The stories and images of brutality that have come out of Syria during the now seven-year civil war have resulted in devastatingly little action from the United States. We’ve claimed war-weariness, or “America first,” and turned a blind eye to the slaughter of 500,000 people and suffering of millions more.
Occasionally, an image like that of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year old Syrian child whose tiny body washed up on Turkish shores, pulls us from blissful ignorance into the nightmare that Syrians are living in every day. In the words of poet Mohamed Hassan, “If a toddler drowns in an ocean and no one is around to photograph it, do we still care?”
It’s been almost five years since the United States turned its back on the infamous “red line” President Obama set for Syria. As I’m sitting here writing this, I’m receiving notifications that the Assad regime is once again attacking its own people with chemical weapons. But it’s also this fixation on chemical weapons that is part of the problem. In using the employment of chemical weapons as the threshold for the red line, it gave Assad the tacit green light to slaughter his own people by other, more conventional means.
“To make this about the weapon rather than about the murder of innocent civilians I think is abhorrent,” Ambassador Ryan Crocker stated during a Feb. 28 panel discussion hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
We can’t rewind the five years that have passed since the red line was drawn and washed away, but we still have the opportunity in Syria to both quell the humanitarian crisis ravaging the country and act in our national interest in containing Iranian influence.
This opportunity comes courtesy of Iran’s overwhelming use of proxy groups in the war-torn country. Among the panelists, one conclusion was universal: The civil war in Syria would not have gone on this long or been this bloody without Iran’s backing and use of proxies in support of the Assad regime.
“What Iran is doing in terms of implications for our own national security and for the humanitarian disaster that’s ongoing there is a much bigger priority even than defeating the remnants of ISIS now and what’s there from Al Qaeda,” said Mouaz Moustafa, Executive Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.
“I’ve seen that there has been the opportunity to both do the right thing in terms of our values as the United States,” said Moustafa. “At the same time it happens that in this situation that our values align with our national interests.”
Melissa Dalton, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the International Security Program at CSIS, estimates that there are approximately a quarter of a million personnel at the IRGC’s disposal in the region. By utilizing proxy forces and asymmetric tactics, “Iran ensures that any escalations against the United States and its regional partners fall short of large-scale warfare,” says Dalton. This asymmetric approach leaves Iran free to wreak havoc in Syria without much fear of kinetic repercussions.
The inaction and unwillingness to engage in Syria and against Iran has had devastating consequences. I don’t know what the solution for Syria is or what the outcome will be. I do know that the United States was at a crossroads in 2013. We had the opportunity to lead, to send a clear and decisive message to Assad, Russia and Iran, but we stayed quiet. The United States needs to remember what its role is in the world and it’s not “America first and forget the rest.”
We need to look to the values that have moved us, said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s the fact that we fight, the United States fights, for a cause bigger than ourselves every time, … we do it because to us it’s about value of people.”
Kassem Eid, a Syrian survivor of war crimes committed by the Assad regime, stood and asked a simple question of the panel: “What is America waiting for?”
Well, America? What are we waiting for?
Mackenzie Wolf is co-holder of the Marine Chair in The Long March’s Council of the Former Enlisted.