Syria For Americans

Attacking Syria gets more surreal every day. The abstract nature of that debate, in the United States, as if somehow real lives, Syrian lives, were not hanging in the balance is appalling. And what is most starkly absent from the discussion is any apparent concern over a civil war that has already caused over 100,000 deaths, created some six million refugees and internally displaced persons and promises that the worst is yet to come.

That’s not a reason to support President Barack Obama’s proposal, but to oppose it. Obama is not claiming to be acting to mitigate the carnage against the Syrian people, but rather to “punish” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons in the civil war (the word “allegedly” is very important there, as we shall see.) That sort of action will serve only to make things worse, by rallying forces in outrage at a US attack. It will risk further enflaming Lebanon as well. And it will not eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons, merely “degrade” his supply and ability to fire them. Actually eliminating his ability to use chemical or biological weapons would require that dreaded step of “putting boots on the ground.”

Opposition to Obama’s plan has mixed roots. Many oppose it because of the inescapable assessment that it will make matters worse in Syria and that, even if the US attains its objective of “sending a message” that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated, the harm it will bring to Syria is too high a price for the postage on that letter. Others oppose because they justifiably mistrust the American claims of “incontrovertible proof” of Assad’s guilt. The “evidence” Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have presented is not evidence. It relies entirely on their own statements that the proof they have is sufficient, but they don’t actually say what that evidence is.

Even the United Kingdom, long Washington’s dutiful lapdog, doesn’t buy it. Many have identified the Iraq War as the reason for the lack of trust in the US, and that is certainly a major factor. But that devastating deception came on the heels of other incidents of intelligence failures or willful deceptions: the Gulf of Tonkin scam that loosed such devastation on Vietnam, the veil of lies woven by the Reagan Administration to conceal its dirty wars in Central America, the so-called air-tight intelligence that led Bill Clinton to destroy Sudan’s major pharmaceutical plant because he wrongly believed it was supplying terrorists. After all of that, the US is only seeing self-interested support for this operation from France and Israel, the latter having no stake in seeing either side win the conflict, but very much wanting to see Syria’s chemical weapons capacity degraded.

Far too much of the opposition to an attack is based on old-fashioned isolationism. It is a civil war, and we have no business being involved, many say. This thinking is far from unique to the United States, though it is most powerful here, especially because of our war-weariness from two ill-advised, enormously costly, and disastrous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. This view correctly resists the notion that the United States should be responsible for policing the world, and thus opposes a unilateral action to punish Assad. But, like the other views, it also turns a callous eye toward the suffering in Syria. In virtually every school of thought, whether supporting Obama’s plan or opposing it, there seems to be a great deal of thought given to what not to do, but scant consideration of what should be done.

One of the lesser known casualties of the Iraq debacle was the emerging doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect,” an international norm that has been adopted as a United Nations initiative. It sets out four cases — genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing – where the international community is responsible to intervene. The decision as to whether or not these conditions exist and merit action resides with the Security Council.

As I wrote recently, that hardly solves the problem. Leaving action in the hands of the Security Council is problematic at best, subject not only to the Council’s politics, but to the domestic politics and geo-strategic interests of the five permanent members who wield veto power. Even if the international will to stop the slaughter in Syria was there, Russia would veto any action unless they were sure the outcome would preserve Syria’s role as Russia’s key regional ally. With all these complications it is very easy for people to come to the conclusion that it is best to stay out of Syria and similar situations and just let them fight it out until they’re done, or unless the situation becomes a threat to their own countries. But that doesn’t make “Responsibility to Protect” a bad idea, just one that was poorly executed.

Assad bathes in blood. Jawrtani, 2012.
Assad bathes in blood. Freedom House, 2012.

Particularly, though not exclusively, on the left, the ease with which we can oppose something often leads us to neglect advocating alternatives. We just say no. And it is right and just to advocate doing nothing if the alternative is doing harm. But when doing nothing means a massive slaughter continues, we need to find a better choice.

In this case, where the rebels, understandably (whether or not you believe them correct) refuse to participate in a resolution process which includes the regime, and that regime, as must be expected, is not going to cede its power unless it is defeated, a cease fire must be imposed. And in such a case, a cease fire cannot be created or maintained by treaty, promises or diktat. It must be enforced by “boots on the ground” and no one – not the US, UN, Arab League, EU, Russia or anyone else – is willing to do that. Without such a measure, the killing will continue until one side wins (and possibly thereafter if there is competition for a new throne).

It is long past time to examine the role of REAL peacekeepers through an international body, either the UN, other bodies in combination or something perhaps new and more functional. Peacekeeping missions got a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so, due to lack of commitment, lack of support, and all too often because the missions were more self-serving than they should have been. It’s time to reassess such things with an eye toward reinventing them, and reviving and renewing the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” rather than attempt to do away with them.

I don’t say these things blithely. I recognize that any direct intervention in Syria means that some of the lives of the soldiers who come in will be lost. Many soldiers object to that risk when it is not for their own country or people. But the alternative is what we have now, where deaths number in six figures and refugees are being created in groups of hundreds of thousands. And everyone stands by unable or unwilling to help.

What is needed is an international agreement on a peacekeeping force. That force would be forbidden to act in support of any side but would be mandated to protect all civilians, whatever their loyalties. Such a force would be triggered into action not by the completely politicized Security Council system, but by specific benchmarks of devastation that remove the decision from political hands. Such a system, if enacted would, I believe, attract countries back to the idea of peacekeeping and would even attract volunteers from around the globe.

In the shorter term, if any good is to come of Obama’s proposal, it would come with a diplomatic initiative. The calls should be loud and firm, and should go out to the key players who, if they came together, could put a stop to the fighting in Syria. The United States needs to allow Iran to be a partner in trying to end this fighting. They need to drop all opposition to Iranian participation unconditionally.

Russia needs to be pressured into helping, rather than hindering, the effort to bring about a new future for Syria, which would also allow the UN to play an active role again. Moscow will need an incentive, and since much of their interest in Syria has to do with the flow of oil and natural gas from the Caucasus, they must receive assurances from the US and Arab League, in a UN forum, regarding these interests.

If Russia and Iran were part of the solution, they could also work to ensure that they are not without influence in Syria and the region in the future—which would be strongly reinforced if they were to play a key role in resolving the Syrian war. Iran, for its part, must demand that Hezbollah quit the fight in Syria and return behind the Lebanese border. Such constructive contributions on Iran’s part would restore much of its prestige in the Middle East and would go a long way toward building a bridge to Washington that even the fanatical “Bomb Iran” crowd would find difficult to blow up.

Obama could lead the way toward forming this coalition, one not dissimilar to the international coalition that helped to end the war in the Balkans two decades ago. As sociologist Muhammad Idrees Ahmad points out, that conflict, in many ways, is a far better analogy to Syria than the Iraq debacle is. But, while such a coalition could not only make great strides in Syria but also reduce tensions across the region, it is obvious that post-Cold War Russia was much more disposed to working with the United States, and vice versa. Still, if global calls were going out from people in both countries and Europe, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin would feel pressure to overcome their antagonism.

Only a multilateral force can make a difference in Syria, both in terms of peacekeeping and diplomacy. There really isn’t another option. Unless we want to simply watch that civil war engulf the country and destroy it, and likely, over time, to draw Lebanon into it. That seems like a much less viable option; it is certainly the more heartless one. Yes, we should oppose the use of unilateral force, particularly in ways that are only going to make matters worse and are not even designed to help the innocent civilians dying in droves every day in Syria. But if we want those deaths to stop, and if we want to avoid repeating the tragedy of Syria, we can’t just oppose. We also have to come up with real alternatives.


Photographs courtesy of  Freedom House. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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