“500,000 deaths, 6 trillion dollars, and 10 million refugees,” said first-year student Devesh Kodnani as he opened Wednesday’s Chicago Debate Society (CDS) event on whether the military forces of the United States, which have had a presence in the region since 2014, should withdraw from Syria.
Four CDS debaters were randomly assigned positions for the debate. Kodnani and Max Wu, a second-year, took the pro-U.S. involvement in Syria position, while third-year Josh Zakharov and fourth-year Zachary Lemonides represented the con side.
Alleging that American involvement in the area lacks just cause, just conduct, and just peace, Kodnani attacked what he sees as unclear long-term objectives by the U.S. regarding the Middle East. Kodnani argued that the U.S.–led occupation of Syria is doomed to fail because of a lack of approval from the United Nations, the war crimes committed by military forces within the U.S.–led coalition, and inadequate exit strategies. Kodnani also compared American military involvement in Syria to that in Iraq, stating that “both wars saw a broadening of their mandate” and that the military industrial complex supports a “permanent occupation” of Syria to generate profit for the U.S.
Arguing for continued military involvement in Syria, third-year Josh Zakharov characterized the presence of the ground forces as positive. Soldiers are “engaged in almost purely training” exercises with allied forces, he explained.
“Syria is explicitly not an occupation,” Zakharov said. Instead, he argued the military presence in Syria is beneficial for both the Syrian people and the foreign policy interests of the U.S. He cited concerns about the danger a Russian or Chinese regional hegemony would pose to the United States and stated that the use of coalition ground troops is one of the few things preventing other foreign powers from getting involved.
“The thing is, the risk of the emergence of a global hegemon…is going to increase the chance of some sort of great power war in the future,” he said.
Wu joined Kodnani in support of the withdrawal of troops. Wu claimed his opponent’s arguments “ignored the facts of history.”
The United States’ allies in the region are “literally at each other's throats” said Wu. He added that the Free Syrian Army—a large anti-government coalition supported by the United States as recently as 2017—has connections to the terrorist organizations Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda. Additionally, Wu argued that the troop numbers within Syria are insufficient to prevent any actual Russian or Chinese invasion and that their true value lies in being a symbol of American power within the region.
In contrast, Lemonides reaffirmed Zakharov’s position that American soldiers serve as a buffer against potential invasions. Lemonides claimed that the involvement in Syria is not only morally justifiable but also necessary, maintaining that Syrian President Bashad al-Assad’s hesitancy to harm American forces is what keeps him in line.
Wrapping up the debate, Kodnani reaffirmed his previous points in favor of a withdrawal from Syria, attacking interest groups and neoconservative beliefs. Zakharov again stressed the need to protect regional allies in Syria and the fact that U.S. involvement in the region is the best way to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon.
Correction on Jan. 25, 2019, 3:32 p.m. CST:
An earlier version of this article misquoted the number of dollars spent on U.S. involvement in Syria. It is 6 trillion, not 6 million. This article has also been updated to reflect that the Chicago Debate Society randomly assigned the positions of the four debaters.