Tag Archives: moderation

What America Forgets About Syria

As the US Congress appears to be inclining towards authorizing a unilateral and, by most standards, illegal military strike against Syria, here are some points that seem to be forgotten or overlooked in the news I’m reading:

1. One of the US government’s main concerns with the Syrian conflict has been that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists such as al-Qa’ida.  The presumption that al-Qa’ida does not already have chemical weapons is a crucial piece of the reasoning which blames the Syrian regime for the attack in the Damascus suburbs two weeks ago.  Yet attacking Syria, as President Obama is now proposing, will weaken the Syrian Army’s ability to defend those chemical weapons arsenals.  Since the most effective opposition fighting forces are jihadis affiliated with al-Qa’ida, terrorists are the ones most likely to benefit from any US attack on Syria.  It is worth contrasting John Kerry‘s assertion that “There is a real moderate opposition that exists” and 15-20% of the opposition are extreme with the view of an analyst located in Dubai: “For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist.”  In light of al-Qa’ida’s dominance of the Syrian opposition, a US attack on the Syrian regime will increase the feasibility for jihadis to seize chemical weapons.  In other words, a US attack on the Syrian military will increase rather than reduce the threat of chemical weapons deployment against American civilians.

2. A foreign attack on Syria would be a very significant escalation of the conflict.  As I indicated last week, no foreign country has specifically and publicly attacked Syria during this civil war without first being attacked by Syria.  Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War, both for and against the regime, has been limited to financial and material supplies and the provision of some foreign fighters acting under the commands of Syrian leaders, with only two exceptions.  Those two exceptions are Turkey, which has returned fire randomly into Syria whenever a Turkish civilian has been hit by bullets coming cross the border, and Israel, which has refused to acknowledge its targeted air strikes of what it alleges were rockets destined for Hezbollah.  For the US or any western country to attack with its own military would escalate the war beyond even a regional conflict into a world conflict.

3. When President Obama was first attempting to build support for attacking Syria, he proposed a “brief” or “surgical” military intervention as “a shot across the bow” in order to send a message to Assad without getting too involved.  Now the Senate Foreign Relations committee is recommending the President be authorized for 60 days, two months, for a war of limited duration.  A shot across the bow demonstrates one’s ability to kill without actually killing anyone, and I suppose the parallel case in Syria would be to bomb the uninhabited desert east of Damascus.  In seeking Congressional support, President Obama has also greatly broadened his notion of US engagement in Syria, which is exactly what the American public fears.

4. The Obama administration released an unclassified document outlining why it believes the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapons attack, intended to convince domestic and international skeptics of the obligation to punish Assad.  Most of the evidence cited in this document supports the assertion that chemical weapons were used, without specifying by whom.  Part of the argument is that the opposition couldn’t have done this, but the report treats the opposition as a unified group, and in particular it does not engage with earlier reports that al-Qa’ida has used chemical weapons in neighboring Iraq (here and here, to cite only Western media).  Much of the evidence in the report is only referred to in vague ways (“We have intelligence,” “streams of human, signals, and geospatial intelligence,” and “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate”) which will not convince a skeptic, but perhaps these bits of evidence cannot be revealed without endangering our informants.  That unfortunately leaves the argument largely still in the “trust us” category, which does little to assuage concerns.

There is one piece of evidence cited in next-to-last paragraph of the US intelligence report which could clinch the case against Assad: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.”  If it exists and is authentic, this document should be enough to convince skeptics such as Russia that the charges against the regime are not merely “rumors.”  If this is truly an intercepted communication, then presumably it can be released without endangering the interceptor, who is neither the sender nor the recipient.  It should be reasonably straightforward for an Arabic linguistics expert to authenticate the language as educated Syrian Arabic of a sort likely to be used by senior officials.  And yet this document has not been released, and Russia is not convinced.

5. Although the US (and the British Prime Minister) have declared a potential attack legal, the United Nations has disagreed.  Not only the opinion of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the man tasked with ending the conflict, even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said US military intervention would only be legal in self-defense after UN Security Council approval.  The basis of the legality argument requires either that the United States be declared the universal police officer, which understandably no other country has recognized, or that in general any country can attack any other country if it thinks doing will help some people, perhaps at the expense of others, which is a dangerously low bar to international military conflict.  While a possible attack will not open President Obama to prosecution before the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, this is because the US will presumably use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent the case from being referred to an international court.  The irony is that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is advocating an illegal military action which will be sheltered from prosecution only by his country’s self-interested obstructionism in the United Nations, which is something Western media usually ascribe to Russia and China rather than the US.

6. There has been much talk about American “credibility” in the international community.  But credibility has far less to do with following through on threats and much more to do with holding on to principles even when they are inconvenient.  Since it is clear that the US military used chemical weapons in the Iraq War, the message sent to the international community by a US strike allegedly in response to chemical weapons use is that no one else is allowed to break our monopoly on extreme violence.  Is this the message the US government really wishes to send?  The international community expects US foreign policy to selfishly seek its own narrow interests at the expense of other countries.  As an international friend of mine said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”  The only way to break this perception is to act in accordance with clearly stated principles such as the rule of international law even when it is distasteful and inconvenient, rather than using military means to oust regimes (even heinous and criminal regimes) that we have declared to be our enemies.

The Bottom Line

I believe a US attack on Syria would increase the death and violence of the Syrian Civil War and would escalate the conflict into a world-wide affair.  I do not think that the Syrian regime is fine or that the use of chemical weapons ought to go unpunished.  But I believe that the United States of America is not the body to enforce the chemical weapons ban, apart from authorization by the United Nations.  The fact that Russia and China have been obstructionist in that body does not authorize us to ignore it; instead Syrian blood is on their hands, but we must engage Russia and China diplomatically to break their deadlock.  By attacking Syria the United States will not support the chemical weapons ban, because its attack will be perceived as simply US self-interested foreign policy.

While I have been writing this post, those who stand to benefit from a US strike on Syria have taken the ridge above a Syrian village and shelled the civilian population below.  Does the United States really want to aid these particular rebels?

 

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Killing for a (Humanitarian) Cause

Despite the fact that all the Middle East analysts I have read have concluded that a Western military intervention in Syria would be indifferent at best and disastrous at worst, France, the UK, and the US threatened swift attack on Syria in retribution for the chemical weapons attack which occurred a week ago outside DamascusThe UK and the US governments have announced that that they think they have found a legal justification for attacking Syria: the bad humanitarian situation may justify killing people to prevent a worse humanitarian situation.

It is just as true for governments as for individuals that when someone who wants to do something says “It’s legal,” that legality won’t necessarily stand up in a court of law.  The only universally recognized legal justification for military action is self-defense (although the use of that justification has gotten progressive more far-fetched in certain areas).  A mandate from the UN Security Council is not exactly a legal justification, but does ensure that the intervention won’t start the next world war.

And does the humanitarian justification make sense?  If it could be known that fewer people would die as a result of a military attack than not, perhaps it could be justified in terms of raw numbers.  But the best that can be said is that such a justification is unknowable.  The worst is that Russia is sending its own navy to the Mediterranean, Iran has threatened Israel, and it sure looks like a Western military strike on Syria would not reduce the war but increase it.  That fear is why, although almost all Middle Eastern countries have sided with the opposition against Bashar al-Assad (Lebanon exceptionally remaining neutral), no Middle Eastern country has gotten on board with an outside military strike on Syria.  Not even Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which are supplying arms to the rebels.  Indeed, the Lebanese foreign minister warned of the consequences, Egypt has declined to participate, Jordan has refused to be involved, and the Arab League, while condemning the attack and blaming it on the regime, has not advocated an outside attack.  I think the humanitarian justification for attacking Syria is a flimsy pretext which will get a lot of people killed.

I agree that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished.  But no single country acts as the world judge.  The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is charged with finding an end to this conflict, said today that a US-led military intervention without a mandate from the UN security council is illegal.  Punishment for the use of chemical weapons is a matter for the international community, represented by the UN and particularly by the International Criminal Court.

It is also not as clear to me as it is to President Obama that the Syrian regime is the only combatant which might have gotten their hands on chemical weapons.  In particular, if one of the various al-Qa’ida linked groups or other foreign jihadi rebels got their hands on chemical weapons, I doubt they would feel much compunction about using it.  The fact that they would know that Assad would be blamed for the attack would only sweeten the temptation for them.  Foreign intelligence services would not necessarily acquire reliable information that jihadis had chemical weapons until after they were used.  In other words, the fact that US intelligence does not believe the opposition possesses such weapons does not in fact imply that this attack was perpetrated by the regime.

A Western attack on Syria would also be a significant escalation in the war.  While plenty of other countries have been involved in the Syrian Civil War, with only two exceptions that involvement has been in the form of arms or other supplies to the Syrian government or the rebels.  The two exceptions are Turkey, which on a couple occasions when Turkish citizens have been killed by spillover fire has returned random fire into Syria, and Israel, which on at least four occasions has conducted air raids on military targets while publicly refusing to comment.  No other country has directly involved its military in fighting within Syria.  For western countries such as England, France, or the US to attack Syria with their own military, publicly and openly (unlike Israel) and without having come under attack first (unlike Turkey) would be a significant escalation of foreign involvement in the conflict.

This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is considered legal by those attacking (Russia, Iran, and China would disagree).  This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is of limited duration or with specific targets in mind (although one US policy-maker acknowledged that there will be civilian casualties).  Such a significant escalation would no doubt encourage other countries to escalate their involvement.  A Western attack on Syria is not a Middle Eastern policy issue; it is a world policy issue.  A Western attack on Syria would not save lives.

The situation in Syria is awful, but as one commentary put it, “Outsiders have no tool to fix Syria.”

Iran’s Election and Syria

Iran has been one of the Syrian regime’s staunchest allies, even loaning Bashar al-Assad some of its elite Revolutionary Guards to protect him.  But Iran just held a presidential election in which the victor was Hasan Ruhani, a moderate cleric who resigned his previous post shortly after current president Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected, due to clashes with the then-new president.  How will last Friday’s election of Hasan Ruhani affect the intractable situation in neighboring Syria?

In the short term, not much.  First, because he will not be inaugurated for two more months.  Second, because as a moderate (not really a reformist) he will want to antagonize the conservative clerical establishment as little as possible, especially early in his tenure, until he can build political alliances to support his position.  Third, because the increasingly sectarian nature of Syria’s civil war pushes Shi’ites to support the Assad regime, as seen in Islamic State of Iraq‘s killing of 60 Shi’ites in Hatla last Tuesday and their demolition of the Shi’ite husayniyya there on Friday.  Ruhani is a Shi’ite cleric and Iran will remain the major Shi’ite power in the Middle East.  Given that a large portion of the Syrian rebel forces is run by Sunni jihadis, Iran will continue to support Assad against them.

In the long term, the election of a moderate Iranian president might make something of a difference, although in precisely what form is unclear.  Ruhani has promised increasing “integration” with the rest of the world in order to reverse the isolation Iran has experienced under Mahmud Ahmadinejad.  While most US observers hear this and think of the stalled nuclear talks (Ruhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator until his resignation in 2005), increasing dialogue with the rest of the world may also serve to broaden international cooperation around Syria.  What benefit may arise from that increased dialogue is unclear at this time, although reduced likelihood of an Iranian strike at Israel in the event of a US-supported military defeat of Assad is among them.   Of course, any benefits derived from increased Iranian willingness to dialogue with other countries will only be realized slowly, if the Syrian conflict extends for more years.  Given the current state of violence, and the threat of a post-Assad second war between jihadis and secularist Sunnis, such a scenario seems plausible.

Lost: The Expected Cost of Syrian Regime Operations in Lebanon

Yesterday Reuters reported that Syrian helicopters bombed the Lebanese village of Arsal.  A couple days ago I blogged on Syrian rebel attacks on the Lebanese village of Hermel, but this is a horse of a different color.  Both sides are receiving some support from Lebanese fighters, but until recently most of this support was individual and unorganized.  The open declaration of Hezbollah‘s military support for the Assad regime last month opened the door to more organized Shi’ite participation, which as I commented is likely to increase after rockets were fired by a rebel group (probably the Free Syrian Army) at the predominantly Shi’ite village of Hermel.  Similarly, the Egyptian shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently started calling for widespread Sunni fighting against Assad and Hezbollah, although the organization would be provided by rebel groups within Syria.  Still, many Lebanese Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’ite, remember the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and have tried to avoid getting more involved in Syria’s current civil war.

Since a Syrian helicopter has bombed the mainly Sunni village of Arsal, the calculus for many Lebanese Sunni Muslims has probably changed.  There is no question as to the source of the attack: Syrian rebels do not have helicopters, and the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, the state news outlet) claimed responsibility for the attack as an attempt to target fleeing “terrorists” (i.e. rebels) taking shelter in the town.  For many Lebanese Sunni Muslims, this will recall the Syrian involvement in the Lebanese Civil War and the ensuing Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which lasted until the 2005 Cedar Revolution.  The 2005 revolution against Syrian military occupation was sparked by the assassination (widely blamed on Syria) of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, himself a Sunni Muslim.  Since the Syrian regime has now demonstrated its willingness to bomb Lebanese Sunni villages, it is likely that more Lebanese Sunnis will regard non-participation in the conflict as simply willingness to be killed whenever the Syrian regime chooses.  The only option to lying down and playing dead, it may now appear, would be to join forces with the Syrian rebels and attempt to accomplish in Syria what was accomplished in Lebanon eight years ago.  Indeed, for Lebanese Muslims under the age of 25, those most likely to want to get involved in the Syrian conflict, no memory of the pain of the Civil War will dampen the enthusiasm begotten by the victorious Cedar Revolution, which in just over two months threw off the rule of this same Syrian regime which is now being opposed by rebel groups.

Unless their elders can restrain the hot-headedness of a younger generation, the attacks on two Lebanese villages this week will likely increase Lebanese participation in the Syrian Civil War.  Sunni voices calling for keeping Lebanon out of Syria’s war might appeal to the fact that Arsal was the scene of an ambush on the Lebanese army a few months ago, and thus distance themselves as loyal Lebanese from the non-cooperative residents of Arsal, but this is unlikely to be appealing.  And given the mosaic of religious groups in Lebanon (seen in this Wikimedia image), increased Sunni and Shi’ite involvement in Syria’s civil war will lead to renewed hostilities within Lebanon between Lebanese.  According to a recent non-governmental statistical study cited by the Wikipedia article on Lebanon (for political stakes, there has been no official census since 1932), Sunnis and Shi’ites are about equally numerous in Lebanon, but they are distributed into different areas that often include small enclaves of other groups.  This will facilitate inter-communal massacres within Lebanon.

The Syrian regime may have estimated that, having the firepower and a good guess where some rebels (or at least rebel sympathizers) were hiding, they could attack the rebel forces more effectively in the Lebanese village of Arsal.  But the cost of this attack will not be measured solely in helicopter fuel and munitions spent.  Increased involvement of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon will offset the advantage the regime recently acquired through the increased involvement of Hezbollah, and may be more likely to prompt international military intervention to prevent the Syrian Civil War from completely engulfing its western neighbor.  Although Syrian maps of Syria’s borders defy international recognition by claiming Lebanon as merely the most beautiful part of Syria, in this instance acting on the viewpoint that Lebanon was an unruly Syrian province is likely to cost more than the Syrian regime expected.

 

A Disappointing Lack of Details

The recently released report of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (here) is disappointingly vague.  After Carla del Ponte‘s remarks last month indicating evidence of rebel use of chemical weapons, the report’s cautious statement in paragraphs 137-139 (“The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons…  It is possible that anti-Government armed groups may access and use chemical weapons… though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems…  It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.”) are a let-down, with no discussion of evidence paralleling the discussion of evidence for massacres and sexual violence earlier in the report.  While it is good that the commission is cautious in drawing conclusions from problematic evidence (as there are always suspicions in these cases that the commission’s conclusions will be unfair and biased), a more complete and factual report of the specific evidence weighed for chemical weapons would have been more useful for international diplomatic decisions.  Failing that, some explanation from del Ponte regarding why her earlier remarks are not born out by the official report would be very welcome, given how significantly timed those remarks were.

Lost: Specificity of Responsibility

Carla Del Ponte of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria today said there are serious suspicions that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria, but by rebels rather than the government, to her total surprise.  General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army responded that the remarks were “an injustice to the rebels and a provocation to the Syrian people’s feelings” (here in English, here in Arabic).  The UN commission has issued a terse statement saying its findings are not ready, which the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes interprets plausibly enough to suggest that Del Ponte’s remarks caught the commission by surprise.  But, as I raised the possibility in an earlier post, the allegations of chemical weapons usage raise more questions than answers.

I have three questions, and a plausible answer only to one of them:

1. When “the rebels” have done something, who are we talking about?  Is Del Ponte suggesting that the Free Syrian Army is using sarin, against the protestations of Salim Idris?  Or is it some other group (Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian Islamic Front, etc.)?  “The rebels” are a diverse group of organizations with very different structures, priorities, methods, and goals, apart from the single shared goal of bringing down the Assad regime.

2. How can the commission tell who has used the sarin?  The only method cited by the articles were interviews with exiles and refugees, but unless some of those interviewed were themselves rebels who confessed to deploying the chemical weapon, it is not clear how the responsibility could be inferred.  Certainly the use of sarin could be inferred based on a description of symptoms, but in a battle scenario it is very difficult to tell afterwards who did what to whom, as the phenomenon of “friendly fire” amply demonstrates.  If chemical weapons are used, anyone nearby regardless of whether they support or oppose the regime will suffer, so the identify of the victim cannot indicate the weapon’s use by the opposing side.  Del Ponte did not give any indication as to when or where the alleged use of sarin occurred, or under what circumstances, so it is unclear how the commission is able to distinguish regime from rebel usage.

3. Given that the commission’s report is not due yet, and Del Ponte herself emphasized that there are “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” while her comments seemed to catch the commission off guard, according to Foulkes’ interpretation, why did she make these allegations now?

I suspect this is related to the Israeli airstrikes against Syria over the weekend, and mounting pressure on the US government to arm “the rebels,” amid concerns of high-powered weapons falling into the hands of the terrorist component of “the rebels.”  Del Ponte’s remarks were probably designed to caution against rash Western military intervention, to indicate that the evidence of sarin used could go both ways (she did not rule out that the regime had also used the chemical weapon).  How much do we really know about what is going on in Syria?  How much can we discern among different armed groups, in order to supply weapons only, as John McCain advocated yesterday, to “the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in”?  I think these are important questions, and I wonder if Del Ponte’s remarks were designed to slow things down after earlier news reports of chemical weapons usage by the Assad regime and Israeli airstrikes had sped up the expected decision timetable.

Lost: Voices of Moderation in Syria

The news of today’s abduction of two Christian metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo, the Syrian Orthodox Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Boulos Yaziji (here in English, here in Arabic), is yet another loss for the Syrian people.  Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim has been a voice for peace and stability in Aleppo since his appointment as metropolitan there in 1979.  During the present crisis in Syria, Mor Yuhanna has advocated the need for a cessation of hostilities and a return to civil society and a political solution to the current problems.  His argument is based on the need to protect minorities, religious and ethnic, and the horrible consequences of ignoring his call are all too evident in the disappearance of these two leaders of a Middle Eastern population which many outsiders do not even know exists.

The identity of the group responsible for the abduction is not yet clear amid the broad speculations circulating.  We hope for these bishops’ swift release, for their own sake, for the sake of their flocks, and for the sake of the Syrian people.