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Monday, September 9, 2013

SYRIA: One More Quagmire

A disturbing video of victims of the gassing in Syria has been released to the public by the Obama administration.  The video evokes an emotional response, but is that what we need? Let’s take a step backward and take stock of how we may have come prematurely or impulsively to this “red line” war action that is now being vigorously promoted.

1)    Assad has been a tyrant toward his people for a fairly long time
·    Initially seen by the domestic and international community as a potential reformer, this expectation ceased when he ordered a mass crackdown and military sieges on pro-rebel protesters amid recent civil war, described by some commentators as related to the wider "Arab Spring" movement (Wikipedia)
·    Immediately after he took office a reform movement made cautious advances during the Damascus Spring, which led al-Assad to shut down Mezzeh prison and release hundreds of political prisoners (Wikipedia)
·    A 2007 law required internet cafes to record all the comments users posted on chat forums. Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked intermittently between 2008 and February 2011.
·    Human Rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have detailed how Bashar's government and secret police routinely tortured, imprisoned, and killed political opponents, and those who speak out against the government. Since 2006 it expanded the use of travel bans against dissidents. In that regard, Syria is the worst offender among Arab states. (Wikipedia)
·    The New York Times reported the arrest of 30 political prisoners in Syria in December 2007.
·    In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized power after rising through the ranks of the Syrian armed forces, during which time he established a network of loyal Alawites by installing them in key posts. In fact, the military, ruling elite, and ruthless secret police are so intertwined that it is now impossible to separate the Assad government from the security establishment.... So... the government and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless oppositional activists. In this respect, the situation in Syria is to a certain degree comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq.  (Wikipedia)
·    Torture has always been a part of the Assad regime, even before the current uprising, says Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. But now, as the battle waged by Syrian rebels reaches a bloody stalemate, it’s a full-fledged crisis. “Torture in police detention [has] increased dramatically with the uprising,” she says. “Of course, there were some cases in which people were not tortured when detained, but those are the exception.” (Dailybeast)
·    A report, “I Wanted to Die: Syria’s Torture Survivors Speak Out” documents a wide range of practices the regime has used against its citizens since rebellion broke out.  The report identified 31 methods of torture and other ill-treatment. Many of them, it said, were methods that had not been used in years as the incidence and severity of torture declined when Bashar Al-Assad took over Syria after his father’s death in 2000.   The report comes as Damascus launches an assault on rebel redoubts in the north that have left scores dead and accusations of widespread abuse and torture. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists, released footage showing men, women and children lying dead in a blood-drenched room, many with their throats slit.  In its report Amnesty said people are almost invariably beaten and tortured and ill-treated during arrest, often beaten again during transportation to detention centers, and routinely once they arrive. Among the victims are children under 18, it said.
·    Among the methods of torture revived over the last several months, Amnesty said, is shabeh, whereby the victim is hung on a raised hook, handle or door frame, or by manacled wrists, so that his feet hang just above the ground while he is beaten. Researchers found evidence for the frequent use of electric shocks as well as rape and other tortures and ill-treatment of a sexual nature, all of which had largely gone into abeyance. 
·    A report from Amnesty International says that at least 256 children have been deliberately killed at the hands of Syrian security forces including a two year old girl shot in the head at point blank range by an officer because he “didn’t want another protester to grow”. Many more have been tortured and apparently the guards at Syrian prisons don’t differentiate between children and adults keeping both adults and children in the same detention centers (some of which are schools) where they torture children in front of adults. In addition to this the report also documents the case of a 15 year old boy shot in the leg who was denied access to medical treatment by soldiers. The report concluded by pointing out a rather comprehensive list of breaches of international law by the Assad regime.  As well as systematically torturing, raping and killing kids, the Assad regime has also been dabbling in executions, according to a report by the human rights watch.
If this is primarily a moral question, what have we been waiting for?  Does not all this beg the question, why did we wait so long to declare that Assad was abusing his own people?  Perhaps we just didn’t have the equivalent of “weapons of mass destruction” so we could mimic our lead-up to war with Iraq, until we discovered the use of chemical weapons.  However, if it’s so darn important to act against the use of chemical weapons, why is it OK to be silent about torture and killing of innocent children which is also a breach of international law and conventions?  The answer is: because it’s nothing more than an excuse we use to justify our intervention in the internal affairs of another nation.

So now, “chemical weapons” are the reason we would attack: first, because their use against the people of Syria violates a UN convention signed by 188 nations; second, because we can’t let these weapons get into the hands of terrorists like Al Qaeda; third, because if we don’t act, it will send a message of weakness, or a message of a lack of resolution, to other countries, especially rogue nations like Iran.  Substitute Iraq wherever Syria is used, and we are back to the G.W. Bush reasons (excuses) for going to war against Iraq!  Same excuses, same reasons, same stupidity.  Now unspecific terror alerts are being issued because retaliation for a US attack on Syria may bring terrorist attacks on airlines, hotels and cyberspace.  It’s ‘Ground Hog Day’ and we’re being made to re-live the same mistakes, fears and excuses for war that we have already endured.  Mr. President: please don’t go down this road!

2)    Factions have been at each other’s throats in Syria for centuries brings some important information to our attention.  “You could look anywhere in the world and not find a more mixed cauldron of ethnicities, racial characteristics, languages, and countries of origin.”  Look for a moment at just the foreign contingents; there are Turks, Portuguese, Kurds, Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Spaniards, Russians, gypsies, French, Bulgarians, German, and Armenian nationalities; 28 languages, and who knows how many dialects. 
Assad’s people are Alawites, a splinter sect of Shia Islam, which by the way is thought of as heretical in Pakistan.  The Alawites are outnumbered by the Syrian Arabs, mostly Sunnis, about 10 to 1. And it’s not smart to intervene in a tribal war/ religious war, which is what the conflict in Syria is.  It’s Sunnis that are being killed by Assad’s modern army; so, why don’t THE SAUDI’s act? They certainly have the money to buy whatever is needed.  Strictly from a desire to spare the bloodshed -- as was done in Libya, where Gaddafi threatened to wipe out the city of Benghazi -- the Saudi’s need to act.

If we target-bomb the chemical weapons plants, who have we protected and who have we punished?  Who wins anything by this action?  Is it simply a moral question: that we must act to uphold a matter of international law?  Just what would be the purpose behind a “limited action” against Assad? 
Another writer asks: “So what happens if we intervene? Are we morally bound to save people’s lives?  Do we blame ourselves for not interfering in Sudan? In Rwanda? Are we the policeman of the world? We “brought democracy” to Iraq and they are killing each other as much as Saddam ever did. Libya is (also) in turmoil.”

The real point for me is that a “limited action” is still a war-like action.  It cannot help but kill Syrian people who are nearby – the “collateral damage.”  It will not stop the proliferation of chemical weapons; it will only diminish their production capacity.  It will not protect the United States – or Israel or Syrians– from future attacks.  It most certainly will not force Assad to leave office.  It will punish those who work in the plants, or who live nearby, but no one else, certainly not Assad himself, and not Al Qaeda.  It will never sort out the factions that exist in the Syrian civil war.  So what outcomes will we achieve?  That question still remains, and it has not been answered.

3)    We have reduced options to one bad option: a military strike.  Have other options existed?
The answer of course is that other options have existed, and we have acted on some of them -- economic sanctions for instance -- but we either didn’t take notice or didn’t act on most of them:
·    Establish diplomatic talks with the new government in Iran
·    Build a coalition with the other 188 members of the UN convention against use of chemical weapons;
·    Work to reform the UN by changing the ability of five major powers to veto resolutions and motions in the Security Council
·    allow U.N. experts to investigate the alleged chemical attacks and wait for their report before taking any action
·    Go to an International Court or economic group
·    Get the Saudi’s to act as they did with Libya (there are rumblings that they are active behind the scenes)
·    Don’t draw “red lines” in the Middle East, or elsewhere
·    Never act alone on issues that can bring war
·    Provide humanitarian aid only, and let that be known up-front
·    Keep working on the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords – do not stop
·    Identify Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular and who oppose radical Islam; who will disavow al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups; and who will reject Russian and Iranian hegemony over their country.
·    Support those rebel forces in the Syrian conflict who will sign a contract or memorandum of understanding with the United States as to governance outcomes they will achieve; include agreements about conditions that will lead to abrogation of U.S. support
·    Reduce the amount of money being made on all these “wars.”  Don’t think that the manufacturers of all the weapons that are being used aren’t taking their cut of the squandered scads of money!
·    Talk with China as a shadowy figure in this mess, but who might influence Russia’s support of Assad
·    From Slate comes an interesting option: Obama’s good option would be to reread his administration’s official National Security Strategy, which sagely argues that “[a]s we did after World War II, we must pursue a rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests.”
·    Other military options—short of direct boots on the ground or bombing raids—could include no-fly zones, blockades, and arms embargoes. But any of these can be a double-edged sword.

And now, out of the blue, Russia has proposed that Assad internationalize control of his chemical weapons and a Syrian official has publicly accepted that option as a possibility.  Although trust between our two countries is at  a new low, doesn’t this open up the option of talking with Russia about the details of such a proposal?

One Syrian writer pushes back:
“For some skeptics on Capitol Hill, the question is why we don't wait for others to act — the U.N., perhaps, or some of the 188 other nations that have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing atrocities such as those committed in Syria. I guess hope springs eternal, but that's how long the wait will be. Russia has vetoed every attempt by the U.N. Security Council to act. Britain's House of Commons has said no. France is willing but won't go it alone.
Maybe all this reluctance is a warning that we, too, should demur. But let's at least be honest with ourselves: If we don't act, nobody will. The clear message to Assad — and to other tyrants — will be that poison gas is frowned upon but not actually prohibited.
There is no way that Assad can be shamed into contrition and atonement; at this point, he's fighting not just for power but for his life. He has to believe that if he loses the war and is captured by rebels, be they the “good” ones or the “bad,” he will be tried and executed like Saddam Hussein — or perhaps killed on the spot like Moammar Gadhafi.”

Sunday, on Meet the Press, former Congresswoman, Jane Harmon, spoke for many when she said:  “This is a choice between bad options; this is the least bad.”  That is what this situation has produced because other options were not pursued early on.

Perhaps we must also consider what other Syrians in exile have to say.  One with surname of Hamza expressed his thoughts on the least bad of bad choices:
“There was martial law for many, many, many years. That needed to be lifted. [The Assad regime] made a lot mistakes, and they admit that.”
However, Hamza does not believe that there is a popular uprising in Syria. He says it’s a plan by Islamic extremists to take over the country.  “They’re waiting for any weak moments to come out,” Hamza said. “They’ve been waiting for a long time.”
He fears that if the rebels win, they will impose Islamic law on the country.
“We’ve learned some harsh lessons through our history,” Hamza said. “[Religion and government] should be separate.”  Hamza says European and American intervention on behalf of the rebels is based on a na├»ve hope for creating democracy in Syria.
“Democracy cannot be exported. It’s a different culture, a different history, a different setup and mixture,” he said.  Hamza believes Assad is the better of two bad choices for the country, because Assad would at least be able to stabilize the country.  (From
Secretary of State Kerry said, “This is not about getting into Syria's civil war. This is about enforcing the principle that people shouldn't be allowed to gas their citizens with impunity.”

Columnist Eugene Robinson says “Congress is asking the wrong questions about Syria. The issue can't be who wins the civil war. It has to be whether the regime of Bashar Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons — and if the answer is yes, whether there is any effective means of punishment other than a U.S. military strike.  If Assad and his government are ever going to be held accountable for the use of forbidden weapons to murder hundreds of civilians, the only realistic way for that to happen is a punitive U.S.-led military strike. This is the question that Obama put on the table — and that too many members of Congress seem determined to avoid.”

Well then, what is the question we should be asking?  Unfortunately, there is not a single question that would yield a single definitive answer to the dilemma of Syria.  We have mistakenly allowed one option or answer to predominate: that Assad must be shown by U.S. military force that he cannot, with impunity, gas his own people.  And the corollary to that is that it is probably going to happen only if the U.S. makes it happen.  How do we get ourselves into these quagmires?  By not taking short-term and long-term steps toward peaceful and humanitarian solutions to problems that arise in other countries.  Oh yes, there are probably times when we need to take bold action as well, but military action should be a final resort after all other options have been exhausted.  That is not the case here; it was not the case in Iraq, and it probably won’t be the case in any Middle Eastern country.

The administration and Congress seem to be extremely worried about the messages we are, or are not sending to other nations and peoples.  Well here’s one message we ought to abhor: whenever we use force to solve an internal problem presented by other nations, we risk sending the message that we are a bellicose nation, not a humanitarian nation.  Our actions should not be based on so-called “messages” but on policies, programs, monetary aid, agreements, and mainly on our humanitarian actions that will help other nations find their potential, their best practices, and their ability to treat their people, and people of other nations, with dignity, respect and concern.  We must stop this nonsense of thinking of the U.S.A. as the policeman, or even the moral or governmental guide, for the world.  A little humility wouldn’t hurt. 

Whatever happened to the spirit of the “Peace Corps”?  Whatever happened to long-term government initiatives like education for girls, or fighting hunger or eradicating certain diseases?  Are we now simply the purveyor of arms and the first to take military action against perceived “threats” to our national security?  National security is not our most important priority, and national pride is not our greatest asset.  Our importance and our national identity must be measured by humanitarian efforts to heal, to educate, to lift up the poor, to seek peaceful solutions to global problems.  We are a nation of rights, of liberties and of innovations.  Let us not fall prey to the lesser options of our darker nature, but let us pursue the path to better options.  Let us help the refugees fleeing Syria; let us find ways to aid the victims of chemical weapons and their families by offering the Syrian rebels a chance to show their true colors in a cooperative effort at bringing such relief; let us offer to give up our veto in the UN Security Council if others will do the same; let us at least offer to talk to Iran with no pre-conditions. 

We cannot punish Assad without consequences for our own nation.  So let us turn over that responsibility to the proper authorities: the UN; the International Court; the Saudis, and let us provide all the support we can to them.  The Syrian Civil War is not our responsibility, except insofar as people need our help and aid.  We must eschew the role of policeman of the world and return to our role of humanitarian nation.  The sooner the better.