syria as a client state for the rest of the region. Europe and the Arab League are military museums that do not have a fraction of our military capabilities, and all other countries are on the sidelines watching this madness unfold without any action.
And while the prospects of negotiations to secure chemical weapons within Syria are underway between the U.S. and Russia, Assad and Putin will take this as the lesser of two evils, between confiscating chemical weapons or a full bombardment by the U.S. navy. Not striking Assad directly will permit the Syrian military to continue slaughtering innocent men, women, and children.
Alternative routes to military strikes in Syria would be disastrous.
Arming the rebels is not a viable option. The Free Syrian Army is divided, scattered, undisciplined, and incapable, even with the right weapons, of overthrowing this regime. They are often responsible for killing Alawite civilians, executing captured Syrian soldiers, and having no clear structure of command. The movement also has some extremist Sunni sects, such as the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. The potential of giving weapons to this group would spread sectarian strife into the region, further destabilizing the Middle East, with little or no impact on Assad.
Isolating “the good rebels” in order to put the right parties on the negotiating table with Assad is possible, but throwing weapons at this party would not end the war in a timely fashion without U.S. naval or air support.
American isolation would be even worse. A “red line” has allegedly been crossed and much more than Obama’s reputation is at stake if we do not act. If the U.S. allows Syria to prance over this boundary, it will every military promise the U.S. has made to the world in question.
Our international security goal should be a single, small intervention to avoid future global conflicts. We cannot afford to regress into isolationism by not intervening in Syria. This would invite Iran to accelerate its suicidal march towards nuclear weapons, North Korea to resume skirmishes with the South, and China to fulfill its own bizarre version of manifest destiny by increasing its naval hostilities with the Philippines, Vietnam, and my former home of Japan. All with the belief of impunity from U.S. military intervention.
This we cannot allow, and this is the larger picture if we do not act in Syria.