October 13, 2016
The calls for U.S. military action against Syrian government forces have become more vociferous in recent weeks, as outrage over the current Russian and Syrian military offensive in rebel-held eastern Aleppo mounts. The calls are not new: critics have been urging President Barack Obama to become more involved in the Syrian civil war since it began in 2011, and have since become louder amid glaring human rights abuses.
The last time the Obama administration “considered” striking President Bashar al-Assad’s forces was in August 2013, following global outrage at a chemical attack on rebel-held neighborhoods in eastern Damascus. Disturbing images of the past week of hospitals being reduced to rubble due to Russian and Syrian bombardment have again resulted in elevated calls for intervention. Indeed, Western leaders, including Obama, have mirrored the moral outrage by slamming the Russian-led assault as “barbarous” and possible “war crimes.” But as in August 2013, morality was not a motivation for direct, foreign intervention. The Obama administration refrained from bombing Assad’s forces after the chemical attack in 2013, and will likely remain on the sidelines again.
The sad reality of international relations is that interests trump humanitarianism. The Security Council has deliberated, released statements and resolutions, and watched on as numerous cases of crimes against humanity came before it. Assad is not the first despot to inflict egregious crimes against his own people, and seemingly get away with it. When it serves the interest of a great power, morality is a footnote. And Russia is not the only party to the game—it is the standard conduct of all great powers.