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Outside editorial: Is Syria worth fighting for?

Posted: March 8, 2012 - 12:10am

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday:

There’s an old quote that some people, probably wrongly, attribute to Mark Twain that’s now seen on bumper stickers: “Denial isn’t a river in Egypt.”

No, denial is when people ignore what’s staring them in the face, like the fact that war-weary Americans don’t want any part of a political strategy that might lead to more U.S. troops taking part in another country’s fight — and that includes Syria’s.

It’s not that there aren’t good reasons to want to help topple the despotic regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even says Assad could be classified as a war criminal, given the estimated 7,500 civilians killed by his forces since Syria’s revolt began in March 2011.

Interestingly, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri has voiced his support for the Syrian rebels, which just goes to show you how complicated the situation is, and how dangerous it would be for this country to link itself to revolutionaries who may prove untrustworthy. The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas is also backing the rebels.

Americans can see what is happening in Egypt — where President Hosni Mubarak was rightly pushed out, but the repressive generals who propped him up remain in power — and can envision something similar occurring in Syria. Would Assad’s generals turn their backs on him if it allowed them to keep control of the army?

Ever since he took over after his father Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, Assad has been considered ill-suited for the power given to him. The trained ophthalmologist might not have become president were it not for the death of his brother, Basil, in a 1994 car crash. It was Basil who was being groomed for leadership.

Observers calculating the geopolitics of the Mideast say the United States must do all it can to ensure the fall of the Assad regime because it is in league with Iran, which clearly wants to establish its hegemony in the region.

They want President Obama to spell out what he means when he says America will use “every tool available” to stop Assad’s slaughter of civilians.

Obama should make it clear that he does not mean U.S. military involvement at any level. The Arab League has a diplomatic plan that would lead to Assad’s stepping down from power, but it failed to gain approval by the U.N. Security Council because of opposition by Russia and China.

But China on Sunday did call for an immediate cease-fire and expressed its support for the appointment of a joint special envoy on the Syrian crisis by the United Nations and the Arab League. In the meantime, increased efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people must be made. Red Cross convoys have been blocked.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., are among an increasingly vocal congregation arguing that the United States should provide arms to the rebels. But so far their view has been held off by that of calmer heads, including Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who said, “We should be extremely skeptical about actions that could commit the United States to military options in Syria.”

That has to be the bottom line — to avoid any step that could lead to another costly military adventure at a time when this nation is still struggling to overcome the recession’s impact.

It is hard for Americans not to want to jump in when they see oppressed people who need a helping hand, but any nation must first consider whether making such a leap would weaken its ability to help its own people.

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