By Doug Porter
Once again the world faces an ogre whose actions threaten the sensibilities of good people everywhere and any neighborhood or ethinic group that gets in his way. I am speaking of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the latest in a series of post-cold war functionaries to break bad on the world and their own people.
Syria, like much of the post-colonial world, is a nation-state created at the point of a gun by its European conquerors. Assad is just another functionary entrusted with keeping stability in an unstable region.
He and his father before him were placeholders for Soviet interests in the Middle East. Today Syria and Iran stand alone against the Sunni masters of Saudi Arabia, a US surrogate increasingly open about operating on its own agenda.
The Saudi monarchy’s religious interests are intertwined with economic multinational energy oligarchies, making for a three, perhaps four, dimensional background for policies in the region. I’m sure a lot of Pentagon types yearn for the good old days when it was just the U.S. vs the Commies.
A huge number of Americans can’t even locate Syria on a map, much less understand the ethnic divisions within that nation or the competing types of Islam that make any “political” solution nearly impossible.
Now we’re being told about horrible, inhumane treatment of people within Syria. French intelligence-and other sources- are unequivocally saying that Sarin nerve gas was used to allow the Assad regime’s troops to capture an area they’d failed to conquer by conventional means. Over 1400 people are dead. The “evidence” was largely destroyed by subsequent artillery barrages from the Syrian army.
The conventional wisdom is that Syrian President Bashar Assad must be taught a lesson, one that will discourage him from violating international law in the future. It can’t be too much of a lesson—like sending a smart bomb through his bedroom window—lest the bad guys (Al Qaeda) embedded within the good guys (Syrian rebels) be allowed to seize power.
President Obama has refrained from taking action to date. By asking for Congressional approval on any military action (never mind for the moment if unilateral action is legal under international law), he’s put the onus squarely on the shoulders of the chicken hawks who have ruled the roost of US foreign policy for decades.
The upcoming battle in Congress is largely symbolic. The President, following in the policy precedents set by his predecessors, believes he doesn’t really need Congressional approval to take military action. This vote is being held to negate future political fallout.
Congress will return next week and promises are being made that there will actually be a vote taken. So far nobody’s tied any potential resolution to defunding Obamacare, but I would not be surprised if that actually happens. The ‘conventional wisdom’ is that the vote will be close.
BUT… a unilateral decision to take military action would be a whole lot less likely if there is an overwhelmingly adverse reaction to the President’s proposal. He’d be sacrificing much needed political capital for other looming battles, including Obamacare, the budget/sequestration and immigration.
I know it sounds horrible on the face of it to say that we as a nation should not intervene to protect civilians from being killed by nerve gas. However, it sounds equally wrong to say we should kill civilians to save civilians. And I’m not even sure the subject is up for discussion, at least as far as the mass media is concerned.
From Ray Pensador at Daily Kos:
The crescendo of voices calling for war (or is it “limited strike?”) is growing louder and louder by the day (not, by the minute); the simplistic false dichotomies that are always used in war propaganda are repeated over and over, like a mantra: “We don’t want babies to be killed with gas attacks by the monster, Assad, and so we need to launch missiles at the country to prevent babies form being killed.”
The mockery and name-calling and marginalizing of those calling for restraint, for careful examination of all the facts and all the options, increases exponentially, drowning out their voices, as drums of war are banged louder and louder–in a frenzy.
I also question just how “honest” a debate we can have when just about everything is stamped “top secret” these days. It’s kind of hard to prevail in a debate with your mouth taped shut.
It’s also my contention that nobody’s demonstrated how such intervention would actually accomplish stopping the Syrian slaughter. As one wag said over the weekend, if our goal is to send Assad a message, Facebook might be a lot cheaper and just as (in)effective.
It’s time to break out the peace signs, call your Congresscritter and educate yourselves.
Here’s today’s New York Times editorial:
President Obama made the right decision to seek Congressional authorization for his announced plan to order unilateral military strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons. There has to be a vigorous and honest public debate on the use of military force, which could have huge consequences even if it is limited in scope and duration.
If he is to win Congressional support, Mr. Obama and his top aides will have to explain in greater detail why they are so confident that the kind of military strikes that administration officials have described would deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from gassing his people again (American officials say more than 1,400 were killed on Aug. 21) rather than provoke him to unleash even greater atrocities.
They will also have to explain how they can keep the United States from becoming mired in the Syrian civil war — something Mr. Obama, for sound reasons, has long resisted — and how military action will advance the cause of a political settlement: the only rational solution to the war.
Here are nine questions about Syria that you might have been too embarrassed to ask. And for those of you needing in-depth wonkishness, here’s a detailed look at many aspects of this situation.
Much better than the drums of war: Imagine by John Lennon…
I’ll be back tomorrow with plenty of local news. It’s just not possible to prognosticate with four potential Mayoral candidates holding afternoon (or late morning) press conferences.
On This Day: 1783 – The Revolutionary War between the U.S. and Great Britain ended with the Treaty of Paris. 1895 – The first professional football game was played in Latrobe, PA. The Latrobe YMCA defeated the Jeannette Athletic Club 12-0. 1992 – David Bowie appeared on the cover of “Architectural Digest.” He was the first human on the cover in 4 years.
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john eisenhart says
How can a man talk about MLK’s ideals yet pursue death and destruction? Enough lies. Obama is a left wing cover for the world’s banksters. He has zero interest in true social justice.
Brent Beltran says
Syria is screwed. Either let a dictator continue to use poison gas on his people killing thousands which would give the ok to other states to use WMD’s. Or the US bombs the crap out of Syria as an example and potentially killing thousands. In turn creating a power vacuum that Hezbollah, al Qaeda or Iran jump into. Which might bring in Israel and the Saudis.
I can’t support a US strike but I’m also not for the use of chemical weapons. How do we as progressives make both clear with sounding pro-Assad or anti-Merica?
It’s an all around lose lose situation. Doing nothing will have consequences and so will taking action. I feel there is no right answer.
Good analysis, Doug, of the situation in Syria now and in the past. The “red line” choice of words was very unfortunate, however, it is not reason to take our Country into another unwinable war! When will we learn we will not deter killing by killing! Call your senators and congressmen to register your vote. They are keeping tallys. What good those votes will do remain to be seen, but, I for one, would rather go down fighting (with my words and my vote)!
Brent, you are so right…it certainly is a conundrum. But I cannot see how attacking Syria is an acceptable answer. Is it even our place to solve? I wonder if Obama is thinking Bosnia, rather than Iraq? Of course he has never been Left: his tendency to use force does not reside in any party or ideology…it’s just a big-stick nation temptation. One to which Mr. Obama apparently has temporarily yielded. One hopes the House and Senate do not agree.
The prez is not an idiot, even though I may have indicated as much in a recent email to the White House, and this is his entire job. He does not have another. So maybe if he gets shut of his unimaginative advisors and puts his thinking cap on, he could come up with something better than attack, as a way to help the afflicted. Don’t see how afflicting them more will help, myself.
bob dorn says
A deep, long view of a deep, impossibly complicated conflict, and a strong argument that it could bring on series of conflicts emanating from it throughout much of the world. Somebody’s going to pick this primer up and republish it.
This one’s a bit like WW I in that alliances between Syria and the Arab/Islamic World also exist and reach out to opposed Western interests. There’s a high likelihood that military, even intelligence and sabotage actions, would bring immediate responses from the various allies of the various parties in Syria. So, Sen. McCain and the chicken hawks he ought to despise are whistling past the gravestones.
On the other hand, are those pictures and videos of the victims of chem warfare, otherwise unmarked as they went through hell and THEN died.
I’ve been arguing that we should push for a joint allied effort with Turkey and Jordan to build refugee cities outside Assad’s control and defend them, thus trying to contain the civil war to fighters of it.
And I wonder if the debate sure to take place in Congress is going to be symbolic. What might emerge quickly is that since the Korean War, and the war against North Vietnam, we’ve left it to our Presidents and their advisors to deploy our military mega=machine, and we see the same results, right down to today, inIraq and Afghanistan; the outcomes of these presidential mistakes have been disastrous, as in continuing death and destruction until we’ve abandoned the battle field and simply declared, “Mission Accomplished.”
“It’s time to break out the peace signs, call your Congresscritter and educate yourselves.” Did just that this morning, Doug. My “reading wall” is starting again. I can’t understand why we are the only power that finds it necessary to “save the world.” If other countries are not going to participate, why are we?
So, on one side you have the Syrian government/Hamas/Iran + known stockpiles of chemical weapons. On the other side, you have the rebels with increasing influence of Al Qaeda/fundamentalists. On the sidelines, you have Israel who does not want the chemical weapons to fall into Hamas’s hands and the US that does not want them in the hands of Hamas or Al Qaeda. Somewhere in the middle you have a civilian population that is both ethnically and religiously fractured that is being slaughtered. The US does not have the capability of destroying the chemical weapons without committing aircraft and the probability that such strikes might release the chemicals and kill more people. Additionally, Syria has better anti-aircraft protection than Libya had. Any punitive strikes to attempt to “spank” Assad are unlikely to change anything, especially if the stated plan is not to change the balance. Oh, and as an added bonus, Syria is Russia’s BFF.
There is no good solution here, just a bunch of bad choices to choose from. From the movie WarGames, the only solution is not to play. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a clean way not to play. The Libyan confrontation showed that weapons can easily migrate to other places once things turn to chaos. Probably the best solution is to wait it out and invest in the intel needed to figure out where the weapons are migrating to and hopefully stop them there. (With fingers crossed that a major city in Israel does not suffer a Sarin gas attach. If Assad continues to use chemical weapons, then intervene if the UN sanctions it and only with others involved.
This is really complicated and when both sides of a civil war are not going to be your friends, it should give strong pause on getting involved in the first place.
bob dorn says
We ought to be considering those refugee zones, expanding them so that they offer real sanctuaries in Turkey, Jordan, even parts of Syria where large populations like the Kurds are not aligned with the ruling elites of the country. Defend people. Let the Defense Department defend people, and advance their welfar. I doubt Assad, even with Russian support, would be able to overcome a rescue job.
The United Nations used to do this in Africa.
Good fact-filled analysis, George, to go with Doug’s excellent piece. I also like the map Doug included. What a mess.
Andy Cohen says
There are no “drumbeats of war” in the case of Syria any more than there were in Libya. In Libya, the assist of airpower was more than enough to level the scales and allow “nature to take its course.”
You are all right: There are no good solutions. But doing nothing, in my opinion, is not an option.
As for what can be accomplished, the U.S. can so serious damage to Assad’s military capability with precision strikes against military targets. International authorities know where the chemical weapons caches are being stashed, but as George noted, you cannot strike those without releasing the poison into the atmosphere, inadvertently killing tens of thousands more innocents. So you hit military installations and destroy some of Assad’s conventional weaponry, and maybe a significant number of his troops.
Will it actually dissuade Assad? Maybe no. But it will at least give him something to think about the next time he decides to use chemical weapons. And as Secretary Kerry said, it sends a message to Iran and North Korea.
I view this situation similar to Bill Clinton’s choices in the Balkans. There was a moral imperative to act, and he was able to do so without committing troops to the ground, and do so successfully. Still, there’s no reason to believe at this point that the U.S. will have to be as involved in Syria as we were in Serbia, and that the campaign will last even a fraction of the time that one did. Obama does not have a bloodlust like G.W. did. He’s just looking to do the right thing. What that is is still a very good question.
Vox Populi says
Finally we have found an issue the Republican Congress doesn’t want to fail, and it involves killing people, especially middle eastern people. The hypocrisy of it all stinks, not to mention morally bankrupt…
bob dorn says
Anna Daniels says
Andy- this country has not done enough soul searching about its “moral imperatives” to be in a position to act credibly and unilaterally against Syria. Just this past week we were informed that the CIA was responsible for the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran (1953) and that we helped Sadam Hussein gas Iranians. (1980’s). Will we find out what the CIA is up to in Syria in 2050? Pretty much everything we touch in the Middle East and Asia Minor turns to carnage. And that’s on top of the carnage already occurring through civil and sectarian wars.
100,000 Syrians have already died, pre-chemical warfare. Two million Syrians are now refugees. There is clearly a humanitarian crisis happening in Syria. We have a moral imperative to address that. Strategic military strikes don’t feed people, provide hospitals or personal safety. They may very well provide yet another enemy.
bob dorn says
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says
Whatever happened to Seal Team Six and why can’t that kind of “limited action” be taken against Assad? We know where he lives. That would make Obama look good again and vindicate John Kerry’s tough talk; it would make JohnMcCain shut up after months of sabre-rattling; it would spare the beleaguered citizens of Damascus and Idlib (love that name) and all those other old Syrian cities; and let us get back to the business of finding a mayor. Moveon.org is taking names for its petition to Congress urging No votes on bombing Syria.
Love those songs, Doug Porter. I can still hear the music.
The seal team six approach took months of planning and the target of the attack had not left the compound for quite some time. The compound was located on the far edge of a city/town. The chances for such an action against Assad are extremely low. You would more likely end up with what Carter had in the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran.
As Anna points out, we reap what we sow. Isolationism is not the answer, but neither is assassination and overthrowing governments. It is somewhere in between. We (and our allies) are responsible for much of the mess that the Middle East is at this moment from actions taken at the end of the colonial period/WWII. We are like a bad chess player, we make moves that look good for the near term, but in the end, we lose the game. Somehow, we never learn from our mistakes.
Mark Bauman says
The “red line” for humanity is the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. If the United Nations wasn’t so fractious or feckless a coordinated international effort could be mounted against Assad – but that won’t happen. The weapons that we have at our disposal are accurate (usually) to within about 10 meters, and when we sent a missile down Gaddafi’s chimney he backed off posthaste. Assad must be stopped, and it looks like the US and the French are going to have to do it.
As I said to Brent, I feel there is no right answer. If we send out air strikes more innocent people will be killed and the situation will probably just escalate and in due time we’ll end up sending the ground troops. If we do nothing innocent people will still die and the political ramifications will just sever ties with other countries. Syria is flat out screwed and to a lesser degree so is the U.S. Hopeless with no light at the end of the tunnel.
One thing that makes this interesting is that both liberals and conservatives alike by and large seem to be against getting involved. Both feel it’s just not worth being the world’s police and risking more American service people being killed.
Sounds like Congress voted for the use of force. Bummer. They’ll go against the Prez on anything to help people, to stop suffering and sickness, to help the economy recover, but if he wants to go bomb a country that, yet again, is no threat to us, hey go for it.
Doug Porter says
Congress hasn’t taken a final vote. The House isn’t back until next week. Today’s festivities, which included John McCain playing poker on his cell phone, were merely a warm up.
Thanks, Doug. Hope springs eternal!
John Lawrence says
Without the Brits voting to support him, Obama was out on a limb going it alone without an ally in the world. That is why he is seeking Congress’ endorsement. Republicans could hang him out to dry by voting against military action leaving Obama looking like a “pitiful, helpless giant” faced with the choice of backing down from his decision to bomb Syria with no one or no country in the world supporting him or yielding to the wishes of Congress the way the Brits did.
As suggested in the comments here, maybe the best solution would be to concentrate on a humanitarian solution for the many refugees and other suffering Syrians and forget about military action.
As bad as the gas attack on civilians including children was, the fact is that modern warfare has involved an increasing ratio of civilian to participant deaths. Perhaps a more sophisticated solution other than spanking Assad militarily is possible that the rest of the world would support, namely humanitarian support for the refugees.
Obama should reconsider his previous statement about spanking Assad which will probably accomplish nothing and gain support around the world for a negotiated settlement and a humanitarian solution.
bob dorn says
“As suggested in the comments here, maybe the best solution would be to concentrate on a humanitarian solution for the many refugees and other suffering Syrians…”
Amen, and Amen.
Charlie Jones says
I concur – we need to ask ourselves what is a large source of the fear that creates strife among peoples of different ethnic, religious, socio-economic, sexual-orientation, etc. backgrounds? I believe the answer is ignorance. The solution is largely one of education and paving ways that promote a rising standard of living.
How about a campaign of occupy, educate and elevate?
Anna Daniels says
Congressman Juan Vargas is a “Yes” on military intervention in Syria as of Sept 6. Is he acting on behalf of his constituents? Call his Chula Vista district office 422-5963 or email:
I like Rep. Vargas, but he’s much more Right than his predecessor. His support of force is not surprising. Perhaps those voters appreciated Filner’s excellent constituent service and ignored his foreign policy votes. In that case, we do not know their slant on war, so your idea of calling his office, if one is in tht district, sounds good. Because maybe Vargas doesn’t know their slant either. But he may feel it is also his role to lead, and he is leading in a changed direction.
Will wonders never cease…the 6 o’clock statement by Pres. Obama definitely calmed the atmosphere. No military action at this time, no House vote at this time. As one speaker suggested, the fact that Obama did not say Assad by name may mean it is not clear that he has complete control over his military. Curious.