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September 10, 2013 / Sandy Asher

IT’S COMPLICATED: TO ACT OR NOT TO ACT IN SYRIA

 

There are many thoughtful arguments for not going into Syria, but they are not beyond challenge.

Military actions, even the best ones, often do not go according to plan.  True, but some limited military operations do achieve their objective. Witness the successful one to take out Osama bin Laden, despite the breakdown of one of the choppers used in the operation.

The defining line for the Obama administration is use of chemical weapons.  Why is this more objectionable than chopping off limbs with machetes, systemic rape, and shooting protestors? The Geneva Protocols of 1925, signed by nearly all nations, including Syria, banned the use (but not the manufacture) of chemical and biological weapons.  Death by gassing has long been universally considered particularly gruesome and loathsome. The same sentiment persisted in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention ratified by 189 states – not Syria – that banned the use, manufacture, and transfer of chemical weapons in the aftermath of a chemical bombardment on the Iraqi city of Halabja that killed between 3200 and 5000 people and wounded thousands more.

 It is foolish to act in Syria to maintain the credibility of Obama because he drew a red line warning the Syrians of consequences if the regime used chemical weapons.  He has also drawn a red line on Iran possessing nuclear weapons. Why should Teheran believe him if he reneges on his pledge to punish Assad for using chemical weapons?

Faulty intelligence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Questionable intelligence is not the issue in the Syrian case.  Few, other than Assad himself, would deny its government possesses massive stockpiles of chemical weapons and has used them against its own people.

The second invasion of Iraq was followed by mission creep that led to a ten year civil war, the death of thousands of American soldiers and many more Iraqis, and a still uncertain final outcome that is sure to be disappointing.  President Obama understands the difficulties of creating multi-ethnic democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan and has clearly stated he has no intentions of attempting to do so in Syria. The operation calls for short duration targeted strikes against some poison gas delivery systems, and a promise of no boots on the ground under all circumstances.  It is not, as Thomas Friedman’s article asserts, the “Same War, Different Country. (New York Times, September 7, 2013).  Surprisingly little attention has been given to a different analogy that may be more appropriate to the current situation:  appeasement. The failure to respond to Hitler’s pre-WWII aggression led him to up the ante.

We can shame Assad into changing his behavior.  The historical record overflows with tyrants who changed only when faced with serious consequences for bad behavior.  Persuasion, diplomacy, pleas, and shaming don’t work with dictators whose unshakeable objective is to stay in power no matter the costs and consequences.

Instead of a military response, we should lobby the U.N. to set up an International Criminal Tribunal for Syria as it did earlier for Rwanda and Serbia and to start proceedings against Bashar al-Assad and his thugocracy for crimes against humanity.  Let’s do it, but the process take years.

Arming the rebels is preferable to aerial assaults.  We cannot just arm “the good rebels” and guarantee arms will not also fall into the hands of the bad guys, including Islamic extremists and pro-Jihadi fighters.

There is little strategic rationale in bombing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.  There is no way of limiting their delivery systems either.  Obama’s proposal does not call for bombing chemical stockpiles, which would be disastrous. Taking out some delivery systems does limit future usage.

A military attack likely would strengthen the Syrian regime.  Does this mean rebels would rally around Assad?  Or that Alawites, Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds would forget the ancient grievances among them and rush to defend “their country?”  Come on.

Even the president admits his proposed mission will not change the outcome of the civil war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives and created over two million refugees, so why bother?  This is not about whether or not to interfere in a civil war.  It’s about demonstrating the consequences of using chemical weapons.  Only the United States is in a position to take a stand against what a vast majority of the world’s population regards as reprehensible, immoral, and unethical conduct.

American action may lead to retaliation by Syria and its allies, including direct attacks on Israel, as well as reverberations in other Middle East states where American interests risk becoming the targets of those who already resent American presence in the region.  All of these things have already occurred before this situation arose.  Benghazi-like attacks and terrorist threats that led to the recent closing of nineteen US embassies and consulates will continue whatever we do or do not do in Syria.  Inaction will not increase our security or our popularity in the Middle East.  It is very unlikely Syria will go after Israel if the US strikes.  Following Israeli bombing of suspected Syrian nuclear sites in 2007 and 2011, the Assad regime did nothing.  Assad has enough on his hands without taking on external confrontations.

The president can’t declare war without Congressional approval.  There has been no Congressional declaration of war since 1941.  Yet plenty of presidents have undertaken military actions without such approval.  Recent interventions include Lebanon, Grenada, Haiti, Somalia, and Zaire, to name but a few. The 1999 bombings in the Balkans were ordered by President Clinton without Congressional, UN, or public approval, but they did bring Serbia to the negotiating table.

Only 35% of the public supports US military action in Syria.  That’s according to the latest poll as of this writing. Public opinion is fickle. A Washington Post poll on September 20, 2012, found 63% of Americans favored involving the United States military if Syria used chemical weapons. How the operation ultimately fares can lead quickly to another major change in public sentiment.

U.S. attacks against a sovereign nation without provocation or the endorsement of the United Nations is a violation of international law. So is the use of chemical weapons. Threatened vetoes by Russia and China, themselves past violators of the U.N. prohibition of non-defensive wars, have rendered the Security Council helpless in the Syrian situation.  Despite the considerable good it does, the U.N. cannot act without the support of its most powerful members, even when they’re dead wrong.

Past deceptions and lies like those about the North Vietnamese navy firing on the destroyer Maddox or Iraqi soldiers killing incubated Kuwaiti babies render suspect everything our government tells us. A healthy dose of skepticism is warranted, but that’s different from a cynicism that rejects as untruthful all government reports to the point of immobilizing us from acting when we need to.

Like those who oppose military action, both President Obama and those who support his stand would prefer not to go into Syria.  This may now be a possibility.  Whatever their arguments for or against intervention, no one predicted – or even considered – that Syria might agree to destroy its chemical weapons to ward off targeted attacks against them. As the discussion moves forward, let it not proceed on the basis of false, incomplete, or ideologically-driven information.

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16 Comments

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  1. Valiska Gregory / Sep 10 2013 2:51 am

    Well said, Harvey! Val

    Valiska Gregory http://www.valiskagregory.com

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 10 2013 4:46 pm

      Thanks for the heads-up, Robin. Human Rights Watch is an important organization. It just declared that only the Syrian government, not the rebels, could have used sarin gas against its people. It also played a role in getting the Israeli military to pledge to stop using artillery shells with white phosphorus to provide smokescreens on the battlefield. Neither white phosphorus nor napalm intentionally targeted civilians. It is too simple to equate the use of these substances with that of sarin gas, both in terms of their makeup and function, or to compare the behavior of the US, though often far from exemplary, with that of the Saddams and Assads of the world. Finally, the US cannot retaliate against all users of chemical weapons because of reality factors. Had the Russians used them against its own citizens (a disgusting thought), I would have been first in line to protest American intervention. Syria is a case in which we can do something.

  2. Emerson Blake / Sep 10 2013 3:47 am

    Love your blog, love this post. Very well articulated and one of the better blogs I’ve encountered yet far since joining the WordPress community in the recent past! Keep on keepin’ on!

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 10 2013 4:47 pm

      Thank you for your generous comments. Much appreciated.

  3. mercyn620 / Sep 10 2013 12:10 pm

    Very good summary and assessment. I think most Americans want the whole situation to go away. We are war weary.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 10 2013 4:48 pm

      Couldn’t agree more, but it won’t go away!

  4. Judy B / Sep 10 2013 2:00 pm

    First sensible commentary I’ve seen. Thanks, Harv!

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 10 2013 4:50 pm

      You’re welcome, Judy. There are others. Look at what E.J.Dionne has to say.

  5. Superb essay, Harvey.

    Shared link to blog entry on Facebook.

  6. Harvey Asher / Sep 10 2013 4:50 pm

    Thanks a lot, Fred!

  7. Dorothy / Sep 10 2013 6:02 pm

    The most rational argument I’ve read.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 11 2013 12:41 am

      Thanks for stopping by, Dorothy. So glad you found my comments useful.

  8. jngreenb@aol.com / Sep 11 2013 10:04 pm

    Harvey, A Brilliant essay. I agree with you entirely. However this new Russian initiative, which many don’t trust, has gotten the world behind it (although France is cynical about it) and really underlines the lack of interest by Americans and other nations to this Obama “bombing Syria” mess he’s gotten himself into. Americans are war weary. This is a civil war in Syria. Let the UN get support for a solution. Love to you and Sandy. Hope you had a good summer. xo, Jan

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 13 2013 5:12 pm

      Thank you for your generous comments, Jan. You are 200% correct that the Russian initiative calls for caution and 300% correct that Americans are war weary.

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