Struggling with the Syria conundrum

Both writer George Santayana and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill have reminded us how those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.  But, when it comes to chemical warfare in Syria, which history shall we remember and heed? 

Seventy-five years ago, civilized nations were deaf to early warning signs of the Holocaust, and the results were six million Jews killed along with five million East European nationals,  Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, disabled individuals and suspected homosexuals. The lesson was that, at a certain point, nations must get involved.  More recently, Bill Clinton refused to call the Rwanda genocide for what it was, did nothing while the Hutus slaughtered as many as a million Tutsis, and in retrospect claimed to regret greatly his decision.  

Flash forward to George W. Bush’s  use  of  false claims of  weapons of mass destruction  to justify going to war in Iraq.  Nearly 4500 Americans and significantly more Iraqis have died  since. The world has traded a brutal dictatorship for a persistent  civil war that continues to kill and maim as Americans exit.

Now in the face of realpolitik advice that has largely kept the US on the sidelines , Barack Obama decided that common morality and international law were points worth addressing.   Declaring  Bashir al-Assad’s  large scale use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a “red line” that must not be crossed, President Obama has painted himself and the country into a corner.

Secretary of State John Kerry has made a compelling case that we will lose credibility vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea if we don’t act on the breached line. Obama now risks, more than ever, being seen as the boy who cried wolf.  Kerry’s litany of “we know” who unleashed the deadly chemicals, “we know” where they were launched from, “we know” where they landed,  recalls former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s impassioned speech on WMD prior  to Iraq.  He and we were fooled back then.  We don’t want to be fooled again. The UN inspectors, when they present their findings, may confirm the chemical weapons usage, but will likely not assign blame. (Kerry said today that independent tests already confirm Sarin gas traces in blood and hair.)

There are many questions in sorting out this terrible dilemma. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Syria in the last two years.  Is it worse to die by chemical weapons than being hit by a bomb? At what point is it appropriate to intervene? Do we  really want to be “a nation of onlookers” as thousands are slaughtered? What are American interests? This isn’t a white-hat/ black-hat confrontation. If Assad were to leave tomorrow, the “winners” would include Jabhat al- Nusra, the most powerful rebel faction. It’s close to Al Qaeda, and its agenda is not friendly. 

The images of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons such as mustard gas,  sarin and nerve agents falling into the “wrong hands”  (e.g. jihadi terrorists) courtesy of  a new Syrian government’s  arms exports policy is chilling to contemplate

Our choices  go from bad to worse.

Beware the analogies to earlier conflicts in the Gulf, Kosovo and Libya. Syria is no Libya. Its air defense network is twice the size as those of Gadhafi’s, its equipment more sophisticated and its military better trained. Syria is 10 times the size of Kosovo in 1999. Remember that Clinton’s 1998 targeted cruise missile strikes in  Sudan and Afghanistan didn’t weaken al Qaeda. And the vaunted Operation Desert Fox at the end of 1998, designed to “degrade” but not eliminate Iraq’s ability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, became the ineffective gateway to Bush II’s  Iraq War.  

A so-called limited punitive (“targeted”)  strike is easier to draw up than execute.  Is this to be merely a symbolic gesture to vindicate Obama’s red line pledge and  hopefully discourage Assad’s  future use of chemical agents on his own people? Or is it to  be a serious effort to target and take out Syria’s chemical weapons systems and storage facilities?  What will be accomplished with less than a week-long barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles and other guided missiles? 

Predictably, Assad has reportedly  moved strategic facilities to schools and other densely populated civilian  areas. Even without major collateral damage there will be casualties.   And with the attacks, what will be the destabilizing impact on Jordan, already struggling  with Syrian refugees? What will the unintended consequences be for Turkey, Lebanon and Israel?

England, France, the Arab Emirates, and the Arab League all have decried Assad’s actions, but have been unwilling to act. Turkey and Jordan have backed away. Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria, have all expressed opposition to foreign military intervention in Syria.  NATO took a pass. The UN Security Council, thanks to Chinese  and Russia vetoes, has abdicated its responsibility to enforce the ratified and nearly century old chemical weapons ban. Under these circumstances, should  the United States go it alone?  Talk about the lessons of history!

The “no” vote in Parliament forced Obama’s hand. He had to turn to Congress for support. Given all the complexities, that’s a good thing. The Congressional debate  could be historically profound  or a ridiculous circus.  

Before that showdown is Obama’s G-8 summit trip to Russia , which could open a further avenue for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. But, away from the spotlight, what would be the price Putin would try to exact for cooperation in a negotiated solution?

This is a terrible morass and will sorely test the Nobel Prize winning United States President’s role as an effective world leader.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


4 thoughts on “Struggling with the Syria conundrum

  1. Pingback: Moving off ambivalence on Syria | Marjorie Arons-Barron

  2. If we send the message to Assad that the world will do nothing, then he will continue. Peace negotiations will not work with a man who believes he can still win; in 1937, Hitler famously promised George Lansbury, former leader of the British Labour Party, that he would be happy to go to have his grievances registered at a World Peace Conference.

    That said, strikes will not work if we dismiss the importance of bolstering the FSA in the south, and in those areas of the north where jihadists have not come to dominate. I do believe that the war can be won for the democrats – and we mustn’t allow isolationism, or political narcissism, chance to creep in here.


  3. Dan

    The Iraq defector Rafid Ahmaw convinced German intelligence along with American and other allies intelligence agencies with information of weapons of mass destructions. Ahmaw lied about the mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories reports that he gave to investigators and today he and his sons are proud what they have done. Maybe the Bush Administration and its allies should have waited more time on the intelligence’s story; but, Saddan Hussein regime had already use chemical on the Iraq population. The Bush Administration may have been mistake; but, it was not a lie .

    With what is being reported, Secretary of State John Kerry’s compelling case is leading to another removal of a brutal dictatorship for a persistent civil war that will continue to kill and maim people. It sounds like the compelling case Kerry use before Congress when he lied about American military serviceman who were committing atrocities against the Vietnamese people. He lied about the Vietnam Veteran; but, he was silent when a brutal dictator was saluting millions of Cambodians, “The Killing Fields.”

    Before any more police action by the America Military, a military draft should go into effect, without deferments. It is time for the 99% to start standing up for freedom and stop the 1% from fighting American Wars. President Obama pursues for common morality and international law should be engage by the 99%. It is time to look at a draft where all military age youths will be called to tackle the battle for common morality and international law.


  4. Kerry shouldn’t worry about losing credibility. After his predecessor, Colin Powell, came to the UN and presented “evidence of WMD’s” that turned out to be a pile of horsey-poo, Kerry has no credibility to lose.

    On the other hand, we must learn from historical examples available to us. Like the Iraq war.

    When the white house talks about “humanitarian intervention”, 9 times out of 10 what happens is that the death toll goes dramatically UP. Everywhere we go is a train wreck. Every time we step into a bad situation to put out a fire, it all burns down to the ground.

    We cannot ignore our own track record. We have experience fighting wars, we are good at that.
    We know how to destabilize our enemies, we are good at that.

    We do NOT know how to make peace. There’s a reason everyone runs away as fast as they can wen we try. We have a moral responsibility to stay out.

    PS- this situation also demonstrates how Obama is just like Bush. If we want to take responsibility for our leaders, we should ask why that is…….


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