Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Case for US Intervention in Syria

Michael Gerson


June 7, 2013

By Michael Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

Events in Syria are in a grim, downward spiral. What began as a movement of largely peaceful protests has devolved into a bitter civil war. The brutal dictator of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, has crossed line after moral line: arresting and murdering opponents; firing at crowds; using artillery, aerial bombing, and Scud missiles against civilian targets; and employing chemical weapons, so far on a small scale. 

Assad’s strategy is familiar from other conflicts such as Darfur. Those areas of Syria he cannot fully control he attempts to terrorize and depopulate. As a result, more than 80,000 people are dead, and millions of refugees are on the move, threatening the stability of neighboring countries. In Jordan, more than 10 percent of the entire population consists of refugees from Syria. The fourth largest Jordanian city is now a refugee camp.  Assad is pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing while the world watches. 

And some are not only watching, but are also actively helping Assad.  Russia is providing the Syrian regime with advanced armaments. Hezbollah forces from Lebanon are fighting Assad’s battles on the ground. Iran is strongly supporting the Syrian government. Over time, the conflict has taken on the characteristics of a sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunni, with Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar coming to the aid of Assad’s opponents.

The resulting situation is very complex. Some of the opposition to Assad is radical and disturbing, including elements of al Qaeda.  America has been trying to help more responsible rebel forces, but so far, only with non-lethal aid. The stated goal of American policy is the removal of Assad. But our actions have been late and hesitant, and the Syrian regime is now on the military offensive.

A situation like this re-raises the debate over humanitarian intervention. When does America – founded on certain beliefs about human rights and dignity – have an obligation to act against ethnic cleansing or genocide?  The Rwandan genocide stands as an indictment of American indifference, but situations such as Darfur, Congo, or Syria demonstrate that the right action is not always obvious, and well-intentioned intervention can have unintended consequences.   

But Syria does not only raise a humanitarian debate. The crisis in Darfur, for example, caused instability in Chad – a localized problem. With Syria, however, its chaos and sectarian war are reverberating in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Jihadists from Iraq are joining the fight and resuming their own sectarian conflict. Iran is emboldened by American indecision. Other dictators are being taught the lesson that gaining and using chemical weapons can be a smart move. The Syrian conflict is not being contained. 

American values and American interests are increasingly moving the Obama administration toward stronger intervention in Syria – perhaps to arm and train responsible rebels directly, provide them with air cover, and destroy chemical weapons infrastructure. This type of action is always the most difficult choice for a president to make. But sometimes the consequences of inaction can be even more dangerous.    

-  Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”