The problem of Syria

Crossposted on The Obama Diary.

I am far from sanguine about the inevitable strikes against Syria in retaliation for the government gassing civilians.

The pitfalls to such an action are legion. The UN Security Council is unlikely to give the US (and France) the green light to go ahead and bomb the Assad regime. Any strikes against the regime will likely inflame the Middle East, with Iran going even further in on supporting their co-sectarians in Damascus. A strike may push Hezbollah to strike against Israel in retaliation. And, of course, there’s Russia, the unknown factor. It’s Vladimir Putin’s greatest dream to claw back Russia’s superpower status, lost in 1991. Its interest in the Middle East has nothing to do with resources; Russia has more than enough oil and gas, and delights in upping production when OPEC tamps down its drilling. But what having a client state in Syria allows it to do is to continue to operate in the world’s pre-eminent region for power politics. Going against Western, specifically American, interests in the Middle East allows it to believe it’s still a major world power, able to affect the course of events. The fact that Russia has devolved to basically a kleptocratic, autocratic, quasi-mafia state which is now protecting a regime which has blatantly violated the conventions against the use of chemical weapons hasn’t intruded on its bubble; Putin sees himself as the restorer of Russia’s greatness, of its destiny, and his reaction to a US intervention in Syria is both hard to predict and frightening. In fact, it’s the Russian factor which scares me the most, specifically because of Putin’s megalomania.

But then we come back to the simple fact: Bashar al-Assad has gassed his own people. The evidence of that attack will be released by the Obama Administration. The Syrian regime has violated the oldest convention against the use of weapons of mass destruction in international law.

Of course, I’m well aware that Saddam Hussein did the exact same thing, both against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians, in the 1980s, and the world went about its business. But the inaction then—understandable, in a world riven by the Cold War—should not be an excuse for inaction now. What we have now is a world on the precipice, teetering as to which way it will go: a world of international law, where violations are punished, or one where the law of the strong is the only one which obtains. Even if President Obama goes ahead and retaliates against Syria without Security Council approval—approval which will be stymied by Russia and China not because of principle but just to protect a client state—he can quite rightly claim that he’s supporting enforcement of the conventions against chemical weapons. Such weapons are the “poor man’s nuke”, easy to produce and deploy, more dangerous even than nuclear weapons as their use is much easier to undertake.

Just as we would be aghast if a nuclear state dropped a bomb on a rebellious population, so should we be shocked and committed to exact consequences when men, women, and children are gassed by their own government, their only crime that they lived in a district controlled by groups rebelling against that government. Assad, of course, if simply following in the footsteps of his father Hafez, who slaughtered 20,000 people in the city of Hama when the Muslim Brotherhood rose up against his regime. The Assad dynasty is not averse to spilling copious amounts of its own people’s blood.

And, lets be frank. If Assad had not used chemical weapons, we wouldn’t be talking about military strikes. No Western power has any stomach for getting involved in the Syrian maelstrom. But by deliberately targeting civilians with chemical weapons—and, unlike in 1988 in Kurdistan, in an era when clips of the victims are instantly available on Youtube and Twitter, inflaming world opinion—the regime shifted what the West took as a deplorable civil war into another theater, one which threatened the basis of international law. It’s that instant availability of information which makes Assad’s crime impossible to ignore. If Assad can deploy gas against his people with no consequence, then any dictator can create a chemical weapons program, “just in case”, and be relatively assured that its domestic use would go unpunished.

These are the considerations going through President Obama’s mind and those of his advisors. To the left, there’s the threat of a conflagration in the Middle East if the US and France retaliate. On the right, there’s the threat of the whole regime against chemical weapons breaking down and being blown away, not to mention the sufferings of a people being exterminated by its government. These are not minor matters.

Events are quickly mushrooming, seemingly out of control. The US faces the added weight of a loss of credibility after the lies told by the Bush Administration in the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. That’s why releasing the intelligence proving that the attacks were ordered by Assad is so critical. If the US does strike, it will do so based on established truth, not on obfuscation and lies. It won’t lessen the perils, but the casus belli won’t be a trumped up cocktail served to obtain a pre-ordained conclusion. A strike won’t be entered into with jingoism and chest-thumping, but with sober judgment and a realization that all available options are equally dangerous.

We are on a precipice. I’m grateful we don’t have a President Romney at the helm.

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