When I was working in the Pentagon as the Chief of Staff to a high-ranking political appointee in the Clinton Administration, I was exposed to a lot of decisions that had a lasting impact on real people’s lives. I came to understand that despite what some may opine, those officials do understand the importance of their decisions and do not take them lightly. As the change-over from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration occurred, I asked my boss what his biggest regret might be. Without hesitation, he said “Rwanda.” I have heard similar regrets expressed about Rwanda privately and in public interviews from other Clinton era officials and from the president.
As you may remember, in the spring and early summer of 1994 an estimated 700,000 Rwandans were murdered (some estimates place the number of Rwandans killed as over a million). In simple terms it was a genocidal slaughter of members of the Tutsi tribe (the minority tribe in Rwanda) by the majority Hutu tribe which also controlled the government and the majority of military and police forces. Ordinary Hutu civilians were recruited to help with the slaughter and often neighbors turned on neighbors. It was horrific. Unfortunately, this is not so uncommon in the history of mankind around the world. What made this the one international incident that the officials involved wish they could do over again was the fact that the international community did nothing to stop the killing. After all, it was an unimportant African nation that had no impact on US national interests and it was “a local conflict.”
In my view our current administration will look back on Syria and have the same regrets that those in our government in 1994 have about Rwanda. By most credible reports, over 100,000 Syrian civilians have been systematically killed and an estimated 2 million more have fled their country as refugees to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Those countries are struggling with the economic and security implications of such a massive influx of people. This is a major crisis after nearly three years of civil war. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is systematically killing off those civilians still in contested cities and areas of the country through starvation and the calculated use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” (essentially 55 gallon drums filled with explosives, gasoline and shrapnel pushed out the back of helicopters and that can level homes and make buildings uninhabitable — a very inexpensive but very efficient way of instilling fear and killing people.)
Bashar is supported by the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah and there is very little will in the rest of the world to put an end to the civil war. Meanwhile the killing continues unabated.
After two ground wars in the Muslim world, there is very little to no interest for the United States to get involved militarily. We proved our disinterest last fall when Bashar used chemical weapons against his own citizens. If the United States is not interested, then much of the rest of the world is also going to stand-off rather than get involved. There have been some efforts, funneled primarily through Saudi and Qatari sources, to get small arms and some humanitarian relief to the forces opposing Bashar and the trapped civilians, respectively.
Oh, and let’s not forget last September’s negotiated settlement to remove chemical weapons from Syria in lieu of bombing that country. After a surprisingly effective start, very little of the chemical stockpile has been removed or destroyed and the disarmament is well behind schedule. At the same time, Bashar has discovered that he does not need chemical weapons to kill thousands of his countrymen — starvation and barrel bombs work just fine without incurring the wrath (in the form of military strikes) of the rest of the world.
To me, this is not merely a civil war (“a local conflict”) that has no impact on US national interests. In addition to the humanitarian aspects of the crisis — which is an important principle of American international relations — there are important economic and security issues at stake. The major influx of refugees is having a destabilizing impact on the adjacent nations, especially Lebanon (already in a very precarious state) and Jordan (a long time source of stability in the area and a friend of the United States). As in Iraq and Afghanistan, future terrorists are getting on-the-job-training in the heat of combat. Areas of several nations are not under government control and as we found in Afghanistan, this leads to what amounts to safe havens for ne’er-do-well types that have very bad intentions towards the United States. Additionally, it leaves Israel in a precarious position as other bad actors have a base to threaten their security. The list goes on, but the point is that the fallout from Syria’s civil war could have a profound long-term impact on important American national security interests. Yet, we are doing very little to end it. Recent talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition leaders sponsored by the United States and other western nations went nowhere. Worse than nowhere because now the participants see no reason to negotiate — if ever negotiations were actually possible.
So the question is what should the United States do about this situation? To use a long-standing diplomatic phrase, “I don’t know.” The majority of Americans and the Congress clearly demonstrated last fall that they have no desire to get involved militarily. At. All. (There may be some point in the future where we may find that we have no choice but to get involved due to the course of events.) For now, no way, no how, is there the will to get the United States military involved — even to stop the helicopters from dropping the barrel bombs through a no-fly zone, as was used successfully in other conflicts such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya.
I have no magic wand to get our government or the international community involved to stop the systematic elimination of thousands of lives. Ideas that have been put forward include giving the opposition forces more money, food and much better and more powerful weapons than they’ve been supplied thus far. Although used in fits and starts, this course of action has been slow and sporadic because not all of the groups opposing Bashar are friendly to the United States and several of those groups are openly hostile to the west. Some are militant fundamentalist Islamist groups. Since we are concerned about where the money and weapons may end up, too little is flowing from the west to the resistance . However, many reports indicate that the best equipped and most wealthy (relatively speaking) fighters are the Islamist groups. They are getting what they need and as a result, fighters not normally inclined to join those groups do so in order to be more effective. The US and Europe identified opposition leaders and groups that are at least friendly towards the United States. We should do all that we can to supply them with the equipment and money required to exceed that of the Islamist forces and thereby give them the most effective fighters and the most influential political leadership. We need to take the chance that 100% of it will not stay out of the hands of those we do not want to get it.
To understand why I think we should take that chance it is important to remember that Syria — with a population that practices Islam — is not an Islamist state. Before the civil war it was a modern secular nation with knowledgeable technocrats able to keep a modern society going. Most Syrians, while practicing Muslims, do not want a fundamentalist Islamic state. While opposing Bashar, alliances will form that may be uncomfortable for us. In the end, it is possible, even probable, that the majority of the properly equipped and funded new leadership and their followers will continue to want Syria to be the secular state it has been since independence from France following World War II.
They may never be our “friend,” but now is the chance to influence future leaders and future events. With no participation we have no chance of influencing anything.
Efforts to aid civilians trapped in cities and areas of conflict are more difficult. A strong United Nations effort could break this log jam, especially if the United States and the European Union put a full effort into creating the means to do so. Some small progress was made earlier this year when the UN did get into a few areas to evacuate civilians. During the evacuation several of the groups came under hostile fire and the effort was suspended indefinitely. The dilemma is to find a way to provide for the security of UN missions to aid the civilian population without creating the need for a large military force to protect them. Of course, most UN efforts to get involved in Syria have been thwarted by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power over any resolution that they deem to be a threat to their interests in the area and specifically anything that limits Bashar’s regime in Syria.
There are a lot of smart people in this country and in this world — a lot smarter than me. Many of them also have an impact on government decisions and are privy to intelligence and covert efforts that may be ongoing that I do not know anything about. I hope so, and I hope that the efforts are effective, but I see no evidence of it to date.
I do know this. Syria was not a backward country with a bunch of nomads living in tents in the desert. It was a modern nation with modern citizens most of whom were educated and aware. It is now a killing field. Without effective action, Syria will be this decade’s Rwandan humanitarian disaster and it will be a continuing threat to our long-term national security interests.