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The Baleful of Syria

On Friday, April 26, 2013, President Barack Obama made a public announcement concerning recent reports regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons on their civilian population. According to BBC news, President Obama has vowed a “vigorous investigation,” warning that the use of chemical weapons will be a “game changer” for U.S. action if “proven true.” But whatever action that may arise; proof will be the deciding factor. The problematic question is what action should take place, if any.

Consider the Halabja Massacre (Bloody Friday), the largest chemical weapons attack directed towards a civilian population, a chemical genocide directed towards the Kurdish people near the close of the Iran-Iraq war on March 16, 1988. The Halabja attack killed an estimated 5,000 people, injuring up to 10,000 more; most were civilians. Thousands died, if not outright, by complications resulting in diseases and birth defects. According to regional Kurdish rebel commanders, “Iraqi aircraft conducted up to 14 bombings.” Eyewitnesses told of clouds of smoke billowing upwards to an estimated 150 feet in the air. Survivors have described the chemical agent as smelling of sweet apples, only to be followed by a horrid combination of death: some “dropped dead, [others] died laughing, [for the rest] burning and blistering…or coughing up green vomit.”

Intelligence reports had gleaned that Iraqi forces used a mixture of chemical weapons, including: mustard gas, sarin and VX (both are nerve agents), and even perhaps hydrogen cyanide. Though, initially the U.S. State Department blamed Iran for the attack, Human Rights Watch researcher Joost Hiltermann concluded through a vigorous field investigation, an analysis of confiscated Iraq police documents, declassified U.S. documents, and interviews with Kurdish survivors and Iraqi defectors, that the United States was fully aware that the Iraqi government used chemical weapons on the Kurdish people, but simply decided to blame Iran. It wasn’t until December of 2005 when actions were taken against parties responsible for the genocide. Frans van Anraat, an arms dealer who bought the chemicals on the world market and sold them to Saddam’s regime, was sentenced by a Dutch court to 15 years in prison. On November 5, 2006, Saddam Hussein was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity; he was sentenced to death by hanging.

Senator John McCain commented to CNN reporters on Sunday that the Syrian people were “angry and bitter…And that legacy could last for a long time too, unless we assist them.” Senator McCain concluded that the United States has not taken a bigger role in ending their (Syria’s) conflict. This begs the question: should we? Should we play bigger roles in decided a countries political outcome? According to CNN, last week the White House “told lawmakers in a letter that intelligence analysts have concluded ‘with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin…’ But the analysis was characterized as preliminary.” So, what bit of intelligence is missing, to which President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron are waiting to make a decision based on? Actually, a rather important one: a confirmed chain of custody of the chemicals in question. Basically, can we confirm the circumstances in which the sarin gas was used, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s role in said use of chemical agent?

For some U.S. Senators, such as Senator McCain, any action that can be taken is already too late. The Syrian political environment has for the past two years deteriorated, affecting the stability of both Lebanon and Jordan, who are both taking on refugees. At this point, President Obama and other political leaders are waving on the side of caution and calling for more conclusive evidence. The British Prime Minister addressed his own concerns regarding the escalating situation in Syria, that:

 “Unreliable evidence could again be used as a justification for the West to become involved in [another] Middle Eastern conflict… I think the Iraq lesson must be about how we marshal and use information and intelligence and I think that lesson has been learnt. But I think it is very important for politicians and leaders of this generation to look at what is happening in Syria and ask ourselves what more we can do.”

According to Michael Chertoff, a former aid under President George W. Bush, that, “I think putting aside the question of exactly what we do, once we announce there’s a red line, if we don’t take it seriously, we are discrediting ourselves in not just Syria, but Iran, North Korea, all around the world,” insinuating that if the U.S. refuses to take direct action against Syria, it could have drastic implications with other “not so friendly” countries who may be gauging U.S. response. Obviously the death and destruction that is going on in Syria right now is numbing. According to the Boston Globe, more than a million refugees have fled to neighboring countries to escape Syria’s catastrophic civil war. A near million have been confirmed dead…and “divisions are so deep among Syria’s main ethnic communities — the majority Sunni and minority Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, and others — that the country might fracture into competing fiefdoms when President Bashar Assad is finally driven from power.” In the face of all this conflict, what can we do? What should we do? Well, for Senators on both Republican and Democrat spectrums have voiced opinions on probable action, ranging from rearming the rebel forces and providing airstrikes against Assad forces, to U.S “boots on ground,” though not all Senators are agreeing on what the “right choice” is.

While the UN scrambles for more evidence, because let’s be honest here, with any action, it could lead us into another Middle East war, with both the Syrian government and Iran, what do YOU think the next step should be? Is President Obama justified in airing to the side of caution? Is Senator McCain justified in saying it’s too late? Should we have boots on ground or should we rearm rebel forces? Or…should we push for more diplomatic outcomes?

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