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Syria Breaks?

Should the US take military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria?  It’s become the one important question in the US since President Obama announced that the dictatorship had indeed used chemical weapons against its own people.  After a year of ducking the question, a brutal attack on August 21 with multiple rockets full of nerve agents into the suburbs of Damascus has made the situation intolerable.

It’s best to never react to the news as it is coming in because everything is fluid. We last wrote about Syria 18 months ago and it was not clear that the horror has lessened.  But today it seems as though there has been a breakthrough and the threat of US force, wielded without flinching, works well in the hands of an administration that would rather not have to do it at all.

A child amid the rubble of Taflanaz in June, 2012

A child amid the rubble of Taflanaz in June, 2012

It has been a difficult three weeks.  The attack was brutal and killed hundreds of civilians, including children.  Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, at first tried to cast doubt that it was the government that launched the attacks, but that proved pointless.  They all came from regime controlled areas and landed in suburbs that the rebels had at least influence over.

John Kerry famously let slip the idea that if the government gave up these weapons we would not strike.  There is no reason to believe that was a slip – in the short time since the administration became serious about getting us involved in the conflict it’s been clear that they have been reluctant to actually do it without any legal justification.  No action has been taken in UN, blocked by Russia, and Syria is not even a signatory to the treaty outlawing chemical weapons.  The UK Parliament’s refusal to consider strikes was another heavy blow to the effort.

Were there discussions with Russia, among others, about turning over the chemical weapons? There is reason to believe that a lot has happened in the last three weeks in what is obviously a fluid situation.

For one thing, Syria’s only real ally in the region is Iran.  Their official position is that the strikes were done by the rebels, but a member of parliament there openly stated that this was not likely.  Iran is very sensitive to the use of chemical weapons since they were the victims of brutal attacks with them by Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.  Iran has its own red line, and it was crossed.  Denial only goes so far with them, too.

A map of the strikes of 21 August

A map of the strikes of 21 August

It’s also been revealed that German intelligence has, for some reason, concluded that Assad did not order the strikes and his own denials may be genuine.  That’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.  Syria has become chaotic, and the regime does indeed have limited control over everything in the nation.  Local commanders are almost certainly fighting their own battles at this point for their own reasons, and one may have crossed a line without orders.

So it may well be that the threat of US strikes was enough to change the situation very dramatically without actually carrying them out – although it takes time for it to all sink into the chaos.  Just because we live in a 24 news world does not mean that things happen on the pace that the chattering heads insist that they have to.

There are many lessons to be learned here, but first and foremost among them is the lesson that a military blindly blowing things up is not the only tool at our disposal.  The problem remains what Barataria lamented 18 months ago.  A nation that spends $700B on the military, a fully 40% of the planet’s expenditures on force and more than six times the nearest competitor, China, has a tendency to use that force even when it is not called for.  That force can move along diplomacy, but it is not a substitute for it.  We cannot ask our brave men and women in uniform to do the jobs that are better done by other people.

120,000 Syrians live in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

120,000 Syrians live in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

The administration may have found a way to leverage that threat into genuine movement in a situation that seemed utterly intractable.  It takes time, however, and a commitment to doing the right thing for the right reasons.  The Obama administration has shown that it has all of this – so far.

This doesn’t help the now 2M Syrians who have fled to other nations as refugees, nearly 10% of their population and growing rapidly.  Their horror still continues as this war rages on.  But to see diplomatic progress of any kind is real progress, more than we’ve seen in two and a half years of slaughter.

But whatever happens, it will not be on the timetable of our media or our military.  This isn’t about us.  Insisting that we relieve the suffering only according to our hyperactive schedules is counterproductive and immoral.  It takes time to give peace a chance – even among people who have had so much time taken from them by brutality.

16 thoughts on “Syria Breaks?

  1. This is a reasonable blog. Before chemicals weapons use, the question was why Russia and China weren’t doing more useful things to help the situation in Syria. Saying no to the US doesn’t help. Wasn’t there some commonality for hammering out an agreement?

    The US, Russia and China sort of have a dysfunctional relationship at times since there is no agreement on who is the leader on security issues and who is therefore more powerful.

  2. “a tendency to use that force even when it is not called for.”

    That is the one part of the blog that is unreasonable.

    • I do not think the use of force was called for in 2003 against Iraq, but that’s only the biggest use of it. Under Clinton we sent cruise missiles to a lot of places, including a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that we suspected, wrong, of being an explosives works. I believe we have gotten much better since Iraq, but the temptation to use force is going to remain.

  3. I hope we can avoid war. It doesn’t seem like our plan has ever been to end the suffering of the Syrians which means we would only add to it. I can’t support that for any reason.

    • I think there may be a plan to ease the suffering of Syrians, but it may be very hard to implement. I am very much in favor of anything we can do to put an end to this. Anyone who says that this is not in our national interest is full of crap – this is currently destabilizing the entire region and will only get worse.

  4. I would like to see Putin and Assad develop a peace plan for the country. The idea would be to develop a new governmental system that would end Assad’s authoritarian, military regime. They need representative government and multi-party elections and civil rights.

    If Putin and Assad can’t sketch out a new governmental system, I support a US invasion and occupation of Syria that ends the war and sets up a new government for the country.

    If you ask why there is no peace in Syria is that the different factions are not interested in negotiating a new type of political and governmental system. If they can’t do it themselves, the United States should help them since we are an exceptional nation

    We are exceptional nation because we assisted Europe in WW I, WW II and the cold war. We tried to contain communism every step of the way. Europe was rebuilding itself in the post war period. That is why we have a large military establishment. We were helping Western Europe and we were paving the way for Europe to be whole and free.

    • I am very much in favor of us assisting in any way we can, but I am also sure we can’t make Syria whole by ourselves. I agree that Putin will have a role, and I’m pretty sure the Arab League will have to as well. The refugee crisis will have to be managed by the UN for years to come even if there is a peace tomorrow.
      We have done well for the nations that were once our enemies, at least in the past. But while our ability to destroy is utterly unmatched by a wide margin, our ability to put things back has reasonable limits. If the Syrian people still want to fight it could be very hard to stop it.
      But yes, let’s talk about putting an end to this and what that will really take. There has been far too much suffering already.

  5. Here, here…

    Is China helpful on Syria? I’ve never heard their leaders say “middle east.”

    What China is interested is is causing commotion about very small islands in the South China Seas and fishing rights and disputing other islands with Japan. They are interested in hogging rare earth minerals. China has enough territory and they have enough people. What China has in mind for Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines: we don’t want to negotiate with you because your ally is the United States. They think to themselves, “It is your ally, the United States, that is causing the problem.”

    China is still a politically developing nation. There is no freedom of association. They do have local elections but they do not have multi party elections. Why are there no competitive elections. China has numerous dissatisfied countrymen and women who, if given the change might want to break away from the country. It is always possible that their internal affairs will become issues before the United Nations someday. Can Tibetan monks speak their mind?

    • I think that for all their gains, China has a real cap on its potential. For one thing, all the people crowded into those polluted cities from their previous lives in the countryside cannot be particularly happy. I don’t know what it takes to get a real rebellion in the works in China, but they have to be pretty close to something happening. That leaves aside basic freedoms – which we can always hope people develop an appetite for.
      They do want to take us on, and Syria is probably just an example of them testing their muscle safely behind Russia’s cover. But I doubt they have as much as they want to given their ambitions. I can see them realistically collapsing back inward to take care of their own problems soon.

  6. Pingback: How Good Will It Be? | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

  7. Just heard on the news that the weapons used were Russian and certainly by the Syrian government. So what are we doing with Russia to get rid of them? If it works its great because we have no business getting into this but if we can force Russia to get out of it then more power to Obama.

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