US Policy on Syria: Courage or Cowardice

Foreign Affairs, Politics — By on October 10, 2013 at 8:00 am

Press releases from the UN, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and even the front lines of Syria itself, universally signaling Syria’s present instability, make one thing clear:  Syria’s future is not clear.   Should the world do anything to improve this situation?  Or should we cowardly sit back and watch Syria burn?  If world leaders, like the US, have the ability to control situations like this, shouldn’t they also have the responsibility to courageously improve it?

The civil war that now rages in Syria started two years ago when civilian protests and military suppression quickly escalated into bloodbaths killing thousands on both sides.  America quickly took an official but under-committed stand with the rebels, and on September 21, 2013 the whole world resounded with the cry to end Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

The reason world powers, like the US, have not come to Syria’s aid is clearer than Syria’s uncertain future.  The conflict that rages within has two divisions:

1) The rebels against the government.  The civilians despise the way Assad brutally mistreats them.  They have therefore taken up arms against him and his regime.

2) The rebels against themselves.  Up until a few days ago the rebellion groups, representing the hostile and diverse nature of Syria itself, fought each other with the same fervor they used against Assad.  For now rebellion groups have framed an alliance contract evidently undersigned by the leadership of 75% of Syrian rebellion forces.

There is little hope for a positive outcome from US intervention.  The US must justified its intervention before it actually intervenes.  Just as the UN employed moral justification to commit to the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons, so too could America justify supporting the rebels on moral grounds, by saying “We protect human life.”

But support a side in Syria does not necessarily protect more lives than the current status quo.  Allying with Assad sends the message that the US cares little for human rights. Assad’s utter indifference for the lives of Syrians sparked the rebellion in the first place.  But allying with the coalition of rebellion forces promises more evils than it remedies.  The rebels’ present alliance in opposition to Assad paints over the rebel differences but does not make those differences disappear.  There is no reason to believe that giving the rebels the victory they want will result in respect for human life.  But there is much reason to believe it will result in a more vicious and sectarian civil war over Syrian power.  The US and other world powers must either leave things as they are or risk worse upheaval and bloodshed by intervening.

We should not charge America with abandoning its courage by choosing not to seek justice against Assad’s violations of human rights.  Such a charge demands a bad form of courage.  In the words of G. K Chesterton, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”  Yes, the US must be willing to risk life in order to preserve life, even Syrian life.  Nevertheless, as Chesterton points out, courage as a principle has two extremes that are not courage:  living for nothing and dying for nothing.  That is, courage is the midpoint between the two extremes timidity and rashness.  Thus, present conditions matter just as much as the intended end result.  As Obama articulated so clearly to the UN, “The question is whether we possess the wisdom and the courage, as nation-states and members of an international community, to squarely meet those challenges; whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time.”  America has not abandoned courage to stand up for justice in Syria, but it has abandoned “courage” pursued unwisely through rash, unclear decision-making.

The present situation, therefore, stays as it is.  The temptations to err on the side of foolhardiness or faintheartedness also remain.  External pressures discourage the US from true courage by reminding us of an obligation to virtue.  They say that America has the power to both envision and realize a more positive future for Syria.  And that power should not be left untapped.

Still, the idea that we can guarantee an improved future is a self-deception.  The United States can do nothing to ensure Syria’s future improvement.  The future is always unclear, though marginally predictable.  Our work as humans is not to enforce a re-envisioned future, but live excellently given the conditions present to us. Perhaps being a courageous world leader is less about what you do and more about when and how you do what you do. We must pursue good decisions not decisions that try to show how good we are.

We, as well as the people of Syria, must be courageous enough not to be tight-fisted, white-knuckled humans preoccupied with the future’s vast unknown.  Rather we should allow the present realization of our own helplessness, even smallness, lead us to trust in a God that both orchestrates and improves.

To best safeguard our future we must begin with our limited influence upon it.  The temptation to seek justice badly is too great for us to presume clear vision.  We alone cannot see; therefore let us be bold enough to trust in the One who does.


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