By: Meghan Malas
When knowledge of Bashar al-Assad’s chemically induced massacre on citizens of his own country of Syria hit the public this past April 4, everyone, including the President of the United States, was stunned by the grotesque imagery of countless innocent lives suffering at the hand of a man who is supposed to be their leader. This event triggered immediate reaction by both government and public entities, and in less than 65 hours after Assad’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun, the United States responded militarily to Assad’s heinous acts, firing 59 missiles into a Syrian airfield. (The New York Times)
When we speak of Syria in the United States, we tend to politicize its existence and in the process, forget about the reality of its past and present situation, as well as its complicated nature. We remove ourselves from the idea that Syria is in chaotic position because of a variety of confusing yet concrete facts because it is easier to discuss the devastations of Syria, and our global role in protecting its people, by means of reactionary oversimplification.
The White House has fallen subject to this self-removal of careful consideration in a significant way. When President Trump spoke publicly Thursday, April 6, he cited the “use of deadly chemical weapons” as his reasoning for the use of missiles in retaliation. On the previous day, he stated that the images of “innocent children, innocent babies” choked by poisonous gas caused him to “reevaluate” his approach to Syria also noting repeatedly that “that crosses many lines…many many lines.”
When analyzing this justification, it is important to consider the definition of this supposed “line” President Trump is talking about, as well as his approach to Syria prior to April 4. First, the emphasis on the fact that the horrid acts by Assad have “crossed a line” specifically because they involved the use of chemical weapons is not objectively rational. In the global scope, we view chemical warfare as particularly terrible: it is an illegal act of war. This is most likely because the deep trauma the images of victims of chemical warfare produce is universal. But, it’s important to note that other types of abuse and suffering are determined “fine” in the eyes of the public not because they are less vile, but because often the images of those victims are too grotesque to show on a large media platform.
Consider the fact that Assad has been killing hundreds of thousands of his own people for years (CNN), just not by means of chemical weapons. Just 80 of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives were taken on April 4–a horrific, tragic event no doubt–but to constitute Assad actions that day as an isolated event of injustice is wrong. If the realization of the abuse of innocents in Syria was the main justification by the president for responding in the way he did, then that does little more than clarify the fact that he has the ability to empathize. In fact, it alludes to a confirmation of complete lack of understanding of what the Syrian conflict is and how it has affected so many. This is not surprising when acknowledging President Trump’s rhetoric towards Syrian refugees on the campaign trail (“Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are – some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?” Twitter, 2015), his executive order suspending any Syrian refugees from entering the United States, or his critiques of President Obama’s policies toward Syria (“We should stay the hell out of Syria.” Twitter, 2013).
It is unlikely that humanitarianism was the prime motivator for the decision to attack Syria, unless there is a severe discontinuity of logic in this administration’s decision making process. So, we are left with a logical fallacy as the reason for intervention, and a complete lack of discourse between our representatives about this subject all together. It seems as if we are waiting to see how Syria reacts before considering the consequences of our own actions.
The media coverage of this event acts as a catalyst for oversimplification and irrational argument. No conversation about the implications of intervention in the long-term or short-term were discussed extensively by our leaders in the House or the Senate (the president did not consider seeking congressional approval), and limited context about Syria and the Syrian conflict has been adequately produced by mainstream journalists or political commentators. This is bothersome. Have we become so disoriented by the “patriotic” nature and partisan games of war that we cannot simply discuss how our actions may affect the future? Action in Syria is tedious, but some want to behave like our strike against Assad is not one with consequence, but one of heroism and victory. What will happen when thousands more Syrians are displaced from their homes due to growing tension between their leader, ISIS, and now the world community? Will we save them from further persecution? Or will we continue our policy of hypocritical abandonment?
I do not know the extent of action needed to be taken in Syria. I am by no means an expert in foreign relations, international affairs, or the Syrian conflict. But I do think that discussion, planning, consideration, and meaningful discourse on societal and legislative levels is essential to not only policy, but to democracy. We cannot reduce Syria to a few minutes of a vague, descriptive tragedy, followed by a heroic American intervention, and a snippet of a buzzword babbling administration. We cannot continue to live in a reactionary age of minimalistic comment lacking informational capability. In essence, war is easier to begin than to end and to survive in a world plagued by evil and violence we cannot resort to single statement justifications for dangerous intervention.