The enemy of my enemy is my friend ... except for when they're not. Siding with one of two forces hostile to American interests will not strengthen our foreign policy.
What do most Americans know about Syria? It's a country on the other side of the world, someone may tell you, and that's often the extent of their knowledge. Others will accurately recognize that our relationship with the Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad is not friendly.
So why is Syria suddenly the subject of front-page stories across the world? It all begins with the foundations of a conflict that has gone on for years, leaving almost 100,000 dead.
The main conflict began when rebels trying to protest Assad's oppressive regime were gunned down by security forces in Deraa, a southern city in the region. Over time, however, the rebels have turned into a coalition force primarily led by radical Islamists, including Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the Al-Nusra Front. Ultimately, both sides of the conflict are hostile toward the United States.
"There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw," says Edward N. Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in the New York Times. A decisive victory on either side would be a loss for the United States, he argues.
The dilemma President Barack Obama faces today is a result of the "red line" he declared in August 2012 when he threatened "enormous consequences" if chemical weapons were used by either side. With evidence now surfacing that Assad used sarin gas, a deadly chemical weapon, on civilians, Obama has been put into a bind.
In order to prove that his threats are not empty, the president wants to act against Assad. Unfortunately, the "shot across the bow" (as Obama is advocating) will have little to no effect. He's forgotten rule number one of war: if you're going to strike a military target, don't tell the enemy where and when.
The only way to truly follow through on his threat would be to engage in a stronger attack. But, understandably, Americans are hesitant to embrace any sort of intrusive military action that resembles the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The country is weary of long "nation-building" campaigns that are difficult to connect with American interests, and this type of engagement could only exacerbate the chaos. Therefore, this option should be rejected as well.
Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic says, "It is certainly the sort of humanitarian assistance most likely to make us bitter enemies, which inevitably happens when you pick a side and start killing some of the people on it."
The British Parliament seems to agree. Last week, they voted down a motion to initiate military action in Syria.
As a leader in the world, we do have a responsibility to stand up against the use of chemical weapons. Simply condemning the regime that breaks the rules is important, but sometimes it is just not enough.
But in this case, the evidence is not clear enough to warrant a large-scale military attack. Obama has failed to convince the United Nations Security Council and was notably silent when the rebels allegedly used sarin gas last May. If we want to stand up against chemical weapons, we would need to support both sides. The best way to do that in this case is to avoid getting involved.