The clouds of a new Middle Eastern conflict have started gathering on the horizon. This time there is no question that the storm brings chemical weapons with it. In August hundreds of people — including many boys and girls — died in Syria from the effects of Sarin nerve gas. Thousands more have died in Syria from conventional fighting in the last year as Sunni rebel forces have tried to oust the Alawite government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has allies in both Iran and Russia. The Alawites comprise a minority in Syria but have successfully used brute military force to hold the Sunni majority in check.
In a recent meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin the subject of the Syrian chemical weapons attack came under discussion. Putin questioned whether Assad’s government would use chemical weapons since they had no military strategic advantage. The question has also arisen why Assad would use chemical weapons since Obama stated that their use would cross a “red line,” making him consider finally taking military action against the Syrian government. Why would Assad want to provoke the U.S. to strike Syria? It seems that someone for some reason wants to drag the U.S. into the conflict.
Immediately after the chemical strikes, Obama sought support from U.S. allies to send a counter-strike aimed at weakening Syria’s ability to inflict harm on its own citizens. But in a surprise move, the British parliament voted to not get involved. And in the United States, anti-war sentiment might explain why up to 80 percent of the American public expressed the desire to see Obama seek congressional support for military intervention before launching missiles from battleships in the Mediterranean Sea.
It is hard not to see a certain irony in the unfolding of events. The president who promised healing and peace inside and outside the American homeland, who made a warm, conciliatory appeal for friendship to countries in the Middle East and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize within months of his first election before he had actually proved himself in office has now found himself having to wait on Congress to approve his plan to get involved in the internal affairs of another Middle Eastern country.
Syria offers no threat to the United States, but Obama through his promise to strike in the event of a chemical weapons attack has committed U.S. military personnel, whether or not it is the right thing to do. Perhaps he spoke prematurely. Now, however, Congress has at least put the brakes on the decision making.
What will happen in coming days? The sectarian nature of much of the conflict in the region makes finding a resolution very difficult. Religious and ideological commitments did not develop overnight. In some cases, the roots of the conflicts go back over a thousand years.
Simply put, by the time Jefferson and Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, the religious tensions in the Middle East had already had 800 years to fester with no reset button to be found. Surely there were long seasons of calm, but the deep differences were never satisfactorily resolved. This means that any foreign power faces great risk at getting involved. The most important question now facing the president and Congress is this: Where should America draw the line in the sand, if at all?