The murders of at least 49 children in the massacre of more than 100 villagers in the town of Houla has stoked the fires of U.S. politicians calling for this country to do more to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But an emotional response to what is unquestionably a heinous act is the last thing the United States can afford. Assad needs to go, but there are too many questions about what would follow his departure to take hasty steps that would only lead to regret later.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has been among the most vocal proponents of direct intervention by the United States. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, “The United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups.” But which groups would that be? The factions controlled by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and linked to al-Qaeda?
The point is, this is not the time to act rashly — an attribute pinned to McCain ever since his days as an admittedly “daredevil” Navy aviator, when he lost several aircraft, including the one shot down in Vietnam. McCain’s not alone in wanting to hurry and end the suffering of the Syrian people, but the situation is complex, and must be addressed carefully.
The United Nations and the Western powers have tried to avoid calling the conflict in Syria a civil war because mounting an international effort to intervene in what should be an internal dispute is a hard sale. But what else is it but a civil war when Syrian families are divided in their support of Assad?
Adam Davidson, a National Public Radio analyst, recently explained that “even though the urban elite may not like the Assad regime, and even though they realize that life would be better in a country that doesn’t stifle free expression or support radical political elements in neighboring Lebanon, they’re afraid of what their lives would look like in a revolution’s chaotic aftermath.”
That’s understandable. Months after the toppling of the brutal Mubarak regime in Egypt, and last week’s first free presidential election, many Egyptians still fear a return to repression. Syria is similar to Egypt in one respect: Even if Assad is forced to abdicate, the military and security officials whom some say really run Syria now may remain in power.
That Romney, McCain, and others would act as if U.S. intervention should be an easy decision suggests they either do not understand the complexity of the situation, or are trying to milk it for political gain. Sending direct military aid to the Syrians would commit this nation to taking additional steps if arming the rebels proved inadequate to guarantee their victory.
Making such a commitment must consider not only what it would mean to Syria, but, more importantly, what it would mean to a nation that has been trying to extricate itself from two expensive, unpopular wars so it can pay more attention to the post-recession economic malaise that persists.
When children are being killed, it’s hard to let pragmatism decide the response, but political leaders elected to put the interest of their nation above all others are expected to make hard decisions. Diplomatic and economic sanctions may yet get Assad to quit, especially if his allies in Russia can be persuaded to apply more pressure.