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Kamel: Syrian intervention is a double-edged sword

Jonathan Kamel, Columnist

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Recent reports have shown Syrian rebels are increasingly influenced by Islamist groups, including al-Qaida. About half of all Syrian rebels are not interested in toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime but are actually foreign soldiers sent from surrounding Arab Islamist organizations seeking to establish a Sharia state in Syria.

The civil war in Syria has turned from a struggle for democracy to a religious battle between secular and radical groups. Some regions under rebel authority have become controlled by Islamist judges, lawyers and clerics tied to terrorist organizations. The most dangerous of these organizations is al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-supported fundamentalist group rooted in jihad and violence.

Up until recently, the United States has helped displaced Syrians and provided rebels with non-lethal military equipment such as armor and night goggles. In the past week, U.S. officials confirmed Assad’s army used chemical weapons against the rebels, an action that crossed a “red line” set by President Barack Obama for American intervention in the conflict. Yet with new information about the Islamist influences within the Syrian uprising, Obama must decide to what extent America should involve itself in the Syrian crisis.

There is no question that Assad’s regime must go. He has mercilessly killed his own people, refused to make peace with Israel and built chemical weapon facilities that pose a threat to the entire Middle East. Yet, like in so many other Arab countries that experienced a turbulent regime change during the Arab Spring, the alternative to a dictatorship in Syria may be no better than the status quo. Indeed, Syria’s uprising may follow the trend of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia as once hopeful uprisings that devolved into chaos and seemingly undemocratic governments.

Although it is impossible to predict when or how the Assad regime may fall, an Islamist replacement ruled by Sharia law with ties to al-Qaida does not make for an optimal solution. The United States and the rest of the world have a series of tough decisions to make in the coming months. Yet time to take action on the conflict is dwindling.

Can the U.S. back the moderates amongst the rebellion and hope they win out over Islamist fundamentalists? Based on the prior uprising in Egypt, this strategy has not worked out as the Islamic fundamentalist group, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, eventually gained power and has done little to advance Egyptian civil society.

On the other hand, doing nothing while the Syrian people are squeezed by two evil groups makes the United States seem weak and ineffectual in global affairs. Drawing a line at chemical weapons and then backing down when a discovery is made is a clear denial of the president’s word. At the same time, sending ground troops to Syria is not a viable option. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, stated on Sunday that ground force intervention would be the “worst thing the United States could do.” However, he did support an international response from NATO nations through the provision of arms to vetted Syrian oppositional groups, air attacks on Assad weaponry, and the creation of a safe zone for refugees.

For America to sit this conflict out with no deliberate set of actions would be a mistake. Countries like Iran and North Korea are watching to see how the world will act and will base their future actions on an American-led response to Syria. Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons poses a threat to the United States and the region. Israel, the United States’ strongest ally in the region, is particularly vulnerable to an attack due to its shared Northeast border with Syria. From a humanitarian perspective, we cannot stand by and watch Assad use chemical weapons against the rebels or wait for an Islamist uprising to gain hold of these weapons themselves.

We live in a dangerous world that is confronted by the fear of terrorism, nuclear weapons and chemical warfare. The world continues to need a leader in the United States to uphold a sense of morality and international security in global affairs. While we are just ending a decade long period of war in the Middle East, a turn to isolationism will not solve the current Syrian crisis or prevent further dangers in the future. Although United States leaders may not relish America’s position as leader of the free world, it is a duty this country must continue to uphold.

 Jonathan Kamel is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at jonathankamel2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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