By James Fite
The Syrian flag once again flies over Daraa after Russian and Syrian troops occupied the town Thursday, July 13. According to the agreement reached the prior week, the rebels will be allowed to remain in the area after turning over all heavy and medium weapons, so long as they agree to honor the accord.
It could be that this is the beginning of the end for the civil war, with Bashar al-Assad’s regime the clear winner. However, the truce is an uneasy one, as it is still estimated that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 ISIS fighters still active along the Syria-Iraq border. Of course, the large number of civilian deaths and Assad’s alleged atrocities aren’t helping matters.
The Syrian military occupied Daraa, where the civil war began just over seven years ago, to “guarantee the ceasefire.” The truce itself was made possible, in large part, by the air support from Iraq, Russia, the U.S., and other Western nations. The intended targets of such aerial assaults were, of course, the ISIS militants and their allies. However, those terrorists apparently weren’t the only ones killed in the process.
The Civilian Cost
According to the BBC, 54 people – including at least 28 civilians – died in an air strike near the Iraqi border the very day Syrian forces retook Daraa. Syria blames the U.S. for the incident. “The coalition or our partner forces may have conducted strikes in the vicinity of al-Soussa… yesterday,” said Army Col Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the coalition backing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
These numbers, of course, come from Syrian government-friendly news outlets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, though Sana, Syria’s official state news agency, counted 30 dead.
The members of the international coalition have been criticized for not taking care to protect civilians during these air strikes on ISIS-controlled areas, but it’s unclear how many civilians have actually died during these strikes. The number floated by officials last year for anti-ISIS air strikes in both Syria and Iraq was around 800, though other groups claim the toll could be as high as 6,000.
Should We Stay, or Should We Go?
Ostensibly, the United States is involved in the Syrian debacle both to promote stability in the region and to fight the terrorist groups who operate there. While it is tempting to simply say what happens in Syria isn’t our problem, the truth is a little more complicated. We know that there are chemical weapons still in the region; regardless of whose side of the story you believe, the April 2107 incident that led to the U.S. cruise missile strike proved that.
As we learned back in 2001, we can’t just ignore the goings on in other countries. A stable government in Syria does seem like the best deterrent to those chemical weapons being used in future terror attacks. As for the fight against ISIS, the fewer jihadists around, the safer we are.
But what happens when ISIS is no more? Is Bashar al-Assad really any better? How friendly will Assad be with us once the war is actually over? After all, we did attack a Syrian air base as well. And even if Assad isn’t a threat to the U.S., what about his own people? Will we really stay out of Syria if Assad attacks civilians again, or will we consider it the crossing of some red line?
What about the ethical and economic problems of acting as the world’s police force? If we honor the sovereignty of other nations, then we can’t jump in and play king-maker just because we feel that either the current regime has misbehaved or that we’ll somehow profit from it.
According to The Fiscal Times, the DOD expects to spend roughly $15.3 billion on Syria in 2019. And back in late 2017, Brown University’s Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs estimated the total U.S. budgetary cost of post-9/11 wars through 2018 at roughly $5.6 trillion. According to the Department of State, we’re planning to send $191,500,000 in foreign aid to Syria this year, and $174,500,000 in 2019.
Ultimately, just a few questions really matter to most Americans. Do we have the right to get involved in Syria’s inner conflicts? Can we justify the lives lost – many of which are and likely will continue to be civilians? Should we be spending this much of the taxpayers’ money in Syria? Finally, regardless of the answer to the other questions, what will we actually have to show for it when all is said and done?