Over the last two years, more than 100,000 people have died in a ruthless and complex civil war in Syria. The situation accelerated on August 21, when around 1400 people were killed by a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the rebel controlled suburbs of Damascus. After this attack, the Obama Administration announced its desire to launch a limited and proportional strike on military targets in Syria in response.
The President and his Cabinet have the authority and responsibility to conduct foreign policy on behalf of the United States. Unfortunately, the policy approach taken by President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and current Secretary of State John Kerry over the last four years has vacillated between absent and incoherent. Fortunately, Congress also has a role to play in foreign policy, particularly when it comes to decisions of war and peace.
That is why I attended a classified briefing for Senators and Members of the United States House of Representatives that reviewed both Assad’s chemical weapons attack and the Administration’s proposed military response. I have also been closely monitoring the unfolding situation in Syria and the robust debate on Capitol Hill. In the last few weeks, the Administration has been incapable of proving to the American people that it has a clear goal in Syria that can be achieved through its current military strategy. Like most of my constituents, I do not believe the current plan is in the best interests of the American people and our national security. For these reasons, I am against the Administration’s current proposal for American intervention in the Syria and, if it were to come to a vote on the House floor, plan to vote against the president’s request for congressional authorization.
The Administration stated goal is to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons program through a limited and proportional strike that does not involve putting American boots on the ground. It also wishes to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again and to send a message to other totalitarian regimes across the world that any use of weapons of mass destruction will not be tolerated by the international community.
There are numerous problems with this approach. First, the Administration has not articulated a clear objective that can be achieved through its proposed military strategy. Experts believe that a limited strike would not sufficiently degrade Assad’s chemical weapons from future use. Instead of imposing meaningful punishment on the regime and deterring a future strike, the Administration’s strategy would accomplish little other than potentially drawing the United States into a civil war that is not in our national interests.
Second, it is difficult to predict Assad’s reaction to President Obama’s promised “shot across the bow” from the United States. While our goal is to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, an ineffectual attack may instead embolden him to use them again. He could also retaliate with a strike against Israel or on American troops or ships in the region. He might persuade terrorist allies like Hezbollah to launch a terrorist attacks on US embassies or consulates in the region. Syria may even encourage its terrorist affiliates to attack the American homeland. Any of these potential reactions could further broaden a Syrian civil war into a larger regional war. Therefore, striking Syria with an attack that will accomplish little strategically without knowing what Assad will do in retaliation is an unnecessarily dangerous strategy that America should avoid.
The third problem with the Administration’s strategy is that we do not know how our message to other regimes around the world will be received. While the Administration hopes that a strike on Syria will show the rest of the world that there are consequences for using weapons of mass destruction, there is no guarantee that totalitarian dictators with access to these weapons will receive that precise message. Instead, rogue nations like Iran or North Korea could view our “shot across the bow” as proof that the United States is only willing to strike military targets in a limited manner. A limited attack might also convince the world that the United States is not willing to do what is necessary to dispose of regimes that use weapons of mass destruction. It does not make sense to use a limited military strike on Syria to send a message, particularly when we do not know how that message will be received and what might follow from it.
I am also concerned about what might happen if the war expanded and Assad’s reign ended. If Assad were to fall, there is no guarantee that rebel forces, collectively known as the Free Syrian Army, has the power necessary to sufficiently govern the entire country, much less secure Assad’s numerous chemical weapons facilities. This instability could lead to chemical weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. To avoid this disastrous scenario, the Pentagon estimates that it would take more than 75,000 American ground troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. By promising that American boots will not be on the ground in Syria while also proposing military action that could lead to the fall of Assad and the proliferation of chemical weapons, the President has painted himself into a dangerous corner. This is not the kind of wishful thinking that I can support.
Finally, Assad has had the time over the last few weeks to change the location of his moveable military resources and has placed political prisoners and other innocent civilians in immobile locations that we are likely to target. This means that an American strike could fail to neutralize strategic targets and instead kill innocent Syrian civilians that the Assad regime has placed at military installations around the country. Assad would then use this as proof to Syrians and others in the region that America is its true enemy. The United States should do everything that it can to avoid civilian causalities, which stir anti-Americanism in an already volatile region. Avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties is, more importantly, the right thing to do.
Secretary of State John Kerry has argued that there is a price for inaction. However, there would be a heavy price for improper action, too. My fear is that the Administration’s current plan would lead to more instability and senseless death in the region. If America wants to ensure that Assad does not use chemical weapons again, we would either have to decimate his chemical weapons facilities completely or remove him from power. The Administration’s strategy accomplishes neither objective. Instead, this limited action gets us unnecessarily involved in a dangerous, uncertain civil war without the guarantee that Assad will not use these weapons again.