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.
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.
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.
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.