After growing up with protracted conflicts in the Middle East, Millennials are glad to see the U.S .consider a diplomatic response to Syria, but know it might not end there.
The past few weeks have seen a heated debate in the news and through the halls of Congress on whether or not the United States should respond to the widespread use of chemical weapons by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on his own citizens – and if so, to what extent. With diplomatic options proposed, the U.S. has the option to participate in an international solution.
As a Millennial, I care deeply about how this situation escalates. Some of my earliest memories involve 9/11; I have few memories from a time when the United States was not at war in the Middle East. All of this war, with its violence and its expense, has made my generation a bit pacifistic and extremely sensitive to the idea of becoming involved in international conflict. At the same time, we’ve lived through Wikileaks and more recently, Snowden’s whistleblowing. Regardless of whether these individuals or programs were right or wrong, they showed us that sometimes government programs, policies, and interventions, when mismanaged, could infringe upon the rights of both U.S. citizens and global citizens. This has made Millennials sensitive to the idea of injustice in our interventions. We are hesitant to put boots on the ground where they aren’t wanted, needed, or carefully considered. We are hesitant to initiate a program without oversight capacities in place, and we want to know what they are and have a say in how they work.
Syria must be addressed out of this same feeling of injustice. But I’m cautious about placing trust in an international solution, particularly when this kind of operation has never been attempted before. The proposed weapons collection program will require the U.N. to do work they’ve never done before, for the international community to commit to funding this expensive and time-consuming work, and for the Assad regime – the very source of the problem – to commit to full disclosure.
All three of these requirements are difficult, but I particularly doubt the Assad regime’s cooperation. In late August, the Assad regime released sarin gas, a neurotoxin that causes seizures, vomiting, loss of bowel control, foaming at the mouth, and can lead to death. In Syria’s case, over 1,400 people died from exposure to sarin.
The use of chemical weapons was first prohibited by international law within the Geneva Protocol in the wake of World War I, and specific limitations were further clarified in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1992, which called for a cease in production of these weapons, made their transfer illegal, and mandated that countries begin destroying their stockpiles. While Syria is not a signatory to the CWC, they are party to the Geneva Protocol. Until only a few days ago, Syria has continually denied ownership of chemical weapons.
Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war, the population divided into ever-splintering factions of rebel groups that oppose Assad’s regime. There is little organization, there are many divisive factors (religious and ethnic differences, for example), and there is much fear. Assad, in a particularly calculating move, used sarin gas on a civilian area where one particular rebel group – and the rebels' families – were based. Hundreds of children died in their beds; others died writhing in pain and foaming at the mouth at overcrowded, contaminated hospitals.
The United States felt compelled to act in this volatile situation based on a comment by President Obama a year ago, that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line,” not to be crossed. Rather than serving as effective deterrence for the Assad regime, this served as a line to be tested and a boundary to be crossed. These words became shackles for President Obama; he had left no room for backtracking, and his own words compelled him to action.
But, not too much action. Assad may be a “thug,” as Secretary of State Kerry called him, but he is a thug whom the U.S. doesn’t want to remove from office. If an American attack crippled his regime, it would create a power vacuum in the region. One of the many splintered rebel groups could take power, and while some would promote peace and human rights, others are linked to Al Qaeda and other extremist organizations. There is no good alternative to Assad at this time, and we don’t want to risk an overthrow. Hence, Obama has argued for extremely limited strikes: no boots on the ground, a limited time-table, and in-and-out destruction of the remaining chemical weapons that Assad possesses.
Obama brought this proposal before Congress, which is almost unheard of; the last time that a president asked Congress for approval for military action was Franklin Delano Roosevelt concerning World War II. And until recently, it looked like the proposal might make it through. But as time passed and constituents, war-weary after more than 10 years of Iraq and Afghanistan, raised their voices, prospects for getting something done looked incredibly bleak.
But no response isn’t an option. The United States, as the global hegemon, is compelled to protect international norms and promote human rights. With Russia previously vetoing action through the Security Council of the United Nations and Great Britain’s Parliament voting no to action (thereby preventing NATO or simply the U.S. and U.K. from acting in tandem), the United States had no course of action but acting alone. If we turned our backs on such widespread atrocities, such universally-agreed upon violations of codes of behavior for states, we would create incentive for these actions to be repeated.
My generation knows that one split-second foreign policy decision can lead to life-long results – that a decision to go after Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and a dream of turning a Taliban regime into a democratic state could lead to 13 years of boots on the ground, thousands of deaths, and children who don’t remember a time without conflict. So Millenials are cautious. I am cautious. I do not want to live in a world where state leaders can gas their own citizens to a horrific death and see no consequences. I do not want to establish a new international norm permitting the use of chemical weapons. I don’t want to have to clean up another mess, an even greater mess, than those we have already created.
But now, a new option has opened up: diplomacy. Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned the possibility of Syria turning over its weapons to the international community, and the Russian Federation, close allies with Syria, suggested taking that proposal seriously. President Obama asked for the vote on action in Congress to be postponed while this possibility was explored. Over the weekend, Secretary Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to hammer out an initial agreement to destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons by mid-2014.
I am a proponent of diplomacy and believe it should be prioritized far above military action. However, this option is messy. Syria is a state in conflict; explosions, attacks, and deaths are an everyday reality. Assad’s chemical weapons are not all in one place. For a U.N. team to come in, locate, and destroy the weapons would take years. They would have to destroy the weapons while on the ground. They would have to build structures in which to do their work. They would have to do this in the midst of a turbulent and vitriolic war between a government that has a history of lying to U.N. inspectors and myriad rebel groups, some with extremist ties.
This is far from the ideal situation. In fact, it’s about as far from the ideal situation as it could get. Assad will not be punished for his actions, and it’s likely the U.N. team would be hurt, threatened, or unable to finish their work. While ideal, this may be impossible, and if it proves to be impossible, then the U.S. needs to be ready to step in to ensure that no global citizen has to fear a sarin gas attack by the Assad regime again. We have to protect human rights, and we can do that through diplomacy first. The U.S. should certainly give every effort to cooperate along diplomatic lines and give full support and assistance to the U.N. team. But we should not, by any stretch of the imagination, take limited strikes off the table – in case negotiations fall through, in case the U.N. team is in danger, or in case Assad’s regime does not disclose the location of their full stockpile.
Jacqueline Van de Velde is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Senior Fellow for Defense and Diplomacy and a senior at the University of Georgia.