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Is Western Intervention Warranted if UN Confirms Syria Used Chemical Weapons?

August 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
If United Nations investigators prove that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in a recent attack on Syrian civilians, do Western nations have a moral obligation to act? Margaret Warner gets debate from Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative and Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma.

MARGARET WARNER: To debate that, I’m joined by Robert Zarate, policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, and Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.


Robert Zarate, let’s start with, given the scale of the human suffering in Syria, whoever is proven to be behind yesterday’s attack, does the West have an obligation to intervene militarily?

ROBERT ZARATE, The Foreign Policy Initiative: Yes, I think the West has an obligation — the United States in particular has an obligation to intervene militarily, and not just because of what happened in the suburbs of Damascus, but because of what has happened over the last two-and-a-half years, since the Assad regime began its conflict with the Syrian people.

Over 100,000 people have died. Upwards near — approaching a million people are now displaced internally, and it’s destabilizing the entire region.

MARGARET WARNER: Joshua Landis, how do you see it? Is there a — almost a moral duty to intervene at this point?

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JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: The international community has a responsibility in this situation to do something to alleviate human suffering.

A third of Syrians are displaced, two million outside the country, five million inside the country. It’s a country of about 22 million to 24 million people. The problem, as Dempsey has outlined, is that we don’t have a partner in this. The Syrian opposition is dominated by Islamists.

And that makes it very difficult for us to jump in, because the last response that was given to this situation was to arm and to send lethal weapons to the opposition. If we send more lethal weapons, we’re going to destroy what remains of the Syrian state. And there are 1,000-some-odd militias running around Syria.

This situation could become a lot worse.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you this.

ROBERT ZARATE: So, now an occupation force of over 100,000 people in order to freeze the situation and begin to supply food and aid to people, we’re only going to make the situation worse.

MARGARET WARNER: What I’m asking is, is there a sort of moral dimension to this, that at some point — I think that’s what you’re saying — maybe come back to you, Mr. Zarate.

You’re saying, at some point, the West has to sort of stand up and do something militarily for moral reasons.

ROBERT ZARATE: Not — both for moral and — reasons and for reasons of national security interests.

Look, what we’re seeing right now in Syria is a rogue regime that has used weapons of mass destruction. We’re seeing the creation of safe havens within Syria for terrorists. And, last, we’re seeing terrorists within grasp of getting chemical weapons. It’s quite possible that the Assad regime could lose control of these things.

This is the very sort of thing that the United States for decades has fought to prevent. And in that argument for further action is both an argument that stands on national security interests and on moral humanitarian leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Joshua Landis, we’re having a little trouble with your audio, but weigh in here.

What do you think just in general — at what point do moral considerations or the duty to sort of stand up against atrocities counterbalance or even outweigh the practical obstacles, which, of course, we heard General Dempsey and many others have laid out? Or does that never — is that never the case?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Of course it’s the case.

I mean, you have to be able to make the situation better. And in order to do that — Syria is a failed nation. We have two sectarian groups who are fighting each other, the Sunni Arabs and the Alawites and other minorities, along with the many rich Sunnis who are still clinging to this regime.

And if America goes in and helps one side conquer the other, things could become — it’s not going to solve the problem. We did that in Iraq. We gave the Shiites a total win against the Sunnis, and now the Sunnis are all radicalized and they’re joining al-Qaida.

We cannot rebuild — if we go in, we have to either rebuild Syria or we have to divide it up into three states, like we did in Yugoslavia. And America doesn’t have — the problem is, today, Americans don’t want to do it. They don’t want to spend the money. This would be an extremely expensive endeavor.

Should the world do it? Yes, absolutely. The suffering is enormous in Syria, and it’s going to get a lot worse. Agriculture has collapsed, and this winter, we’re going to see many, many more refugees and people starving.

MARGARET WARNER: And that raises an important point about public opinion, Mr. Zarate. Where is the outrage when you see the kind of things we have seen for two-and-a-half years, yet the public has consistently — it’s a 2-1, 60 percent, 65 percent say shouldn’t intervene militarily. What do you think explains that?

ROBERT ZARATE: Well, I think one of the biggest factors that explains public indifference is the absence of the commander in chief taking his — the stage to explain what’s going on.

You know, over the last few months, we have seen the White House issue statements after the use of chemical weapons, but these statements have not come from the president himself. They come from his advisers. And the fact is, if the president prioritizes this issue, if he believes it’s important, he needs to go out there and explain it to the American people. And that’s just something we haven’t seen him do.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that presidential — the president taking the lead can overcome this antipathy that we’re now seeing to really any kind of involvement overseas militarily?

ROBERT ZARATE: Absolutely.

This is what — this is the essence of presidential leadership. And there are times when the president must persuade the American people, explain to them what’s at stake. And make no mistake, there’s a lot at stake in Syria right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Joshua Landis, what do you think…

JOSHUA LANDIS: I think that’s wrong.


JOSHUA LANDIS: I think that’s wrong.

We had strong presidential leadership when we invaded Iraq, and it turned out disastrously. And we spent $1 trillion. And we have gained very little in terms of our national interests, if anything at all.

It’s not clear that strong leadership by America is going to solve the Syrian problem. We have a country that is falling apart. And in many ways, the Syrians are going to have to come to a new balance of power within their country. Trying to figure out what that balance of power is between Shiites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds is something that nobody has an answer to today.

In the United States, in our civil war, 750,000 people were killed, and, in 1860, we had a census of 30,000 people. Syria is about 24,000 — 100,000 and a little bit more having killed so far. Syria is nowhere near up to the American Civil War.

Now, should any international force through the British or the French have intervened and stopped Americans from killing each other? Probably, they should have. But would it have made America a better place? I’m not sure it would have.

MARGARET WARNER: On that note, we will leave it there.

Joshua Landis and Robert Zarate, thank you.