Syria 101: When “Never Again” Became “Not Again”

by Nathaniel Haas

At the end of World War II & the Holocaust, my grandparent’s generation swore for the first time, “never again.”

After nearly a million Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) lost their lives to genocide in Rwanda in 1994, despite ignored pleas from UN peacekeepers for international help, my parent’s generation swore, “never again.”

In present-day Syria, images of drowned children on Turkish beaches accompany millions of refugees fleeing a complex conflict between U.S.-backed rebels, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the Syrian government led by the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The strategy behind the Syrian conflict, and the chilly greetings to the refugees who now flee it, are shaping up to be another nail in the coffin of the “never again” promise made by the world seven decades ago. Years from now, history books may recount the Syrian crisis as the moment a resolute “never again” was taken back, refined, and became a mediocre, lifeless, “not again.”

“Our finger was on the trigger.”

That’s how General Martin Dempsey, the soon retired Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, described the situation in August of 2013 to PBS. 1400 Syrians had just been slaughtered by their own government, led by Bashar al-Asaad, in the city of Damascus by sarin gas, a nerve agent that paralyzes the lungs.

Per this explanation by PBS, a year before the attacks, President Obama had said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government was “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” and “change my calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.

Feb. 23, 2012. A Free Syrian Army member prepares to fight with a tank whose crew defected from government forces in al-Qsair. Freedom House on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The trigger was never pulled, and the military calculus never changed. Instead, Syria agreed to turn over all of its chemical weapons to Russia. The EU accompanied us to the sidelines, and as Syrian rebels were overrun — and 310,00 died — in their places flourished the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), hell-bent on its own brand of wanton destruction.

We came to our senses too little, too late. Though a United States-led campaign has unleashed over 3,000 air strikes against ISIL forces in Syria, hardly any have targeted Assad. Even a CIA campaign to arm rebels fighting their dictator was recently scrapped in favor of training Syrian fighters against ISIL.

Walking back the red line was a grave mistake. Whether or not the weapons went to Russia, President Obama’s decision, supported by the international community, gave pseudo-legitimacy to a genocidal dictatorship. That pseudo-legitimacy, combined with the strategic shift to fight ISIL, afforded Assad’s government an invitation to ramp up airstrikes on rebel forces, which have killed countless civilians. From a Syrian interviewed in the Guardian:

“Syrian warplanes used to shell us two or three times a week but now they target us every day thanks to the coalition forces,” Faris Samir, from Harm in the northern Idlib region, complained…“Now the Syrian army is taking areas bombed by the coalition forces after the Islamic factions withdraw…the coalition military campaign is in the interest of the Syrian regime and against the Syrian people.”

Don’t misread this as a retroactive call for invading Syria. Instead, consider that U.S. leaders, and most of their Western counterparts, still maintain that removing Assad from power is still the best option for the rebels and for the fight against ISIL. But they aren’t willing to walk the walk. For proof, consider the only situation in which the United States military is authorized to clash with the Syrian government, per the Wall Street Journal:

“President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Feb. 10, 2012. A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the trash in al-Qsair. Photo by Freedom House on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Raising the risk? While we fight a war against ISIL, Assad’s modern-day génocidaires indiscriminately bomb Syrian rebels and civilians alike. It’s a civil war that has displaced 4 million refugees. The calculations that have gone into the U.S. effort, that fighting ISIL is more righteous and politically possible than fighting a Russia and China-backed Syrian regime, are emblematic of the hypocrisy underpinning 21st century foreign policy.

So where does this leave us?

Most scholars agree that putting boots on the ground and engaging in an “endless war” reminiscent of Iraq and Afghanistan is a bad idea. But the real undercurrent here is a lack of honesty and a lack of accountability.

The enemy (Assad) of our enemy (ISIL) should not be our friend. They should both be enemies, and treated as such. Western leaders, along with their efforts against ISIL, should redouble their commitment to depose Assad through tactical air strikes on Syria’s air-defense forces. Such a proposal was pushed by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2012 and never acted on.

“This is probably one day’s work to destroy Assad’s air force,” Elliot Baker, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Australian.

France and Australia are now planning to extend air strikes to Assad’s regime, and the United States should get behind them. Without air defenses, the Assad government would succumb to rebel forces, just as Moammar al-Qaddafi (whose air force was half the size of Syria) did in Libya. Fears that a fanatic would take power (similar to post-Qaddafi Libya) are legitimate — but illustrate the problem with failing to seriously consider deposing Assad: there’s no discourse about what to once he leaves.

In a report from the G7 summit over the summer, an anonymous British official said, “We don’t want to overplay it, but there is a greater sense that a political solution is possible than there has been for many months.” But beyond that, no one has thought much about the matter, leading Al Jazeera to correctly call for “a high-level conference of stakeholders in Riyadh to chalk out a future strategy ahead of the regime’s collapse.” This summit should include major United Nations players, and should begin with the acknowledgment of a redoubled effort to depose Assad.

As with most Middle East discourse, the complex interaction of actors virtually guarantees that no course of action is certain to succeed without unintended consequences. But targeting Assad is as much an ethical reaffirmation of “never again” as it is a strategic decision. Otherwise, the story of global genocide prevention will turn to a chapter of unaccountability, disregard, and triggers never pulled.

Nathaniel Haas is a law student at the University of Southern California. He enjoys long walks away from the beach. Follow him on Twitter here, and send him an angry email here. To subscribe to email-alerts for new content, sign up for his mailing list here.