Saturday’s suspected nerve gas attack on the Syrian rebel stronghold of Douma, leaving more than 40 dead and over a thousand injured, has drawn a stark and largely partisan divide between the doves and hawks in the American foreign policy establishment, and the situation has brought back some haunting echoes of the lingering mistakes of the past.
While significant pressure is building on the right to mount a punitive military response against the Russian- and Iranian-backed Bashar Al-Assad regime, many congressional policy makers have argued for a more measured approach involving sanctions and diplomacy. Whatever course of action follows, this situation requires us as Americans to address some uncomfortable questions about our involvement in the region.
First, is the U.S. Intelligence community able to produce definitive proof that the Syrian government is behind the attack? It goes without saying that America has rather colorful history when it comes to WMD-based accusations, and John Bolton, current National Security Advisor and the architect of the Iraq War, is no stranger to the process by which an accusation can become an invasion.
Secondly, would a military response to Syria on any level be legal if not approved by Congress? The War Powers Act, established after the Vietnam War, requires Congressional approval in the form of an Authorization for Use of Military Force before the President can use military force overseas. Successive Presidents have claimed that the two AUMF’s passed after 9/11 give them unchecked authority to target the practitioners of terrorism and their allies abroad without waiting for explicit Congressional approval – but by no stretch of the imagination do they authorize action against the Syrian government. The potential for the misuse of the broad powers of the AUMF was on display just one year ago, when the U.S. Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield after a similar CW attack allegedly perpetrated by Al-Assad’s regime. This illegal attack on the standing military of a sovereign nation, normally falling under the purview of Congressional oversight, was also startlingly ineffective: the airbase in question was able to resume offensive operations within a matter of hours.
Thirdly, if a deeper involvement in this regional conflict becomes the preferred course of action, is the current administration prepared to deal with the humanitarian consequences? The Trump presidency has directed a great deal of empty rhetoric toward the plight of Syrian civilians, with precious little evidence of any meaningful follow-through. In fact, of the nearly 11,000 refugees given asylum in the United States this year, only 44 of them were Syrian. There are 5.6 million Syrians currently classified as refugees, and offering them aid and asylum would certainly go a great deal farther to help them than a string of tweets.
And fourth, proximity to Russian armed forces providing support to the Syrian government increases the danger of becoming embroiled in a much larger conflict. Tensions are already running high after American airstrikes reportedly killed two hundred Russian mercenaries contracted by a pro-Putin oligarch. Having more American boots on the ground in Syria only intensifies the prospect of direct engagement with Russian forces and their pro-regime surrogates. All it takes is one flashpoint for a tense situation to spiral completely out of control.