Critical Questions Remain Over Trump’s Missile Strikes and Syria Policy

Overall, Syrian democracy activists were ecstatic about President Donald Trump’s strikes on the base from which the Syrian regime launched its latest chemical attacks. After years of impunity, the Assad regime paid a price (however tiny) for their crimes against humanity. Western proponents of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, the enforcement of international law and norms, and more direct action to end the war, along with other critics of the Obama administration’s largely hands-off policy, have on average been more ambivalent. And rightfully so.

Many questions remain: Why did Trump strike—for his personal popularity, to be the anti-Obama, because he just now realized what Assad has been doing? If he cares about Syrian civilians, why does he show no compassion for the refugees fleeing Assad and ISIS?  What are his strategic goals (if they exist)—enforcing the norm against chemical weapon use, protecting innocent civilians, shifting the dynamics on the ground to increase the odds of a resolution to the conflict? Is this part of a larger strategy or an emotional response to the barbarism seen in images and videos of the attack (the CNN Effect, as political scientists call it)? Does Trump have the ability to effectively carry out any larger strategy given his general incompetence and unwillingness to study policy details? How will his relationship with Russia affect his response to their apparent complicity in these crimes? Does Trump now realize the role Assad has played and continues to play in strengthening extremists or not?

While many oppose a status quo that has left half a million people dead, displaced roughly half the country, and created a refugee crisis that threatens Western democracy, these questions and others make many who are open to intervention hesitate before endorsing the administration’s course of action or becoming optimistic about future Trump administration policies. The costs of further intervention (whatever form it could take) are real, as are the risks (as with non-intervention), particularly in the wake of the Russian intervention to save the regime from collapsing—a responsible analyst must not only consider what the best course of action should be, but the likelihood that an administration is inclined to, and capable of, carrying it out.

While a movement away from ‘America First’ populist nationalism is certainly encouraging, those who value the common good are right to remain skeptical of an administration that has yet to prove its intentions or efficacy. The lessons of Iraq should not lead to isolationism, but precisely this type of skepticism with a careful consideration of who is intervening and why. The President’s competence (or incompetence) can have a dramatic impact on the probability of success and potential costs of intervention. This must be considered in calculations of the justness and strategic prudence of particular courses of action. Can the wrong man carry out the right policy? Certainly, but with so many unanswered questions, caution is the most sensible response right now.

Here are a few articles on the chemical weapon attacks and reactions from those who have been critical of Western indifference to Assad’s mass murder:

‘My entire family’s gone’: Syrian man says 25 relatives died in strike by CNN: “Youssef arrived in his parents’ house to find his two brothers dead. Panicked, he rushed back to his home to check on his wife and babies. “There was foam on their mouths, there were convulsions. They had all been on the floor,” Youssef told CNN on Wednesday, sobbing. “My kids, Ahmad and Aya, and my wife… they were all martyred. “My entire family’s gone.””

Teen lost 19 family members in Syria chemical attack: ‘I saw the explosion’ by CNN: “In all, he said, 19 of his relatives were killed Tuesday morning. When Mazin said that devastating number, his voice cracked. He lost his struggle to maintain self-control. His face contorted, his red eyes filled with tears. He plopped down sobbing on the plastic chair in the hospital corridor. Mazin is only 13 years old. He is a child. And this is his world.”

Trump might be going to war. But he has no plans for establishing peace. by Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras: “Yet as analysts who have argued for greater U.S. military engagement to end the Syrian civil war, we find ourselves conflicted about the president’s decision: We fear there is simply no plan for what comes next. To succeed beyond Thursday’s limited strikes, American leaders must decide on a clear set of objectives, a realistic desired final outcome, a theory of the case for how to get there and a solid understanding of the risks. We see three potential options for how the president could move forward.”

What Effect Will Trump’s Airstrikes Really Have? By Daniel Byman: “If the strike does achieve the President’s objective and Asad no longer uses chemical weapons against his own people, that’s good news—but it is little consolation for the tens of thousands of Syrians who are likely to die in the coming months from regime barrel bombs or indiscriminate Russian airstrikes or to be tortured and killed in the dictator’s prisons.”

Syrian opposition leader: Trump has a chance to save Syria By Josh Rogin: “Short of that, the Syrian opposition is asking the Trump administration to use any new leverage it has to demand a nationwide ceasefire, to stop the killing of civilians by the Assad regime and press for international access to all besieged areas and the jails where Assad is holding thousands of civilians in custody. They also believe now is the time to push for a new political process to move Assad out of power.”

A Practical Guide for Avoiding Fallacies on Syria by Shadi Hamid: “It is abundantly clear that the Assad regime will not negotiate in good faith or make any significant concessions on its own. We’ve hoped for that since the earliest Arab League efforts in 2011. The credible threat of force (or its use) is the only thing that is likely to change Assad’s calculus. If his survival isn’t at stake, he has little reason to negotiate much of anything.”

This May Signal That the Free Ride for Mass Murder Is Over by Frederic Hof: “Bashar al-Assad’s political survival strategy of collective punishment and mass homicide is a gift that keeps on giving to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other forms of violent, terrorist extremism.”

So Trump Attacked Assad. What Now? by Charles Lister: “Assad cannot and will never put Syria back together again, but partition is not an answer. Foreign intervention for rapid regime change promises only further chaos, but determined U.S. leadership backed up by the credible and now proven threat of force presents the best opportunity in years to strong-arm actors on the ground into a phase of meaningful de-escalation, out of which eventually, a durable negotiation process may result.”

Replace Just War Theory with Nonviolence—What about Syria and Genocide?

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A historic conference recently wrapped up at the Vatican that addressed the continued relevance of the traditional Catholic doctrine of just war theory.

Just war theory outlines the moral requirements surrounding the decision to use force and the ethical limits on using force justly. The decision to use force requires a just cause, right intention, a reasonable probability of success, and proportionality. It must be undertaken by a legitimate authority and only as a last resort.

The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct during the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm (it is always immoral to directly and intentionally target the innocent). It is never about the ends justifying the means; the means must be as pure as the end being sought. Despite the carnage inherent in war, the Church has taught that certain moral obligations must be maintained for a war to be just.

Instead of seeking to modify this traditional Catholic doctrine, the conference pushes for an encyclical advocating for nonviolence to replace just war theory entirely. The participants at the conference argue that there is no longer such a thing as just war and “suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”

Supporters of this theory claim that instead of limiting the conditions for war, just war theory has often been used to exacerbate conflict and provide a pretext for aggressive, interventionist actions. Of course, moral rules cannot be eliminated simply because they are ignored or abused at times; Church teaching explicitly rejects that type of consequentialism. Ultimately, they contend that war is not the solution to stopping conflicts of any type and that non-violent means have been used with great success throughout history to resolve conflicts and overturn oppression.

To this observer, the call to systematically dismantle just war theory when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has viciously butchered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and Daesh is engaging in the ruthless slaughter of thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in territories they control sounds completely out of touch with reality.    Read More

In Response to the Crimes of Assad and ISIS, the House Passes Genocide and War Crimes Resolutions

After nearly five years of civil war, precipitated by Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, and perhaps 470,000 deaths, the US House of Representatives passed a war crimes resolution aimed at holding Assad and his allies accountable for their war crimes, as well as a genocide resolution that identifies Christians as victims of ISIS’s genocidal campaign of terror, along with Yazidis and others.

The latter passed by a vote of 393-0, putting pressure on the Obama administration to include Christians as designated victims of genocide in Syria.

The war crimes resolution passed 392-3. This resolution, sponsored by Republican Chris Smith, a leading defender of human rights in the House, directs the Obama administration to promote, through the UN, an international war crimes tribunal. Smith explained, “Accountability that is aggressive, predictable, transparent and applicable to perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity on all sides of the divide must be pursued now.”

Voting against the resolution were three of the worst members of a historically lackluster Congress: Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, two extreme anti-government Republicans, and Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, who has argued that the continued rule of dictatorships that have engaged in crimes against humanity serves American interests. Brooklyn Middleton put it best: shame on them. This should haunt their political careers.

Update via CNN:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the United States has determined that ISIS’ action against the Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria constitutes genocide.

“My purpose here today is to assert in my judgment, (ISIS) is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims,” he said, during a news conference at the State Department.

Assad’s Victims Include Syrian Christians

201141722223122790_20While a number of prominent Christian leaders have backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as he engages in the mass murder of Syrian men, women, and children, it is important to remember that many Syrian Christians have been brutalized and murdered by the regime because of their courageous commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights. And, of course, many others have been killed simply because of Assad’s indiscriminate use of force to terrorize the population. The persecution of Christians, Yazidis, and others by ISIS should not obscure this fact. Hind Kabawat has a new article that reminds everyone that the war in Syria is not a holy war, many Christians have stood by their values instead of embracing sectarianism, and that Assad’s millions of victims—who have their lives uprooted or ended by the dictator’s lust for power—include Syrian Christians:

Before the uprising, Daraya was a sleepy middle-class suburb for Damascus residents. By 2011, it had become an epicenter of peaceful protests, as thousands marched in the streets calling for Assad to step down from power. As a member of the Syrian Christian community, I was overwhelmed with excitement to join this grassroots people’s movement that called for democracy, freedom and rights for all Syrians, no matter our differences.

Syrians were united then. The church bells rang in Daraya in solidarity with the protesters. From their balconies in the narrow streets, Syrian Christians showered protesters below with rice and flowers. They marched hand in hand.

A holy war, this was not.

By 2012, the Assad regime intensified its armed crackdown against the unarmed protesters in Daraya. A terrible massacre occurred there on Aug. 24, 2012, as Assad’s regime sent troops, secret police, and members of the elite 4th Division to prevent residents from fleeing the city by any means necessary. Families were executed in their homes, whole buildings of women and children were machine-gunned in the streets, and residents were even decapitated — long before the so-called Islamic State even existed.

The state-run media launched an aggressive propaganda campaign claiming Muslims were massacring Christians, aiming to stoke fear of the opposition in the Christian community. As regime soldiers went door to door, searching for people to murder, it was the Christian community of Daraya that opened theirs to protect those fleeing the atrocities. One Catholic church treated the injured and prepared food for them….

If anything, Putin and Assad’s bombing and starvation campaign has made Syria more dangerous for Christians. The barrel bombs dropped by their military machine on Daraya and towns across the country cannot offer our Christian community protection. The thousands of Syrian children unable to attend schools, and the thousands facing starvation due to Assad’s kneel or die policy, cannot offer Syrian Christians peace of mind.

UN: Assad Regime Guilty of Extermination, Crimes against Humanity

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NBC News describes a new report from the United Nations on crimes against humanity in Syria:

Thousands of civilians are being secretly imprisoned, raped, tortured and exterminated by Syria’s government as it wages a bloody civil war, a United Nations commission found Monday.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria lifted the lid on what it called a systematic, country-wide pattern of prisoner abuse by President Bashar Assad’s regime — which it said amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The government’s crimes against prisoners included “extermination, murder … torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts,” according to a report from the commission published Monday.

Tens of thousands of detainees have been arrested in what the commission described as a “countrywide pattern” of arbitrary detention over allegations such as supporting the opposition or being “insufficiently loyal” to the government.

While most prisoners are men, some women and children as young as seven years old have died in regime custody, the report added.

None of this is really news to anyone who has been following the Syrian civil war. But it does shine a spotlight on the costs of the Obama administration’s feckless response to these mass atrocities. And now Assad’s ally Russia has joined the regime in committing war crimes, killing thousands of civilians through the use of indiscriminate weapons and by directly targeting the innocent, mirroring Assad’s tactics. It is all part of a coordinated strategy to leave the two sets of mass murderers—the Assad regime and ISIS—as the only two groups left standing.

The Vatican continues to repeat its persistent calls for a negotiated settlement, while Assad, Iran, and Russia seek a military solution to the war. Unlike the threat of American strikes (in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons), Russia’s indiscriminate bombing has not prompted a special day of prayer or any other direct response from Pope Francis. Nor has the Vatican shown any signs of remorse for siding with the Assad-Putin-Iran-Hezbollah alliance in negotiations, a disgraceful decision, which is magnified with each new report of the alliance’s crimes against humanity. Even with the brutality of the Assad regime and its malignant intentions on full display, we still are not seeing real moral leadership from Pope Francis (or many other Catholic leaders, for that matter), such as denouncing those by name who are committing these crimes against humanity and demanding in the name of God that they stop slaughtering innocent people.

Does the Catholic Church believe that mass murderers, who murder, rape, torture, and disappear innocent civilians, are legitimate authorities? If the Church and its leaders sincerely believes in its teachings—that governments exist to serve the human person and that their legitimacy is intimately linked to this responsibility—then the answer should be clear: mass murderers belong behind bars, not in palaces or presidential suites. But we are hearing silence on the matter. And silence is complicity.


Millennials of the Year 2015: The White Helmets of Syria

The brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad has gassed, starved, tortured, and slaughtered the Syrian people. And the international community’s response has been shamefully inadequate. But there are some people who have displayed courage and character in the face of these mass atrocities. Our 2015 Millennials of the Year are the millennial volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense, the White Helmets.

Not all of the White Helmets are millennials, but a large number are young people who risk life and limb to pull people from the rubble of their homes, marketplaces, schools, and more. If Assad, ISIS, and other vicious mass murderers show the depths of the human capacity for evil, the White Helmets show the human person’s extraordinary capacity for good.

In a place where dictators fan the flames of sectarianism to keep their grip on power and terrorists kill in the name of a vile sectarian agenda, the White Helmets reject sectarianism entirely and pledge to save the lives of everyone they encounter, regardless of their background or creed. In a climate where the degradation and dehumanization of the person is constant, they show the power of solidarity and a commitment to the dignity of each person.

They have saved over 40,000 lives. The impact reverberates far beyond these lives, however. The mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, friends, and colleagues of those who have been saved will be eternally grateful for their heroism. The loss of each of these lives would have ripped irreparable holes in the lives of these families and communities. Far too many Syrians have already experienced this loss and devastation. But the White Helmets have saved many from heartbreak.

They are teachers, students, carpenters, construction workers, bakers, and more. They are men and women. They are volunteers. They are rescuers. They are heroes. For their devotion to human dignity and the common good, they are our 2015 Millennials of the Year.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Hard questions we’re not asking Pope Francis by John Allen: “To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes. The pope had his reasons, including fear for Syria’s Christians in the aftermath of regime change. Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy. If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.”

The Changing U.S. Labor Force by Anna Sutherland: “Whatever the cause of unions’ decline, however, the future of work in America may be one of low wages and erratic schedules (both of which are hard on families) unless policy-makers find some other way to bolster the power of labor.”

The Neo-Conservative Imagination: An Interview with Patrick Deneen, Part III by Artur Rosman: “I don’t want to paint a picture of utopian bliss in Germany—of course, that’s far from the case—but we ought to look at specific practices in countries such as Germany to begin to think about how better to avoid some of our wrenching instability and how we might better conceive an economy to support family and community.”

Selfie esteem: Body image in a digital age by Meghan Murphy-Gill: “The Catholic Church has a counterpoint to this seemingly superficial approach to image: Humans are the imago Dei, created in the image of God. This alone is the source of a person’s value, not how well she applies eyeshadow or whether her selfies show a glowing girl with a great smile.”

Synod on the Family, Part I by Michael Sean Winters: “The Francis effect is only possible because people are truly hungry for the Gospel and a more humane civilization. No civilization can long remain healthy if its families are not healthy, and the remedy must be found, first and foremost, by placing the bonds of family and society – and the bond of faith, that binds us to Jesus Christ – in their true, liberating promise and pointing out that the autonomy the modern world promises is actually a grim form of self-chosen slavery.”

Everyday saints by Kira Dault: “Those who have come before us—not just the great men and women with their huge footprints, but the mothers and fathers, the children, the friends lost to us—mark the course. In their examples they leave breadcrumbs to follow, clues for how to become the kind of people we want to be.”

The Message of Mercy by Walter Kasper: “So, canon law is not against the Gospel, but the Gospel is against a legalistic understanding of canon law. Canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other.”

Monument Seeks to End Silence on Killings of the Disabled by the Nazis by Melissa Eddy: “The first to be singled out for systematic murder by the Nazis were the mentally ill and intellectually disabled. By the end of World War II, an estimated 300,000 of them had been gassed or starved, their fates hidden by phony death certificates and then largely overlooked among the many atrocities that were to be perpetrated in Nazi Germany in the years to follow. Now, they are among the last to have their suffering publicly acknowledged. On Tuesday, the victims of the direct medical killings by the Nazis were given their own memorial in the heart of Berlin.”

An unspoken truth about teens who flee the Catholic church by Jennifer Mertens: “Young people must be valued as active, respected and fully engaged members of our faith communities. Teens long to be taken seriously, to be heard, considered and included. As adults, we do not possess or control the living revelation of Christ. We journey together with our youth.”

Encounters with a drinking culture in college by Carlos Mesquita: “I asked some of my friends why they drank to excess, and while some just said they enjoyed it, many responded that they were drinking to forget something or to relieve stress. They described trying to avoid or escape some part of themselves.”

The Greatest Threat to Our Liberty Is Local Governments Run Amok by Franklin Foer: “Only a strong federal government can curb the autocratic tendencies burbling across the country. Libertarians worry about the threat of local tyrants, too, but only abstractly. In practice, they remain so fixated on the perils of Washington that they rigidly insist on devolving power down to states, cities, and towns—the very places where their nightmares are springing to life.”

The Catholic casino conundrum by Mathew Schmalz: “The message was simple: You can gamble, but take it easy. Do so temperately — within appropriate limits….But given Pope Francis’ strong stand on our obligations to those in need, it is difficult to see how to justify gambling of any kind, since the money that we might so cavalierly wager does not belong to us alone.”