On Wednesday hundreds of people (some sources say as many as 1400) died in Syria, evidently related to a chemical attack on a rebel-held area north-east of the capital, Damascus. Apart from the scale of the casualties, there is much in this news which is not new or surprising. As usual in Syria, rebels and regime accuse each other of deploying chemical weapons while denying their own use thereof. Internationally, various governments support their chosen factions, as the US, UK, and France all publicly blamed the Assad regime, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry suggested that rebels staged the attack in order to provoke international intervention. American rhetoric in favor of military intervention in Syria has certainly ramped up as a result of the attack. Nevertheless, the Assad government puts forward a bold face, indicating that an American attack is very unlikely given the current international impasse.
What is more surprising is that Russia also called upon the Syrian regime and opposition to cooperate with UN chemical weapons investigators already in Damascus and permit them access to this fresh site. The Syrian government has reportedly agreed to do just that.
This has put the western governments who have been consistently calling for Assad’s removal in something of a difficult position. Before the Syrian regime announced it would allow UN investigators access to the site, the argument was made that they “must have something to hide.” (The argument, though widespread, is always the argument of the group which controls the courts. As the history of American criminal courts amply demonstrates, one can be found guilty of a crime one did not commit based on being the wrong color.) Now that the Syrian government says it will facilitate the investigation, Western hawks are forced to argue that this cooperation is “too little, too late,” and that an investigation five days after an attack is worthless. This despite the fact that the UN investigators were already in Damascus to investigate attacks from March. If five days is too late for an investigation, it is unclear what good the UN investigators could do in Syria at all.
As Paul Thomas Chamberlin commented on the day of the chemical weapons attack, the US has a very bad track record for intervention in Muslim areas of Asia and Africa, a history of counter-productive intervention spanning decades. The parallels between the proposed US support for rebels in Syria and the US sponsored Mujahhidun fighting against the Soviet-sponsored government in Afghanistan, which reduced Afghanistan to the rubble we see today, are frightening. Of course, the Russians didn’t come out of Afghanistan looking like heroes either.
But the US track record even in the current Syrian conflict does not inspire confidence. Given the long-standing hostility between the US and the Assad regime, a byproduct of Syria’s alliance with the USSR and cold antagonism to Israel, the US rashly called upon Bashar al-Assad to step down as soon as the protests started in March 2011. Thus the US lost whatever positive influence it might have had over the regime (not that it ever had much). With the recognition of the Syrian National Coalition and the progressive revelations how much the SNC has cooperated with the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the US has provided its critics with the easy tagline that the American government is supporting terrorism. When the US and the Russians agreed about the importance of holding peace talks in Geneva “to find a political solution,” the Russians got the Assad government to agree to the talks, while the US-backed rebels refused to participate. The Syrian government is still touting its willingness to participate in Geneva. The US hasn’t mentioned Geneva recently.
I think it would be very foolish for the US to intervene militarily without waiting for word from the UN chemical weapons investigators. To strike at Assad without UN support would convince many in the Middle East of American arrogance and willingness to act as judge, jury, and executioner for a “justice” tailored to suit its own ends. (And although I prefer to give governing bodies the benefit of the doubt, I find myself troubled by the rising prominence of “defending our national interests” in US government statements about Syria.) The mess in Syria will have no easy solutions, and for the US to enter Syria now will simply ensure that the mess which follows the war is blamed on the US intervention. And as media reports almost invariably indicate, the information coming out of Syria could not be verified, meaning we really have little idea who is doing what to whom in the countryside around Damascus.
But I am not a quietist, and I certainly do not believe that the US should just “let them kill each other,” as certain callous Islamophobic westerners are arguing. The US can certainly help now by continuing to provide defensive technology, by providing humanitarian assistance to refugee camps, and by helping the countries hosting the refugee camps provide police presence in those camps. Although media reports have depicted Western politicians repeating the mantra of “no boots on the ground,” if a military intervention is needed, I think putting “boots on the ground” may be the best way to humanize the process, far better than raining terror from the skies. “Boots on the ground” may deliver humanitarian assistance in ways that hellfire missiles cannot.
But in order to facilitate the end of the violence in Syria, and particularly of the secularist vs. jihadi rebel infighting which will inevitably follow Assad’s departure, the US needs to work diplomatically with Russia and wait for the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job. When the US intervenes, I think it needs to do so as part of an international coalition including Russia. Moscow has been much more effective about influencing the situation in Syria than the US has been. If the US can get over its spat that Russia provided temporary asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden (which led President Obama to cancel his state visit to Putin, evidently because revealing that a government is flagrantly breaking its own laws is treasonous), then it just may be able to work with Moscow over how to bring the Syrian conflict to a halt. Now, Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s civil rights record is also a problem, but if Russia can be disengaged from supporting Assad, Iran will not be in a position to hold up Assad, and China is unlikely to invest what Russia has been doing in order to keep Assad in power. That is probably the surest way to ensure that Syria does not turn into an al-Qa’ida stronghold training terrorists for the next twenty years.
A critical component of the rule of law is due process, and due process takes time. That time is costly, as thousands are dying in Syria. But due process is precisely what distinguishes seeking the common good from self-serving bullying. If the US is serious about seeking what is best for Syrians, then it needs to support all Syrians and not just its favored faction, and it needs to allow the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.