Columns / Discourse / October 17, 2012

Syrian Civil War: Agony abroad

Most crates that are discovered at Knox are broken over the head of Mario in a frustrating game of Super Smash Bros and contain mushrooms, bob-ombs or hammers. In Syria, however, crates are being opened to reveal stacks of AK-47s, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft weaponry.

The Syrian Civil War began last year as part of the larger Arab Spring, when, after a sluggish month-and-a-half of largely unanswered calls for protests and revolution, a “Day of Rage” on March 15 brought thousands onto the street in response to brutal police tactics.

The unrest escalated as neither side backed down, increasing militarization of the conflict as protesters, seeking to defend themselves from tanks and soldiers, began picking up weapons and becoming rebels.

However, unlike Libya, where a short-lived civil war coincided with French embarrassment over connections to the autocratic regime in Tunisia, sparking a NATO air intervention on behalf of the rebels, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still has friends in high places, such as Russia in the U.N. Security Council.

As such, the recorded civilian casualty rate for August was higher than the deadliest month in Iraq, at an astounding 4,114. Most worrisome, however, has been the increasing presence of foreign powers and the complete inability of the United Nations to do anything about it: ex-Secretary General Kofi Annan quit his role as mediator as it became clear al-Assad’s promises were merely delaying tactics.

It’s also becoming alarmingly clear it is not merely a civil war but a proxy war between other countries; Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey are all becoming increasingly involved. Saudi Arabian weapons are omnipresent in rebel bases, Iran is sending ‘elite military advisers’ to al-Assad (Vietnam, anyone?) and Turkey has been exchanging rhetoric and mortar shells across the border.

As Americans, we like to believe we can do something about any international crisis, even if we can’t, or if our actions were guaranteed to complicate and increase the volatility of such conflicts. Even worse, administrations and academics believe in a unipolar world in which America “The Global Policeman” is obliged to right the non-American wrongs wherever they may exist.

However, the backlash from two large-scale wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in a vice-presidential debate where candidates spar over who is more against direct intervention. While it’s true that our regional foreign policy was thrown all out of whack by the Arab Awakening, it was a mostly cynical and exploitative policy in the first place, favoring leaders who agreed with us.

So how are we looking in election season? President Obama’s hopeful fist-to-handshake rhetoric is cast in doubt by his drone programs and war-on-terror policies. Mitt Romney’s answer is “not that guy.”

Something, SOMETHING must be done, we cry. But when we break our own crate open, what items do we get? Remember, we have already ‘turned off’ many options through past policies, such as working with Iran to find a safe haven for the hated Bashar al-Assad, while others remain inoperable due to Russia’s opposition in the Security Council. This is not a time for unilateralism, everyone has agreed. NATO, maybe?

I, for one, am curious as to what solutions will be suggested by senior Anna Meier and junior Alex Uzarowicz when they debate foreign policy on the steps of Old Main this Friday at 5 p.m. Maybe, at this relatively nonpolitical level, they can break out of America’s historical legacy, but perhaps it is an impossible situation, and we are doomed to status as silent bystanders.

Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

Tags:  civil war global obama syria U.S.

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