President Barack Obama this week presented his case for intervening in Syria’s civil war in a televised address. Whether or not his arguments were persuasive is becoming clearer as analysts and congressmen debate the issue. One particular statement the president made about the Syrian opposition is exploring in more depth.
Obama admitted in his speech on Tuesday that some of the rebels in the Middle Eastern country are extremists. But, he argued, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda “will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
A chemical weapons attack that allegedly killed hundreds of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus last month prompted the United States to start considering military action against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
At least half of Obama’s statement had much truth to it. Al Qaeda is an organization that thrives on chaos. The chaotic situation in Iraq that followed the American invasion in 2003 provided fertile ground for recruitment and attacks against American forces. The lax security situation in Libya after its dictator Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and murdered in late 2011 helped Al Qaeda affiliates orchestrate an attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi which killed four Americans. Avoiding such a scenario in Syria has led Assad to resort to drastic measures.
Assad seeks to control the chaos that currently envelops his country. His legitimacy as a ruler relies on it. As often in a dictatorship, the regime derives much of its legitimacy from a monopoly on coercion and violence.
The need to control violence is especially important not just for Assad the dictator but for Assad the Alawite. As minority rulers in Syria, the Alawites, not unreasonably, fear reprisals from the Sunni Muslim majority if they are removed from power. This fear probably strikes closer to home than the threat of outside intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Nevertheless, Assad certainly wishes to avoid Western interference regardless of how “unbelievably small” or limited in scope it may be. Neither the regime nor the rebels fighting it have obtained a monopoly of violence to secure ruling legitimacy. A strike from the United States could tip the balance in favor of the opposition. Yet Assad out of power has the potential of being the greater security threat than Assad in power, creating the very circumstances President Obama says Al Qaeda thrives in. Were Assad removed from office, sectarian fighting is unlikely to abate while not only Syria but all of the region could be destabilized.
As far as the chemical weapons — which the United States say they’re mostly worried about — are concerned, they could very well go unaccounted for in such a situation.