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.