In Syria, no bombing for now – at least from the outside

Like many of you, I am relieved to hear President Obama’s decision to wait for Congressional approval before attacking Syria.

  • First, it respects the international rule of law
  • Second, it respects the will of the American people
  • Third, it gives time for possible coalition building or peace negotiations with Assad

On the first point, this highlights the importance of the UN, even in the face of  vetoes by a recalcitrant Russia and China. Britain’s House of Commons recently voted narrowly against military involvement in Syria. France is set to discuss measures next week, with the majority socialist party members showing most support for action while conservatives are most likely to vote against it. The Arab League will talk about it today. And the UN hasn’t analysed the materials it picked up from the chemical weapons attack of August 21st. Russia threatened action if Syria was attacked, as did Iran. Lastly, the goal of any strike has never been clearly articulated.

So it appeared that if anything were to happen it would be:

  1. Unilateral,
  2. Based on uncertain premises,
  3. Likely to escalate, not diminish violence, and
  4. With an unclear goal.

On the other hand doing nothing, which has been the response for over two years, doesn’t seem to have worked out well. Certainly not for the 100,000 dead and the 2 million displaced by the violence.

Ever since Obama’s decision to move warships to the area, people have actually started talking about Syria. That in itself is a small victory. While Bush rushed forward with ever-more deceptive rhetoric on Iraq, Obama is stepping back to give us all an opportunity to become aware of the situation in Syria. That might in fact give too much credit to Obama. The public has little taste for yet another war in the Middle East, especially one with so little foreign support. Isn’t this just Iraq all over again? What does Syria have to do with us, anyway? Should we really start another war in the Middle East? (Note: the war was started long ago.) Doesn’t Russian Television tell us it’s a bad idea? Such questions, innocent enough, may reveal that we have been ignorant about Syria for too long.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but I agree with the Onion’s satirical, but spot-on, commentary from Assad:

Well, here we are. It’s been two years of fighting, over 100,000 people are dead, there are no signs of this war ending, and a week ago I used chemical weapons on my own people. If you don’t do anything about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. If you do something about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. Morally speaking, you’re on the hook for those deaths no matter how you look at it.

So, it’s your move, America. What’s it going to be?

After pondering a couple military possibilities, (fake) Assad suggests doing nothing:

I suppose you could always, you know, not respond with military force at all. But how can you do that? I pumped sarin gas into the lungs of my own people, for God’s sake! You can’t just let me get away with that, can you? I mean, I guess you easily could, and spare yourself all of this headache, but then you would probably lose any of your remaining moral high ground on the world stage and make everything from the Geneva Conventions to America’s reputation as a beacon for freedom and democracy around the world look like a complete sham.

In real news, a similar position is taken in the face of such attacks as well. “International peace and security depend on certain taboos that are easily recognized when they are broken,” says Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. “It can be more important for an intervention to take place because nuclear or chemical or biological weapons are used, as opposed to just measuring how many people are killed.” (via NPR)

Whatever happens next internationally, I hope that the one thing I can convince you to do is to take some time and learn about Syria. It really is an amazing, beautiful and diverse country with a a rich history – much of which is slowly being destroyed.

Last month, when I wrote about Burma, Imperialism, and the Buddhist-Muslim violence I noted that I was struck by the similarities in the imperialist history of Burma and Syria and some of the parallel political repercussions of the two nations. You can watch the BBC documentary I mentioned there here:

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Do watch it. One of the fascinating facts that I picked up after watching it (and a tiny bit of searching around) is that the current president of the Syrian National Council, the representative body for the Syrian people which has been recognized by the US and other nations but which is based in Turkey, is a Christian named George - you can see him interviewed on the CBC here. In fact there is an amazing diversity of people in Syria, but the only ones we’re told about in the news are “the rebels, some of whom may be affiliated with Al-Qaeda.” (In fact, Al-Queda is a threat not just to Assad, but to the vast majority of Syrians.)

Just one more personal note. I live in a large post-graduate student house now and for the last two years I have had a Syrian woman as a housemate. We have talked now and then about the uprising and war. The one phrase that rings in my ears from our conversations, the one that I have so little answer to is, “nobody cares.” – “He’s killing children, and nobody cares. He’s bombing whole cities, and nobody cares. He’s using gas and…”

Show you care. Read these:

Discuss them with friends, family, strangers. Maia’s suggestions, including medical aid and dropping “love bombs” (supplies) sound great. But they wont’ happen if we avert our eyes for another two years.

  • justinwhitaker

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Algernon (and apologies again for the delay in getting it approved). I am leaning ever more away from supporting any kind of unilateral attack. I’m not sure I was ever for that, but, as you point out, that looks like the way things may play out thanks to broad international opposition to military action.

    My hope is that Obama is not planning anything like Iraq/Afghanistan (no ground troops have been readied afaik, for instance). And I do think he is much wiser than Bush, in case that needs to be pointed out.

    But I do think whatever happens, it must be legal, or at least (if not sanctioned by the UN) supported very broadly by both Arab nations and our allies. Even then, I would like to see the US/Western powers play a mere supporting role.

    Obama got us talking; let’s hope some of this conversation takes us toward meaningful solutions…

  • Thomas Armstrong

    From what I heard from Kerry, he was unwilling to accept considering the option that congress wouldn’t approve some sort of action by the President. I think now, having submitted to congress word of the desire of the President to take some sort of action, if the congress disapproves, Obama is required not to act. And if congress imposes limitations to an Act of War, Obama must abide within those limitations.

    I would like to have something happen. Use of poisonous gas on civilians is a monstrous act that the world has a particular need to deter. Whether anything can be done that would deter Assad, ot a future despot anywhere, from making use of poison gas is questionable of course, but likely Obada and his military advisors will come up with a Goldilocksian Middle Way, that is neither too hot or too cold.

    My preference is that an attempt be made to kill Assad. It would be the Bonhoeffer-like most-compassionate response imho.

    • justinwhitaker

      Heya Tom – good to see you again :) Yea, I’m somewhat baffled by Obama on this to be honest. Perhaps he’s carrying a ‘big stick’ into the area and hoping it frightens Assad/Putin into negotiations. The world opinion seems to be for a diplomatic resolution, which, seeing things on the ground there, looks absolutely impossible at the moment. My Syrian friend wants bombs on Assad, or, better, big guns for the rebels so that the Syrian people can ‘remove him’ themselves; even many anti-Assad Syrians are suspicious of any Western military intervention.

      Yes, something should happen, but I’m against the US carrying out ‘punishment strikes’ in Syria on our own – the world needs to be behind whatever happens, even if ‘the world’ means just a big coalition and not the UN (as Russia/China seem to make that impossible).

      Killing Assad… I’m not sure what that would do; but it would probably hasten the unraveling of the government, which may well be good. But I’m not sure about the precedent it sets – again, overstepping international law when we/the US has so little support. I’d hate to see a President Palin or whoever one day saying, “See, Obama did in Syria, so we can do it in [name your country with a horrible leader].”

      • Thomas Armstrong

        Justin, Use of poison gas creates a special circumstance that justifies a response. If the US response is apt, US-friendly nations will approve after the fact and, perhaps, use of poison gas will be deterred for the future. At this point, the US — the 800 lb gorilla — must act alone for the benefit of the war-weary West.

        • justinwhitaker

          “Use of poison gas creates a special circumstance that justifies a response…” – agreed; but not a unilateral one. After the fact approval might happen, it might not. An attack might be apt, it might not. Lost of ‘might bes’ right now.

          I’m all for ‘strong leadership’ by the President, but the whole world right now is saying ‘wait – talk…’ While I don’t agree with that approach, I think the US needs to respect it and, for the time being, sit tight. Maybe after the next big gas attack… sigh.

          • Thomas Armstrong

            Doing nothing is an action, Justin. “Nothing” assures more and more of the same horror in Syria.

            Nicholas Kristof, the most peace-loving columnist I know, writes, “It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month.”

            More Kristof: “The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the number of dead in the civil war, is exasperated at Western doves who think they are taking a moral stance.

            “Where have these people been the past two years,” the organization asks on its Web site. “What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence.”

            In other words, how is being “pro-peace” in this case much different in effect from being “pro-Assad” and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?

            • justinwhitaker

              I agree, Tom and I appreciated Kristof’s article (my friends who normally love him were quite silent on it, oddly enough…).

              I just think the case needs to be made for legal backing. And if legal backing can’t be found because the UN is hijacked by Russia, there should be a case made for changing it so that this doesn’t happen in the future. Meanwhile, if there is broad international support for intervention, then Russia should be shamed/pressured (economically, etc) into at least abstaining on a resolution (as they did in Libya) so that action can go ahead legally.

              But right now the international community is rather ho-hum about intervention. That needs to change *before* intervention can happen. Whether that means 5000 more Syrian deaths, or 10000, or 20000, I don’t know. And who knows, perhaps some diplomatic solution will miraculously appear in that time.

              • Thomas Armstrong

                Your high regard for the international community is misplaced imho, Justin. Russia can’t be shamed and feels burnt re Libya. But, for what it is worth, the Arab League now agrees with Obama as to the facts and Saudi Arabia will contribute to the US effort. The British vote was close, btw — even though they are war weary.

                The “problem” that we have is that the US has all the might to do this thing. And “this thing,” whatever it turns out to be, could change the horrible road we are now on, which includes problems with Iran.

  • Thomas Armstrong
    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for this, Tom. I might use it in an upcoming post. I can see ‘intervention-skeptics’ dismissing something like this though, asking who does it really represent? There have been people wishing for Assad’s ouster for 2+ years now. And this doesn’t change the problem of Obama having no clear objective in mind other than “sending a clear message.”

      30-40 million dollars worth of bombs over a couple days might send a message, but it might not do anything more than that (and the blowback from it is unknown). Several weeks of strikes might be needed to legitimately ‘tip the scales’ and even then it might take months before this is over (and again, the blowback is unknown).

  • Jennifer L Myers

    I think it’s sad that the only thing Congress and the President might agree on is attacking Syria. What about all the problems in this country? Why not use the money to rebuild Detroit since 75% of its population has fled? What about the poor state of our public schools and the fact that only the wealthy can afford a college education? Why are Syria’s problems suddenly so much more important than our own? Congressional Republicans & Democrats have brought the Federal government to a standstill due to nothing more than selfishness, greed and the desire for political power. Congress isn’t concerned about U.S. citizens. Why is nothing being done about immigration reform? Why is there no agreement or progress on gun control? Why aren’t we supporting non-profits & other community groups that actually care about improving their communities? The U.S. government certainly doesn’t. (I’m making a generalization here, but for the most part, it’s true). Why doesn’t Congress pass any new laws? Why is it that all the Republicans do is oppose the President? These are the questions Congress should be asking itself rather than debating whether or not we should attack Syria.