Support for Syria

Support for Syria
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Should the west ever go to war for purely humanitarian reasons? Welcome to one of the great foreign policy dilemmas of the modern era; a question that’s been routinely provoked by no shortage of ghastly overseas massacres, genocides, and civil wars, in both this century and the last.

No one’s ever offered a firm answer, and to extent there are possible case studies — France’s 1979 invasion of the Central African Empire to depose their insane cannibal dictator, the NATO war against Slobodan Milsoveic’s Serbia in the 1990s, America’s entire 2003-2011 Iraq occupation — such examples are clouded by ambiguous political rhetoric and multi-faceted justifications that designated humanitarianism as merely one motive of many. And now comes another opportunity for consideration, care of Barack Obama and Bashar al-Assad.

Assad, it’s now pretty much agreed in every foreign capital but Moscow, has used chemical weapons against his own people multiple times as part of his two-and-a-half-year war against internal dissent. According to the ace reporting of  Dexter Filkins at The New York Times, the precise number of uses may be as high as 35, in fact. But the only figure anyone’s concerned with at the moment is 1,400 — the number of Syrians US intelligence believes were killed in a single, unprecedentedly vicious Damascus gas attack on August 21 of this year.

While some will obviously never again give US intelligence the benefit of the doubt in the aftermath of Iraqi WMD-gate, to dispute the existence of Syria’s chemical weapons is to straddle the line from skeptic to denier. Bodies pulled from the attack site have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin. Intercepted phone calls have caught regime officials discussing the August 21 attack with officers in the country’s chemical weapons unit. Dozens of amature videos have documented the sheer scope of human suffering, and poison experts have verified their symptoms.

In any case, the evidence has certainly been ample and media-friendly enough to make thorough mockery of Barack Obama’s now-infamous “red line” comment of August 2012, in which the President seemed to imply that he’d launch a military strike against Syria the moment Assad broke out the chemical weapons. His argument at the time — which was almost certainly not completely well-thought-out, coming as it did at the very end of spontaneous press conference — held that America was willing to shoulder the burden of protecting the Syrian people from their murderous government, but only if such murderousness crossed some arbitrary, well, “red line,” of savagery.

The moral incoherence of this logic was immediately apparent: as Obama laid out his thesis some 20,000 Syrians had already been slaughtered through “conventional means” in the Assad crackdown – and another 80,000 have been killed since. As far as the overall body count is concerned, any victims of chemical weapons are destined to remain in the war’s minority. Yet under the Obama doctrine, it’s the cause of death that matters more than the amount of it, and after news of August 21 began to percolate across the globe, Obama finally declared Saturday that yes, he would officially seek Congressional approval to begin bombing.

It’s extremely unclear if this is an idea capable of rallying bipartisan support in both chambers. Public support for American involvement in yet another US war in the Muslim world (by some counts, Iran will now be the only Middle Eastern nation America has not invaded, bombed, droned, or occupied militarily in some fashion since 9/11) is said to sit somewhere between nine to 20%, an opposition so robust it clearly transcends ideology.

Critics on both right and left alike argue there’s little evidence to suggest striking Syria at this point will actually help anything; the anti-Assad opposition has become so thoroughly infiltrated by foreign al-Qaeda mercenaries and cash from the fundamentalist gulf state monarchies it’s hardly obvious if the country’s humanitarian crisis will improve in any meaningful way if the dictator falls. The “best” case scenario, it seems, is that the civil war will just get bloodier and more anarchic once its central personality is eliminated, while the worst case scenario would see the rise of an extremist Sunni regime eager to wage a vindictive war of extermination against the country’s Assad-friendly Shiite minority who oppressed them for so very long.

Such anxieties have prompted Obama to clarify that “regime change” is not the goal of his planned raids — nor even altering the civil war’s balance of power — but that only raises further questions. If ending the war and ending the regime are both off the table, then what exactly is the mission? Bombing Assad’s chemical warehouses in order to merely prevent a certain type of killing which isn’t even the war’s most prolific or deadly?

Secretary Kerry, Jay Carney and others have argued the global community must uphold its policy of zero-tolerance against the use of chemical warfare in any context, but of course there’s no real precedent of this consensus ever being enforced. Saddam Hussein got away with using chemical warfare twice in the 1980s, first against Iran and then the Kurds, and it’s believed the USSR once used it to quell a protest in Georgia. No one intervened in those cases, because the larger geopolitical realities were deemed comparatively more important than the lives of a few foreign civilians. Such callous calculations — a hallmark of Cold War thinking — wasn’t the west’s proudest hour, but they were arguments of principle, however cynical. Bombing chemical plants in isolation, in contrast, strikes me as the ethical equivalent of that famous catch-phrase about the neutron bomb: they’ll “destroy weapons but leaves killers intact.”

In a recent op-ed in the National Post, former Canadian cabinet minister Irwin Cotler, a well-known booster of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine of humanitarian intervention, argued that “if mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.” Like a good liberal internationalist, his suggestions to President Obama were typical fare — convene the Security Council, establish no-fly zones, boost aide for refugees, send Assad to the Hague, etc. It was an agenda as breathtakingly naive as it was ridiculously idealistic, but was also useful for offering a glimpse of the impossibly high bar any genuine western-led, internationalist effort to solve the Syria problem in a concrete or lasting way would have to meet.

Whether Congress approves it or not, the Obama plan does not even meet the standard of being too idealistic. His agenda is neither liberal nor realist, principled nor pragmatic. It leaves Syria no safer, America no stronger, Assad no weaker, and the fundamental question that started all this — is the United States a benevolent superpower prepared to exert her military might to safeguard the rights of the world’s oppressed? — still lacking a clear answer.


  1. Taylor

    Interesting thing to follow:

    Some pretty insane statements on both sides.

  2. @SideshowJon36

    I think a big part of the reluctance is that Obama ran specifically on NOT engaging in this sort of Middle East adventurism.

    Plus, Obama and Kerry's opposition to removing Saddam even though he used similar weapons on a more frequent basis adds to the hypocrisy.

  3. Rachel

    Exactly, I think this is as big a change from the platform he ran on as if George W. Bush suddenly switched to Keynesian economics and drastically raising taxes. This isn't even like anything I'd have expected from 2012 Obama, even with Libya.

    Remember how many times he said McCain and Romney were saber-rattling on Iran? Well, the Google search "BBC saber rattling" returns many-a-hit for Syria Biden and Obama have also been on-record as saying any president willing to go to war without Congress should be impeached, before their turn-about.

    He said that if only we didn't go to war so often, well, the deficit wouldn't have been so high, he blamed the Iraq War from distracting us from Afghanistan, and now he wants to spend a few more billions on a new war where we can send troops that just got pulled out of the other two.

    What will either party do in the next primary, when most Republicans and Democratic (we'll see the proportions when it goes to a vote) politicians seem to think we couldn't go to Syria fast enough? I used to believe that if most candidate would at least follow the platform he was elected on. Flexibility is one thing, but you wouldn't expect Democrats to suddenly vote for abolishing Medicare, right?

    I should point out, the CIA declassified that they actually gave Saddam Hussein's troops intelligence on the location of Kurdish troops. As much as anything, it feels like a sign of the times. When will we stop going to war so we can prepare for an actual war?

  4. @SideshowJon36

    Well, the US gave him Intel on Iranian troops, not Kurdish troops. There weren't really any Kurdish troops to speak of, Saddam just cold murdered a village because he thought they might be too friendly with Iran.

  5. Jake_Ackers

    True it was pure genocide.

  6. Jake_Ackers

    True that. The guy is just being the largest hypocrite. If he invades the Nobel Committee should remove his medal. Seriously. The one time I think I would back Obama he turns into Bush times 2. At least Bush thought there was a threat in Iraq because it was right after 9/11 (for the record I was against Iraq too). Invading Syria just makes no sense.

  7. Jon Bennett

    Bush intended to occupy Iraq like we occupied Germany and Japan; as a strategic 50 year strategy. Democrats went along with it at first, then pulled the rug out when it became politically expedient.

    Obama has no plan in Syria, except to blow stuff up to prove some sort of ambiguous point.

  8. Jon Bennett

    Meant to say Germany and Korea. Give us a strategic staging area to respond to threats in the region.

  9. EBounding

    The point of strategic strikes is to punish Assad and let him know it's bad to use chemical weapons, per the 1925 Geneva Protocol. If the US Government does not enforce the treaty it will have no meaning.

    That's what I hear from die-hard Democrats. How blowing up some things and killing people (except Assad) enforces the treaty is a mystery to me.

  10. Jake_Ackers

    True but that is what the UN is for. I know Russia and China is blocking it but we all know why. Access to the Mediterranean. Negotiate a deal. But no I guess its easier to send a view missiles Assad's way.

  11. EBounding

    This is off-topic, but who's the guy that down votes every single comment on this site?

  12. Kwyjor

    I'm not much of a judge of these things, but I quite like the art in this one. (We _can_ still talk about that, right?)

    I don't recognize the bust off to the left, though.

  13. Beppo

    Well, we know it's not Churchill. I think it's supposed to be Lincoln.

  14. tiaker

    That is indeed Lincoln. Some caricatures depict him with really bushy eyebrows.

  15. @Cristiona

    Going to war to save face is rarely a good plan, but… here we are.

  16. Hello

    Doctors Without Borders carefully qualified their statement to “exposure to neurotoxic agent”, there has also been no explanation how doctors could be seen on video treating people without wearing protective gear if it was nerve gas.

    We don’t have the recordings, so we can’t know if the proof the army admitted to using nerve gas is overstated or outright lie.

    “Samples provided to the United States” by whom, and by what provenance? Rebels? The previous samples couldn’t have the origin of the samples verified.

    Over the last 12 years I have become attuned to the language of those who mislead. What is not said is more important than what is said, and the precise grammar and meaning of words are critically important. they are stretching circumstantial evidence as far as they can.

  17. Joey J. Jestor

    Its just said that a doctor cannot always heal the wounded no matter how much studies or experience he may have.The actuality of people getting sick and ding is life and since life unfolds the way it does,how does one deal with it accordingly and according to what purpose for things come and they go.

  18. Guest

    There is no easy way to say this – we have become so war-weary and cynical of our leaders that we are not prepared to risk a single life to save thousands anymore.
    The only winners of this are despots and tyrants who can now brutalise their people with impunity.
    And yet, if it were my child who was at risk of being sent off to war – I might well feel the same way.

  19. Benjamin Allen Whetham

    "we are not prepared to risk a single life to save thousands anymore. "

    Two points:

    1. You first.

    2. We have not been saving lives by intervening, propping up dictators, etc, our governments have slaughtered millions over the past several decades through their policies.

  20. Jake_Ackers

    The Grand Negotiator thus far has not lived up to being the "One." These are the times I would fully support Obama but he is dropping the ball. This can be handled without an invasion by the US especially since he is hinting at going into Syria with or without Congress. Swallow his pride on Snowden and hit down with Russia and China and give them what they want in exchange for getting Assad out. They want access to the Mediterranean, just give it. If you can single handedly invade a country then you can could help guarantee that access in a post Assad regime. But of course he can't even negotiate the release of the doctor who got Bin Laden. Nor the US citizen in North Korea. You want humanitarian? Go help get that Iranian pastor who is jailed for being Christian.

    If Obama invades Syria he can throw the Nobel Peace Prize out the window. Or last half since this is for humanitarian reasons. Either way it is still a war that can be avoided. I wonder how long before the Dems get called warmongers…

  21. Guest

    In the UK, Cameron lost the vote, despite most MPs being prepared to back military action because he made it clear that he didn't have a clue what he was doing, what he intended to achieve or how he wanted to do it. He wanted a blank cheque so he could work out the details later, and he wanted one before the evidence was presented to the international community.

    Obama might win because – unlike Cameron – he has a reputation for being careful and competent, so the American legislature might be more prepared to trust him with a blank cheque. (Hollande also has this advantage, even if he does not have the charisma of Obama). But I do not think any of them actually have an idea, nor do I think there is or can be a clear plan of how to stop Assad using chemical weapons short of removing Assad. And no-one is admitting they're prepared to do this.

    Failing a practical way of stopping chemical weapons deployment, they might instead simply try to hit military targets which the rebels currently can't. Which will simply increase Assad's reliance on decentralised chemical warfare.

    A stance of 'if we get a chance to nip in and sweep Assad and/or his generals off the the Hague we'll take it, otherwise it's sanctions, humanitarian aid and diplomacy' – while naive – might be the only principled interpretation of the Geneva Convention available. That or arming the rebels, but that's probably not an actual solution at this point.

    And as for being 'principled' there's not a nation backing intervention that hasn't been directly responsible for Geneva Convention breaches, and possibly even of the same preclusion of chemical weapons, not to mention the dubious but explicitly government-sanctioned or even outright subsidised activities of their arms industries. I mean, it now turns out that, shortly after the civil war broke out, Assad was interested in purchasing some multipurpose chemicals, the UK Government was happy to draw up a license.

  22. Rachel

    Using the Geneva Conventions as a casus beli just makes their argument worse. Weren't we caught using white phosphorus in Iraq and it was brushed off as no big deal? In 2005, David Petraeus claimed it was only being used as a smokescreen and used to illuminate enemies. In 2013, the Pentagon reveals it had indeed been used as an incendiary weapon.

    In the U.S., it's against the law to allow anyone to be tried for war crimes. I am by no means equivocating, lest anyone think I am, but as the cartoon points out, maybe the U.S. should invade the U.S. first.

    Also, I love the detail in the artwork.

  23. Kipchak

    "Obama might win because – unlike Cameron – he has a reputation for being careful and competent, so the American legislature might be more prepared to trust him with a blank cheque."

    Are you living in some sort of alternative universe right now?

  24. Guest

    Mm, the turn of phrase was somewhat toungue-in-cheek. And it's true that a Prime Minister by definition ought to expect parliamentary support whereas that's not at all the case with the US President.

    But I think it's a fair observation that Obama, while not especially politically effective, nevertheless appears more competent by a long way than Cameron, who gives off more tham a hint of not having a clue.

  25. HeartRight

    Notice that Obama already HAS support from across the Aisle.
    Cammie got none.

    Advantage Obama in the Universe I live in. Don't know about yours.

  26. Guest

    Well, Cameron did have a lot of support from the opposition benches – he just chose to reject it.

    Labour Leader Ed Miliband proposed an amendment which set out the conditions on which they would support Cameron – the biggest one was to hold fire until the UN Security Council has had a chance to look at the evidence (it didn't require the UN SC to actually vote for action), but also that the basis, objectives and the duration of the action be set out before parliament before it authorised it.

    The government decided they didn't want to do this, and voted down the amendment, and so the opposition, along with government rebels, voted down the government's motion.

  27. HeartRight

    In case you missed it, Milliband also managed to lose cotrol of his own Party.

    Which should have been no supprise. If you had taken a look in the run-up, at say Labour Beta, then it became clear that Party leadership was thikig about conditions under which to say 'yes' but that it was not thinking in terms of straightforward Rejection. While straightforward Rejection was on the mind of the party-members.

    The framing of the Three Qestions was skewed towards coming to an arrangement.
    That was at odds with the mood of the Country as well as the Party.
    The people wanted a simple 'NO!' – and not a set of conditions under which to say 'yes' or 'maybe'.

    As has been observbed before, Milliband is good at setting out options, but totally unfamiliar with picking one. You see, he is the Bright Advisor, not a Leader.

  28. HeartRight

    And really, it is becoming habitual. It's like the run-up to the AV referendum.
    'No, Nick, get out of the way. Let me handle this.'
    And then we find that Ed cannot even get his own supporters to follow him.

  29. Guest

    It's certainly true Miliband would not have carried the whole of the parliamentary Labour Party with him by any means (let alone the members), but sadly there are still enough hawks in Labour that Cameron could have easily won the vote with a large majority if he was prepared to work with Miliband.

    Personally, though, I don't like the idea that leaders should control the party to begin with. The leader is there to articulate the party's key messages, not to overrule its more democratic structures.

  30. HeartRight

    Suppose Assad did use Sarin.

    If so – so what?
    I assume that there are enough Canadians here who can read French.

    Sondage : 64% des Français opposés à une intervention en Syrie

    Les Français se prononcent également sur les préoccupations de cette crise et pourquoi il ne souhaitent pas voir la France s’engager. Dans un premier temps c’est la peur de voir tomber la Syrie du côté d’un régime islamiste après l’intervention (37%) et aussi que l’intervention ne change rien à la situation quotidienne des populations (22%).

    De même les Français semble prudent sur l’utilisation des armes chimiques, 17% estiment ne pas avoir assez de preuves. Les expert de l’ONU viennent de finir l’enquête sur place, il faudra attendre quelques jours pour en connaître les résultat.

    Concern #1: Make sure t hat Syria does NOT become any more Islamist than it is now, which is to say ZERO.

    Either any plan, strike or diplomatic, military or peaceful, meets that concern, or don't expects us to listen to any argmentation against doing nothing.

  31. Monte

    " the anti-Assad opposition has become so thoroughly infiltrated by foreign al-Qaeda mercenaries "

    I feel like THIS is the biggest problem with figuring out how to proceed with Syria from a humanitarian stand point; The reliance on terrorists to fight against Assad just about removes the possibility of any kind of Positive outcome. No matter who wins, the civilians loose. The terrorists fight with the rebels because they both want Assad gone, but what they both want for syria afterward is different. The rebels would set up a democracy, but the terrorists would want something along the lines of an islamist theocracy; its certain that the moment assad is gone, the terrorists will turn on the rebels.

    It how things went down in Iran; many different factions wanted the Shah gone, but as soon as he was gone, the Islamists turned on those that helped them take down the Shah. Heck that's what happened recently in Mali; the rebels and terrorists managed to take over the northern part of the region, and right afterward the terrorists began exerting their rule and taking out the rebels. The rebels are highly unlikely gonna be in much of a position to fend off the terrorists. Should we help to overthrow one tyrant just to allow another to take his place? Heck another place to look at is Libya; There we managed to prevent the islamists from coming to power, but the terrorists and militias did not disband and are still there causing no end to trouble and destabilizing the country (not to mention more chaos in Mali was an indirect result of that conflict)

    Its difficult to figure out how any positive outcome… I supposed one possibility is that we could try to prevent the rise of theocracy if we also committed ourselves to counter terrorism in Syria as we have done in other countries; We set up the rebels with their new government, that government invites our troops in to help maintain order, and then we prevent the terrorists from taking power. We would have to be prepared to get VERY involved for years after Assad's fall.

    I've also been wondering if their is a way the rebels could try and cut their losses and set themselves up for future influence. For instance, go into peace negotiations with Assad, but instead of demanding Assad step down (which he would never agree too), they instead try to set up concessions that would loosen Assad's grip on power and guarantee their own future political voices in the country. Basically instead of instantly getting rid of Assad, they use the negotiations to try and fix the broken government that keeps him in power so that they can actually deal with Assad politically. Though i am VERY skeptical about how well that would actually work out

  32. Tim G. Schoall

    If Obama was too clear strikes on Syria due to the misuse of chemical weapons on civilians within their own country,then how does the president as a nation flex his office without repercussions and the already burdensome cost of exercising such executory options based on the carelessness of people dying daily in a conflict that may have no resolution other than too call a complete truce. Some would consider this totally outrageous to let one side submit to another based on such actions but how does the president retain his composure as leader without looking totally weak? Which is totally controversial when considering the mite of the US government and its military,which some would happily argue should be used to the fullest extent the soldiers can handle and the people as a nation will tolerate. Its unfortunate there is division that doesn't meet eye to eye with conservative views that a peaceful outcome is the only outcome to place on the table to digest,yet its Assads reign on his country that makes the rest wonder what to implement should America get involved? The mere mention of going against a Muslim nation usually inspires others to join the ranks on behalf of their country and the consideration of people being unhumanitarilly treated also boisters more patriotism. With these actions being recognized by the international community as atrocious in regards to any conventional wisdom out of the stone age governments would use. Its totally evident by the signs around of the ensuing war, that the cost will continue and continue based on the basis that no one can find a solution other than the other to lay down arms.

  33. Benjamin Allen Whetham

    The War in Syria is like a war between Hitler and Stalin. The only way to win is for both sides to lose.

    The last 10 years have seen hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced in areas that the US government has been trying to nation build. With such a dismal record, what sane person would think that intervention in Syria would do anything except exacerbate what problems already exist there.