Deadly dilemma in Syria

September 5, 2013 


In an undated handout video still frame, Syrian rebel fighters stand over captured soldiers while a commander, right, recited a verse just before the soldiers were shot dead. As pressure mounts to take action against the Syrian government, evidence points to an increasingly criminal environment populated by gangs of highwaymen, kidnappers and killers.


For all the rhetoric that has flowed about the bloodshed in Syria, a single photograph in The New York Times on Thursday may have spoken most powerfully about the brutality of the fighting between rebels and government troops and the moral complexity of whether the United States should enter the conflict. The image from a video showed Syrian soldiers kneeling before rebels right before the soldiers were executed. With that appalling slaughter of prisoners, the rebels drew in blood another “red line” in Syria, one that they crossed as surely as Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have done by using poison gas on his own people. President Obama says the United States must bomb Syrian military installations because Assad has crossed the line on chemical weapons. But in punishing him, are we also to aid the monsters who execute prisoners?

As Obama seeks support among members of Congress for U.S. bombings in support of rebels, troubling doubts on the prudence of intervention multiply, particularly if that intervention includes assistance for rebels who have demonstrated bloodthirsty and mindless cruelty of their own.

The United States, meaning the Obama administration, must not make the mistake the country has made in the past, acting too quickly only to regret it later. Assad is clearly a person willing to do anything to protect his power, and he hasdone awful, torturous things to his own people.

But helping rebels oust Assad might well mean trading one form of murderous dictatorship for another.

War-weary nation

Most Americans don’t support intervening in Syria, and no wonder. They saw what happened in Iraq when George W. Bush touted the case of weapons of mass destruction and there were none. The United States lost several thousand troops there, with many more wounded, and the future of that country and of Afghanistan, where America also has engaged in a long occupation, remains unstable and impossible to predict.

And Americans saw, too, what happened in Vietnam, that long catastrophe with an uncertain goal that cost the lives of 58,000.

The Syrian confrontation has evolved, The Times reports, into a complex and fractured situation. While Assad appears to have used chemical weapons and continued the persecution of thousands, the rebels who shot those captive soldiers are hardly an organized, courageous force of freedom fighters. They are thugs and war criminals, too.


During a visit to Stockholm, President Obama sounded like a prosecutor pulling out all the stops to bring a murderer to justice. He even laid out an argument that the reputation of America’s allies was on the line.

“My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is one the line,” the president said. The more he makes such arguments, the less convincing he becomes. Obama seems more concerned with saving face than saving lives. The U.S. can help refugees and rally other countries, particularly Russia, to force Assad to accept a truce in a civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Adding our missiles to the mix would likely only further inflame the situation.

Would George W. Bush, who saw the Iraqi war ruin his credibility, agree that the president’s is not on the line? Certainly not, because Obama is making a push here with perhaps a certainty of motivation, but there is a decided uncertainty in terms of whether it is the right thing to do.

Those who question the president’s wisdom are not unpatriotic. In view of the rebels’ violence and the concern that they are allied with terrorists, it is reasonable to ask the president to hold fire and hold his rhetoric. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and in this case, as the Times’ photograph so powerfully declares, there is evil on both sides.

For now, the United States would do better to focus on humanitarian aid, something on which America and its allies can agree. The people of Syria – the poor, innocent people in the crossfire – desperately need help, as do refugees who have fled to Iraq. There is where the need certainly is. What this tortured nation doesn’t need is more bullets and missiles.

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