Angling for war in Syria?

April 30, 2013

Eric Ruder looks at the sharpening debate among policymakers over U.S. intervention.

A FLURRY of news reports in late April charged that Syria had used chemical weapons against rebel forces trying to topple the dictatorial regime of President Bashar al-Assad. President Barack Obama said that the revelations, if true, would be a "game changer," and politicians in Congress from both parties immediately began clamoring for stepped-up U.S. intervention in Syria.

"If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria...we're going to start a war with Iran because Iran's going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we're not serious about their nuclear weapons program," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Face the Nation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declared, "It is clear that red lines have been crossed, and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) concurred: "I myself think that we have tolerated for too long all of the assaults on the Syrian people made by its own government."

President Obama speaks to the press with Secretary of State John Kerry
President Obama speaks to the press with Secretary of State John Kerry

But despite all the headlines about Syria's use of chemical weapons and the confident calls for stepped-up intervention, U.S. intelligence sources aren't at all clear whether the Syrian military actually used sarin gas or other such weapons.

"The intel folks are taking a hard look at this, and they're not certain," an anonymous defense official told the Los Angeles Times. "There's no definite indication this was used against the opposition."

U.S. intelligence analysts concede they don't know what happened in the three instances--March 19 and 23 in Aleppo and Damascus and an attack in Homs in December--where it's alleged sarin gas was used.

The Syrian military may have used the deadly gas--but it's also possible that rogue regime elements may have been the perpetrators, that regime defectors fighting on the side of the rebels may have had access to sarin or that the release of the gas was accidental.

Obama declared in August 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime constituted a "red line" that, if crossed, would trigger U.S. military intervention. In particular, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has used this declaration to score political points while beating the drums for war.

"The political reality is that he put himself in that position that if the 'red line' is crossed--he made it very clear--it would change his behavior," said McCain of Obama. The intelligence "is a compelling argument for the president to take the measures that a lot of us have been arguing for all along."


TO BE sure, the brutality of Assad's suppression of the two-year-old popular uprising demonstrates that he and his regime would not hesitate to use sarin or other chemical weapons if they thought this would give them an advantage. The Assad regime has used tanks and mortars to fire on the civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and whole neighborhoods. So far, more than 70,000 Syrians are dead and millions more have been displaced since the uprising began.

The Arab Spring inspired the uprising in Syria where--like elsewhere in the Middle East--the broad mass of the population is furious at the tiny elite that has amassed fabulous wealth while poverty, joblessness and despair stalk the rest of the country--and any protest at such conditions is met with ruthless repression.

But while U.S. policymakers debate if military steps should be taken, they have ignored the appalling humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is trying to deal with a surge in refugees far beyond earlier estimates. Barely half of UNHCR's request for more than $1 billion to address the dire needs of millions of refugees has so far been fulfilled by donor countries--in many cases, the same donor countries who profess to hold the well-being of ordinary Syrians in such high regard.

According to Omar Dahi, who is of Syrian descent and a professor at Hampshire College:

The tragedy for many people who fled for their lives doesn't end when they get there. In fact, these people may be victims several times over. They were victims initially over the past decade of the neoliberal policies that increased inequality and marginalization, they were victims of the violence unleashed by the regime, and now they are victims a third time by the neglect of the conditions after they fled...

It has been clear from the beginning that this is really a lunatic regime that is willing to do anything to stay in power, including destroy the country, which is what they have done. Even if their narrative that this is not an uprising but simply armed gangs is true, their response to the armed gangs has been to destroy the country, which is quite insane.

On the other hand, the Western response has in many ways exacerbated the crisis, particularly due to the economic sanctions--the ones imposed by the U.S. that preceded the crisis, but mainly the ones imposed by the European Union, which was a blockade on exports of crude oil that has really ground the economy to a halt and exacerbated the impact on particularly the lower classes, who are paying much higher prices for food staples, bread, heating oil, while not doing anything at all to isolate and punish the regime. Here, we see again the calls for economic sanctions--some of them well meaning, others not--backfiring and hurting the population that you allegedly want to help.


IN FACT, the U.S. has been vacillating on how to respond with the Syrian revolution since its outbreak in March 2011.

In the previous few years, John Kerry, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sought to bring Assad into Washington's orbit and hailed that country's market-oriented economic reforms--and a short-lived period when political dissent was tolerated, as long as it remained confined to cafes and newspapers. Now, as Secretary of State, Kerry must navigate the problems that Syria poses for U.S. imperialism in the region.

Long the most quiet border for Israel, Syria has become potentially the most destabilizing element in a volatile region. A post-Assad Syria could become a popular revolutionary democracy that would be anti-Israel in its orientation--something the U.S. fears. Syria could also devolve into a conflict along ethnic and religious lines. The heterodox Alawite sect of Islam, which has long dominated the top posts in the state, has whipped up fears that the Sunni Muslim majority would try to crush them and other religious minorities, such as Christians and Druse.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are obsessed with the possibility that Islamist fighters allied with al-Qaeda will end up with control over part or all of Syria. That's why Washington has withheld heavy weapons from Syrian fighters, lest they fall into the hands of Islamists. Instead, they've bided their time, successfully pressuring opposition groups to put Islamist groups in the background. Their hope was that a Syrian military figure or other former regime element would oust Assad in a coup and reach some accommodation with the U.S.

Now, however, reports of Syrian troops' use of nerve gas have raised pressure in Washington for the U.S. to intervene militarily. But for the hawks demanding a new war in the Middle East, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. ought to serve as a cautionary tale.

It's now accepted that the Bush administration cooked up intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the invasion of Iraq--while all the while professing to serve the best interests of the Iraqi people. Ten years later, Iraq is a wrecked country, devastated by years of U.S. sanctions and war, sectarian violence and a massive refugee crisis.

This hasn't stopped neoconservatives--working in concert with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--from promoting "evidence" that Syria's regime has used chemical weapons. And as the declarations from Feinstein and Pelosi show, the neoconservatives aren't alone.

Even the hawkish McCain, however, has stopped short of calling for direct U.S. military intervention with troops on the ground. Instead, he and others who favor a more muscular approach want Obama to impose a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace and supply arms to the rebels seeking to topple the Assad regime.

But there's a reason that the U.S. hasn't already started the flow of arms. Foreign policy officials haven't yet figured out how to make sure that the arms flow only to the opposition elements that they support. This is extremely challenging given that the Syrian opposition is so disparate and, in many cases, highly localized.

For the Obama administration, the questions are these: Will arming the rebellion end up boosting al-Qaeda elements that have sought to involve themselves in the conflict with the hope of emerging with more influence? Or will the popular movement push aside the former regime elements that the U.S. hopes will set up a new state friendly to U.S. interests?

For now, the Obama administration is trying to avoid the conclusion that Syria has crossed the "red line" drawn by the president last year. But this is hardly because the Obama administration is concerned about "getting the intelligence right." Obama's main hesitation is that all military options come with major risks--and the possibility of unintended consequences.

It's not hard to see why. In contrast to Libya, where Western warplanes could strike unchallenged, Syria has a sophisticated air defense system that could shoot down attackers. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, "it is pretty clear" that "this is not Libya."

According to Gary Samore, who served as the top White House official on weapons of mass destruction until February, the U.S. could persuade the key European and Middle Eastern countries to go along with intervention, even without conclusive evidence of Assad's use of chemical weapons. According to the Los Angeles Times:

[Samore] said the bigger hurdle for the United States was the lack of any attractive military options: Destroying the chemical weapons sites, which are scattered across Syria, or seizing them would require "a massive amount of force." "The big constraint is not world opinion, but self-restraint, given how unappealing the options are," he said.

However these unresolved issues play out, aggressive talk of U.S. military intervention in Washington should raise alarm bells. U.S. intervention, if it happens, won't advance the cause of freedom in Syria--just as it hasn't in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Syria's fate must be decided by its own people, free from U.S. interference that invariably comes with strings attached.

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