Why I wrote my congressman: to ask that the U.S. stay out of Syria

Travis Knoll

Recently, debate has swirled around a potential strike on Syria to “punish” the regime of Bashar Al-Assad for an alleged sarin-gas attack on the Syrian rebels that killed 1,429 people. Although U.S. President Barack Obama claims the authority to strike, he decided to put the decision to a vote in Congress, before announcing on Tuesday that he would seek a potential diplomatic resolution instead. 

Recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian government opened the door for a tentative agreement with Syria requiring them to place their chemical weapons into international hands, destroy them and sign a chemical weapons ban. Despite those positive diplomatic developments, armed conflict is still not out of the question.

UT students should write their Congressman to voice their opinion on this critical issue. I wrote Republican Lamar Smith of the 21st district, which includes part of Austin, asking him to oppose the strike and call for the president to respect Congress’ decision. Smith’s office’s response confirmed that the majority of his constituents are opposed and that he is skeptical of intervention.

Smith is right to be skeptical. Obama failed to make his case in Tuesday’s address to the nation. He failed to explain how an intervention, which certainly risks making the situation worse in the short term, will provide long-term stability to the region or advance U.S. objectives. In his speech Tuesday night, Obama made clear he did not want regime change, nor the responsibility for the chain reaction that would cause.

Although some allude to the U.S. bombing of Kosovo in 1999 as a precedent, the potential strike would bear more resemblance to past U.S. interventions in which we militarily supported a relatively unknown opposition only to receive blowback later. According to CNN’s Peter Berger, while only accounting for 10 percent of the opposition forces in Syria, foreign fighters, many of them Al-Qaeda affiliates, are among the rebels’ most skilled fighters. Arming them could prove disastrous in the long term.

Support of the rebels would echo CIA support for Islamic rebel groups in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, militants we are still fighting today. 

More recent controversy surrounds our support for the Libyan rebels in 2011. A year after our overthrow of the old regime, then-President Mohammed Magarief admitted that security forces were likely infiltrated by extremist groups, paving the way for the 2012 attacks on the Benghazi consulate that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens.

Intervention would likely be ineffective. With the president having ruled out regime change, what exactly is his plan? How can he avoid putting boots on the ground? Practically speaking, how would Obama’s limited strike be any different from Clinton’s hapless 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan or Israel’s ineffective 2006 campaign against Hezbollah? As editorials invoke the memory of Bosnia, what are the differences and similarities between the ethnic conflicts in those two regions? Most importantly, to what degree can we positively affect the outcome?

Until these questions are answered, our focus should be on seeking diplomatic solutions, and protecting those minorities persecuted by both sides in this conflict. According to an August NBC report by Ammar Cheikhomar and Henry Austin, many of the 2 million Christian Syrians, mistrusted by both sides, have been forced to flee to neighboring countries since the conflict began.

Whatever you think, civic action is key. Although Syria is far away, our congressmen are close. The stakes are high and the potential to sway your local lawmaker is real.

Check your ZIP code, find your congressional district, visit your congressman’s website and finally call or email your congressman (Democrat Lloyd Doggett for the 35th Congressional district, Republican Roger Williams for the 25th and Republican Lamar Smith for the 21st district).

I wrote Lamar Smith as a concerned U.S. citizen, but also as a UT student who believes in civic engagement. If we as students fail to inform ourselves about the activities of our government, especially in times of conflict, then we cannot complain about the consequences of their action — or inaction.

Knoll is a first-year masters student in Latin American Studies from Dallas.