As the Syrian civil war's death toll steadily climbs towards 30,000 and 1.2 million Syrian refugees have been displaced from their homes, the issue mainly remains a discussion in the realm of U.S. politics. That's not to say that the Obama administration has neglected the crisis completely, however; the U.S. government has spent $82 million on humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, helping an estimated 780,000 people. The U.S. is the largest contributor to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other international organizations providing aid inside Syria and in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, which are providing safe havens for refugees. However, according to David Robinson, State Department deputy assistant for Population, Refugees, and Migration, medical supplies and food aid are not enough: "Humanitarian problems, particularly of this scope, don’t have humanitarian solutions, they have political solutions."
Yet, the U.S. has failed to solidify any tangible political solutions. Worse, Russia and China perpetuate the UN Security Council’s frustrating stalemate as they diplomatically shield Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in vetoing three resolutions that could have imposed sanctions. Despite the lack of progress from UN Security Council efforts, President Obama speaks in support of Assad's opposition, idealistically imagining an outcome whereby Syria is "united and inclusive, where children don't need to fear their own government and all Syrians have a say in how they are governed." After all, he says, "that is what America stands for."
Besides an idealistic society where any given country in the Middle East enjoys the political rights and civil liberties that we Americans do, what else does America stand for? Besides feeding our magnanimous desire to provide philanthropic aid for refugees, what other American interests would intervening in Syria serve?
The United States' image in the Muslim world is in desperate need of repair. Favorable opinion ratings of the U.S. plummeted all over the Muslim world after the war in Iraq began, falling from 61% to 15% in 2003 in Indonesia, for example. Popular Arab opinion also criticizes the U.S. of hypocrisy, revering values like liberty and democracy while simultaneously supporting regimes (including that of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak) that do not respect these values. The furious uproar from the blasphemous Innocence of Muslims YouTube video mocking Islam’s prophet Muhammad resulted in attacks on U.S. diplomats and other violent protests, attributing the video to the U.S. as a whole rather than to one American individual exercising his right of free speech. Repairing the United States' image in the Muslim world is imperative for U.S. security and diplomatic relations, and these factors cannot improve when the U.S. makes minimal effort in repairing a terrible image.
Intervening in Syria would help repair the America's image because many Arab countries are proponents for the downfall of Assad. Demonstrating that the U.S. shares interests and foreign policy objectives in common with these countries would help bridge the problematic gap of understanding and diplomacy. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as other Saudi-led Sunni Muslim countries, strongly support the majority Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels. On the other hand, Shia Iran and Hezbollah support Assad and his regime, whose Alawite affiliation is an offshoot of Shia Islam. This split in the Muslim world could potentially prove very dangerous if these other countries get involved.
Thus, intervening in Syria could help prevent a bloody, multinational sectarian war that would create vast instability in the region. Iraqi Sunni insurgents have already entered the conflict, and according to Iraqi tribal leaders, "there is already some indication that Sunni insurgents in Iraq have tried to coordinate with Syrian fighters to set off a regional sectarian war." Historical examples of the centuries-long crusades, the seemingly never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the various suicide bombings driven by Jihad exemplify how religion serves as a uniquely strong motivator for believers to engage in acts of war and how religious conflicts are particularly long and lethal. The instability from a multinational war would drive up oil prices, and thus stagnate economic recovery from the recent recession worldwide.
The resulting ubiquitous damage would hurt families, who experienced a “13% and 17% increase in gasoline and fuel heating oil prices, respectively” between 2010 and Mubarak’s resignation, and businesses, impaired from lower consumer spending. Political instability in the Middle East translates to oil price instability in the global market: violent unrest in Libya caused oil prices to leap by 14% in one week in 2011. A sectarian war in Syria could potentially exacerbate the issue from a Syrian civil war to a long, bloody, multinational war that would create regional instability and impair the global economy.
Lastly, intervening in Syria would weaken Hezbollah and Iran. Rami Khouri from the American University of Beirut says Hezbollah will undoubtedly have to "face a really huge challenge if the Syrian regime falls," as it would lose a crucial supplier of funding and weapons. The regime’s fall would also result in a weaker Iran, as Iran would lose its forefront ally in the region as well as its proxy through which it threatens Israel using Hezbollah. Isolating Iran would be strategically beneficial, as it would pressure President Ahmedinejad to allow the previously refused UN nuclear inspections to occur. Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is vital to U.S. security, and it coincides with our key ally in the region Israel's interests and security.
While U.S. politicians continue to deliberate on the best path of action, thousands of Syrians continue to flee their homes, the death toll ever rising. While the West verbally supports the Syrian people, condemns the Assad regime, and provides philanthropic aid, Iran, Russia, and China offer much more powerful aid in the form of weapons and diplomatic shielding. Obama's "support for the right of the Syrian people to achieve freedom remains abstract and academic," says Louay Safi of the Syrian National Council. The Council has credited Obama with "saying the right things," but that's not enough - "more action is needed." After all, humanitarian problems to this extent require political solutions, and if improving our nation's image, protecting U.S. security, preventing economic stagnation from a surge in oil prices, and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities are all possible byproducts of intervening in the Syrian crisis, then the U.S. could save Syrian lives while serving American interests.
To me, that is "what America stands for."