Julia Ioffe observes that the UN Syria deal ”is in fact a compromise, and, as such, it is a half-measure–even if, this day in age, half-measures are themselves quite the victory.” She looks at the agreement from Putin’s perspective:
The Russians can … say that they have upheld international norms protecting national sovereignty and insuring against unilateral military action. And whereas American policy on Syria has been mercurial and ever-changing, the Russians’ goal has been steadfast for the entire duration of the Syrian civil war: blocking American military intervention. This resolution, because it tables the use of force and kicks that can down the road, allows them to do that.
Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world’s master diplomats and, finally, as America’s geopolitical equals.
Christoph Reuter reports from Atmeh, a transit station in northern Syria where shopkeepers have created a consumer paradise for the foreign fighters on their way south. “[M]ore than 1,000 jihadists are staying in and around Atmeh, making it the densest accumulation of jihadists in all of Syria,” says Reuter:
The Turkish mobile phone network provides strong reception, and the shops carry Afghan pakol wool hats, al Qaeda caps and knee-length black shirts made of the same coarse material used in the Pakistani tribal regions. New restaurants have popped up, and a company called International Contacts books flights and exchanges Saudi riyals, British pounds, euros and US dollars into the local currency. The pharmacy sells miswak, a teeth-cleaning stick from Pakistan with which the Prophet Muhammed supposedly brushed his teeth.
A third Internet café opened in mid-June to accommodate the many jihadists wanting to communicate with their relatives and friends at home via phone, email or chat programs. This prompted the owner of the first café to hang al Qaeda flags above his computers as a sign of loyalty to his customers. The move has improved business despite the growing competition. The heavily armed customers use Skype to tell their friends at home about what a paradise Atmeh is. The rents are cheap, they say, the weather and food are good, they can walk around with their weapons and, with a little luck, they can even find wives.
Charli Carpenter points to an ominous infographic from the UK nonprofit Action On Armed Violence:
It shows some of the worst conventional weapons used in Syria:
What NGOs are calling attention to is what Nina Tannenwald refers to as a perverse effect of international prohibitionary norms. While norms can constrain bad behavior, such norms also exert “permissive effects” whereby the social sanction against one type of action implicitly legitimizes others. The international reaction against chemical weapons in Syria, to the exclusion of attention to other types of civilian harm, constitutes such a “permissive effect” on civilian targeting and the indiscriminate use of explosives which should rightly be questioned by human security advocates.
The organization says such weapons have been responsible for about two out of every five deaths in the civil war. Ninety percent of those victims have been civilians.
Remember the debate the Iraq War alliance of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists wanted over Syria? Either we back democratic forces ousting Assad or we are complicit in mass-murder. As with Iraq, they wanted no debate about what might happen after Assad was gone, because that might prompt memories of what happened the last time a Baathist dictator fell in a country riven by sectarianism.
And they were always a little hedgy when it came to the nature of the forces fighting Assad. They ignored the deep sectarian grievances (as they did in Iraq); they spoke of “democracy” as an alternative, even as the exile groups and the Free Syrian Army were unable to muster the kind of intensity and fighting skills of Sharia-law Sunni Jihadists. And now, just a few weeks after the neocon-liberal interventionist chorus demanded we aid the rebels as quickly as possible, we discover the following:
11 rebel groups issued a statement [Tuesday] declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.” Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic frame.” Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council … “We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside,” said [Mohannad al-Najjar, an activist close to the leadership of one of the statement’s most powerful signers, Al Tawhid Brigade].
So Leon Wieseltier and Christiane Amanpour were unwittingly arguing only a couple weeks ago for giving arms to groups increasingly indistinguishable from those determined to impose Sharia law in Syria. It took several years for the errors of that very same pro-war coalition to realize that their equally admirable goals in Iraq were completely overtaken by reality (and I was one of them). It has taken just a couple of weeks for the same kind of brutal reality to bite in Syria.
Can you imagine the pickle we’d be in right now if we’d been aiding the opposition for as long as John McCain wanted? In a civil war, the extremists always gain the upper hand. And we’d have given serious arms – even indirectly – to forces bent on the most brutal methods of Jihad.
(Photo: A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket (C-back), holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo. By Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images.)
Fisher claims that it “boosts the credibility of [Obama's] stated position that he isn’t seeking Iran’s destruction and that he will seek detente with Iran if it first meets his long-held demands on uranium enrichment”:
Here’s where the parallel with Syria is really important: Iranian leaders distrust the United States deeply and fear that Obama would betray them by not holding up his end of the bargain. That’s been a major hurdle to any U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. But seeing Assad’s deal with Obama work out (so far) sends the message to Iran that it can trust the United States. It also sends the message that making concessions to the United States can pay off. Iran’s supreme leader has been talking a lot lately about flexibility and diplomacy toward the West. So it’s an ideal moment for Obama to be demonstrating flexibility and diplomacy toward the Middle East.
An overwhelming 79 percent of Americans support the proposed deal for international control over Syria’s chemical weapons Obama has embraced. There’s continued public opposition to strikes, with only 30 percent in support. The public gives Obama’s overall handling of the situation low marks.
But close to 80 percent approval of the result! More to the point:
Jamie Dettmer summarizes a new report that sheds light on the question:
IHS Jane’s Charles Lister, an insurgency expert and author of the analysis, estimates that around 10,000 are jihadists fighting for al-Qaeda affiliates (the Islamic State of Iraq and the smaller Jabhat al-Nusra), while another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists, who have less of a global jihad vision but share a focus on establishing an Islamic state to replace Assad. Another 30,000 or so are more moderate Muslim Brotherhood Islamists. He estimates that moderate nationalist fighters number only about 20,000, with the Kurdish separatists being able to field only 5,000 to 10,000. …
The UN’s report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria is above. Fisher observes that, while “the investigation was barred from assigning blame, a number of details in the report seem to strongly suggest that the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was likely responsible.” Among other evidence:
The U.N. investigators analyzed 30 samples, which they found contained not just sarin but also “relevant chemicals, such as stabilizers.” That suggests that the chemical weapons were taken from a controlled storage environment, where they could have been processed for use by troops trained in their use. This would seem to downplay the possibility that the chemical weapons were, as some speculated, fired by rebels who had stolen them from government stockpiles.
Moses Brown likewise thinks the evidence points to the Assad regime:
You have claims the attacks were faked, the victims being Alawite hostages from Latakia, that were somehow driven through hundreds of miles of contested and government controlled territory to Damascus. There’s claims that this was some sort of accident involving Saudi supplied chemical weapons, which fails to explain how one incident could effect two separate areas. Other claims centre around the opposition having sarin, based off reports in Turkey in May, where it was reported Jabhat al-Nusra members were arrested with sarin. The “sarin” was later reported to be anti-freeze, and only this week some of the members are being prosecuted for trying to make sarin, having only a shopping list of ingredients, rather than actual sarin. It seems to me, that compared to the evidence of government responsibility for the attacks, the evidence of opposition responsibility seems very poor.
[R]emember that chemical weapons destruction is not just a domestic pursuit. Overseas, the United States has spent $13 billion since 1992 on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), which works with former Soviet states on securing and dismantling nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. $1 billion of this went to just one project—the Shchuch’ye Russia chemical weapons destruction facility—which has since eliminated more than 2,365 metric tons of chemical weapons.
Still, it’s cheap when compared to actual war:
We spent at one point $10 billion per month during the Iraq War, which was fought over the illusion of WMDs. And in Syria, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said, “Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites…Costs could also average well over $1 billion per month.” So destroying all of Syria’s actual chemical weapons for something in the neighborhood of a few billion dollars would be a fantastic financial bargain.
Elsewhere, Megan Garber walks through how to dismantle a chemical bomb.
Have you noticed how almost all of Obama’s critics on Syria have berated him for the optics, but have never said what they would have done in each particular moment? Greg Sargent has. Money quote:
What this whole dodge comes down to is that one can’t admit to thinking that going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution are the right goals for Obama to pursue, without undermining one’s ability to criticize Obama for betraying abstract qualities we all know a president is “supposed” to possess. It’s simply presumed to be a positive when a president shows “strength” by “not changing his mind,” and it’s simply presumed to be a negative when he shows “weakness” by changing course in midstream. That’s “indecisive,” and that’s bad, you see. But it’s a lot harder to sustain these “rules” if you admit you agree with the actual goals Obama is pursuing with these changes of mind. After all, if Obama’s changes of mind have now pointed him towards goals you agree with, how was changing course a bad thing?
People should come clean about what they really believe about all this stuff.
But that would require them leaving Politico-style bullshit and actually looking at the situation and trying to figure out the best way forward for US interests. And that’s hard. It’s sooo much easier to talk in crude and spectacularly dumb terms like “strong” or “weak” without any reference to the goals at hand. The dirty truth: pundits are so much more comfortable examining style because they’re actually too lazy or terrified of actually tackling the substance, let alone taking a stand on it.
The first step of the U.S.-Russian framework agreement requires President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to submit to the United Nations “a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.” Press reports say Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed in private talks in Geneva last week that Syria possessed about 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents, including nerve gas and blistering agents. But the devil is in the details. After the first submission from Syria, the U.S.-Russia plan says an initial round of inspections is supposed to be complete by the end of November, and Syria’s chemical stocks should be destroyed by the middle of 2014.
The framework did not address Assad’s demand in a Russian television interview on Friday that in exchange for his cooperation the U.S. stop arming the Syrian rebels. And Assad could drag the process out for years, as former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein did, if at any point he stops cooperating. Syria experts worry that the deal could empower Assad and undermine the opposition. “If [Assad] becomes our interlocutor how do we square that with our statement that he’s no longer legitimate? How do we square that with our statements that he has no future role in Syria?” says Steve Heydemann, a Syria expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “In effect this reinforces his future role in Syria.”
Last night, I wrote that “Syria is the proof of principle for an agreement with Iran”. But that the second phase of dealing with regimes harboring WMDs in the Middle East will require real courage and boldness from the president – Reagan at Reykyavik boldness. Beinart sees the same comparison:
Since Syria is caught in the middle of an American-Iranian (and to a lesser degree, American-Russian) cold war, it’s worth remembering what ended the last Cold War. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to prop up unpopular regimes in Eastern Europe. But to cut Eastern Europe free, Gorbachev had to answer hard-liners who had long argued that the USSR needed a ring of clients to protect it against another attack from the West. That’s why Ronald Reagan’s willingness to embrace Gorbachev and negotiate far-reaching arms-control deals—despite bitter criticism from conservative politicians and pundits—proved so important. As Reagan himself argued, “I might have helped him see that the Soviet Union had less to fear from the West than he thought, and that the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe wasn’t needed for the security of the Soviet Union.” By helping show Gorbachev that he could safely release Eastern Europe, Reagan helped end the Cold War. And when the Cold war ended, so did civil wars across the globe because the U.S. and USSR no longer felt that their own security required arming one side.
Today, President Obama’s real strategic and moral imperative is not killing a few Syrian grunts to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. It is ending the Middle Eastern cold war that fuels Syria’s savage civil war, just as the global Cold war once fueled savage civil wars in Angola, El Salvador, and Vietnam. It’s possible that strengthening Syria’s rebels and sanctioning Iran could further that goal, just as Reagan’s military buildup showed Moscow the cost of its Cold War with the United States, but only if such efforts are coupled with a diplomatic push that offers Iran’s leaders a completely different relationship with the United States, one that offers them security and status absent a nuclear weapon and no longer requires them to cling to Bashar Assad. By striking Syria, Barack Obama is making that harder. By doing so in alliance with groups that oppose any thawing of the U.S.-Iranian cold war absent total Iranian capitulation, he’s making it harder still.
This will not be easy, as Suzanne Maloney explains, but the potential for win-win-win is there:
“Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq war,” – president Obama.
It’s been awesome to watch today as all the jerking knees quieted a little and all the instant judgments of the past month ceded to a deeper acknowledgment (even among Republicans) of what had actually been substantively achieved: something that, if it pans out, might be truly called a breakthrough – not just in terms of Syria, but also in terms of a better international system, and in terms of Iran.
Obama has managed to insist on his red line on Syria’s chemical weapons, forcing the world to grapple with a new breach of international law, while also avoiding being dragged into Syria’s civil war. But he has also strengthened the impression that he will risk a great deal to stop the advance of WMDs (which presumably includes Iran’s nukes). After all, his announcement of an intent to strike Assad was a real risk to him and to the US. Now, there’s a chance that he can use that basic understanding of his Syria policy – and existing agreement on chemical weapons – to forge a potential grand bargain with Iran’s regime. If that is the eventual end-game, it would be historic.
To put it plainly: Syria is the proof of principle for an agreement with Iran. And an agreement with Iran – that keeps its nuclear program reliably civil and lifts sanctions – is the Holy Grail for this administration, and for American foreign policy in the 21st Century.
As for the role of Putin, I argued last week that it was the Russian leader who had blinked, the Russian leader who had agreed to enforce Washington’s policy, and that the best response was to welcome it with open arms. So it was another treat to hear the president say, in tones that are unmistakable:
“I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.’ ”
(Photo: President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on September 13, 2013. By Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images.)
Morton Abramowitz insists that when it comes to the massive number of Syria refugees, there “is room and need for a greater effort by the U.S. and its friends and allies”:
[T]he West must demonstrate its willingness to bear part of the burden. So far this fiscal year, the U.S. has admitted just 33 Syrian refugees. The new fiscal year will permit President Barack Obama to provide for a significant number of Syrian refugees within the 70,000 total allotted to the U.S. refugee program. In turn, the U.S. willingness to accept more refugees can also help accelerate resettlement efforts by other Western countries. Under normal U.S. procedures, resettlement could take a few years. So as the U.S. has done with Indochinese and other refugee groups, it must expedite processing. …
The refugee burden, not surprisingly, has fallen mostly on four bordering countries: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Turkey is managing well and is more capable than its neighbors of taking in more refugees, although an increase would stoke sectarian differences and political tensions. The opening for those allowed by the government to cross the border, however, continues to narrow. The biggest burden falls on a very weak Lebanese state, where the Syrian war has already provoked considerable internal violence. If Damascus were to fall, refugees would inundate Lebanon.
Before destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, Assad wants the US to agree to stop arming Syria’s rebels. Larison wishes the administration would take the deal but suspects it won’t:
It costs the U.S. nothing to agree to these terms, but these terms will likely be viewed as unacceptable in Washington. The administration will want to treat its support for the opposition as separate, and it will always want to reserve the option to attack. That isn’t because either position makes any sense for the U.S., but because the administration has trapped itself into commitments that it won’t easily repudiate. The Syrian government may not truly be willing to give up its chemical weapons, but it is doubtful that the U.S. would be willing to accept the exchange that might be required to make the deal work.
I have watched a bit of Anderson’s new show, and I am so excited to see you on as a regular guest. The revelation for me so far (with my limited viewing) is Christiane Ahmanpour. I’ve not known her as an opinion journalist, but she is quite compelling to watch. Might I add that she is not the least bit intimidated by her male counterparts at the table, which I love. I saw a clip of her very emotional appeal for Syrian intervention (which, by the way, I think is perfectly fine as long as it is coupled with the kind of intellectual heft and reflection that someone like Ahmanpour can bring to bear), and I think it raises a legitimate question that I have posed here before. Where is the moral line for humanitarian intervention? Does a situation have to reach Holocaust proportions or are we talking Srebrenica before we act?
America is arguably the world’s only superpower. There are obligations that come with that privilege, and we now live in an era in which that is simply not a welcome burden thanks to the abuses of the Bush/Cheney years. Why am I not hearing this obligation being debated? Isn’t there a line out there that we don’t want crossed for myriad reasons? Where is that line?
Christiane’s passion is admirable and I respect her enormously. But of course, our decision matrix on whether to intervene to stop moral atrocities has to take into account the cost, context, and consequences of such a decision every time we approach it. The impulse to intervene in Somalia was a decent and good one, for example, just as Christiane’s impulse to stop these horrifying attacks is a good and decent one. But it led to a military and strategic disaster which forced us to leave in a hurry. Ditto the moral impulse to save tortured children in Saddam’s Iraq. But does the gravity of the crime matter? Of course it does, as Reuel Marc Gerecht pointed out.
To be honest, as a function of being on vacation when the attack happened, I did not experience the shock that many experienced in real time. That may have made me seem more callous than I am. I also have to say that the images of the slaughter I subsequently watched affected me deeply, as they would anyone with a heart or soul. I shifted a little because of it. But I insist nonetheless that unless there is a way to prevent that kind of horror without intervening in Syria’s civil war, we shouldn’t intervene. Maybe Obama’s “unbelievably small but not a pinprick” strike could do that, and I was open to persuasion. But now that Assad has caved on that specific issue with no missiles fired, the issue for me now is moot. If he attacks with poison gas again, we may have to reassess.
There is no eternal line defining when or when we should not intervene in these circumstances. We have to judge each incident as it occurs. Christiane and I have different judgments about that. It’s up to readers and viewers to decide which one makes the most sense to you. That’s the messy way we do it in democracies – but it’s better than any moral “red lines” without any practical consideration of the costs involved.
But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.
It certainly isn’t as brazen as “fight em there so we don’t fight em here,” but it’s a difference of degree and emphasis, not kind.
I don’t care about the arguing over whether Obama bumbled here or there, and it’s tilting at windmills for me to be offended by using the good old “it’s for the children” emotional manipulation. But Obama still hasn’t explained how this enforcement of international norms is going to be upheld with some targeted bombings. In a specific way, this reminds me of the Bush justifications for Iraq: throw out every justification you can, see which one people will buy, and pretend that was the real reason all along.
I get Fallow’s point about using the emotionally-charged imagery of murdered children as talking points, but when it comes to Obama, I honestly doubt this is some mere political strategy. It seems to me that, as with gun control and Newtown, nothing so affects Obama as the murder of children. I think of his statement after Newtown and how raw and emotional he was.
His adoration for his own children can’t be denied, and a simple Google search can return a myriad of pictures of Obama interacting with children. Sure, these are photo ops, but time and again you can see an easiness, something that the aloof Obama doesn’t always achieve easily with adults.
He likes kids. I think above all things he considers himself a father. I think the preventable harm of children motivates him above all else. So I don’t think these are mere talking points to him.
I don’t either. But it should not have overwhelmed his strategic sense. Tough, I know. Almost inhuman. But that is what a moral man in an immoral society sometimes has to accept.
Wow. You’ve really dug yourself into a deep hole. The country of Syria was given its name by the Greeks before Alexander, and aside from its shifting borders, Syria has remained constant from Greek toRoman to Umayyad to Abbasid to Ottoman to Arab to French to Syrian rule. There as even a Syrian Roman emperor in 244. If Syria isn’t a country, then neither is Turkey, the UK, or any other country. A few seconds on Wikipedia or with the classics confirms all this, with ancient maps of Syria that are as close to modern Syria as is Sykes-Picot’s or T.E. Lawrence’s maps. Compare the map of Roman Syria from the first century BC to the 19th century map of Ottoman Syria. Aside from Palestine, they’re the same province, which is now the same country.
And the theory (which is yours) that the Ottomans gave the minority Shia and Christians “pools of self-governance” and that modern Syria “was precisely constructed to pit a minority … against the majority” is all absurd non-history. Both the Ottomans and the French protected their minority sects, but neither gave them self-governance or control over the majority. The straight line you draw from Sykes-Picot to brutal al-Assad rule does not exist. What’s more, and ironic for your argument, the very name of the al-Assad family comes from Hafez’s father’s opposition to modern Syria! The Syrian military coups that happened 40 years later that ultimately led to Alawite dominance have nothing to do with Sykes-Picot.
There are of course excellent reasons to avoid a foreign entanglement in a sectarian civil war, but unfortunately you’ve badly mangled history and logic to make this point.
It is not “absurd non-history” to note that modern Syria is comprised of a complex mix of extremely different sectarian and ethnic groups who have fought each other for a very long time, and that under French colonial rule, the Alawites were the favored sect. In independent Syria, the Alawites gained real power especially through the military, and ran the country under the Assad dynasty as a deeply sectarian, Shi’a force against the majority Sunni. That also explains their alliance with Iran, the region’s major Shiite power, if you don’t include post-Saddam Iraq. That dynamic means that Syria as a modern state is inherently unstable, unless sectarian identity recedes (fat chance after two years of brutal civil war), and was designed to be inherently unstable. Again, my point was not that Syria is not a name that was attached to the entire region, but that as a unitary state, in its current borders, it is a colonial contraption unfitted to multi-sectarian self-government. Another informed reader:
I have a Ph.D in anthropology and spent decades working in Syria both with archaeological projects (for fun) and as a researcher in social anthropology studying contemporary society in Syria. I was also a Fulbright Fellow there. Anyway, I have not only read immense amounts of Middle Eastern history but lived at archaeological projects out in the Syria Jazeera as well as done ethnographic research in Damascus. I stumbled on this insight as a grad student (and as some one who had to take long-haul buses around the country). I largely agree with your post on Syria.
Any potential natural “nations” (of course, all nation states are largely imaginary) of the Middle East can best be found in the old Ottoman provinces, which were much more closely aligned with communities of common interest than the Sykes-Picot nation-states. Of the course the Brits/French pissed all over those separations and alliances. Which is the problem.
The supporters of robust military intervention are not sufficiently considering how things could become even worse after the demise of dictator Bashar al Assad, with full-scale anarchy perhaps in the offing; how Assad might still serve a cold-blooded purpose by containing al Qaeda in the Levant; how four or five steps ahead the United States might find itself owning or partially owning the situation on the ground in an anarchic Syria; how the American public’s appetite for military intervention in Syria might be less than they think; and how a long-term commitment to Syria might impede American influence in other regional theaters. The Obama administration says it does not want a quagmire and will avoid one; but that was the intention of the younger Bush administration, too.
He admits that “each war or intervention is different in a thousand ways than any other” and that “Syria will unfold in its own unique manner.” But he can’t help but see the similarities:
[A] happy outcome in Syria usually requires a finely calibrated strategy from the beginning. The Bush administration did not have one in Iraq, evinced by the absence of post-invasion planning. And, at least as of this writing, the Obama administration seems to lack one as well. Instead, it appeared until recently to be backing into a military action that it itself only half-heartedly believes in. That, more than any of the factors I have mentioned above, is what ultimately gives me pause.
The key issue to me is what plan do we have for the demise of Assad? None, so far as I can see. Bob is absolutely right to see anarchy as the most logical result.
More opponents of the regime strongly disapprove of a U.S. military strike than favor it. 81 percent of government supporters, as well as 56 percent of those who prefer not to say. There’s little evidence that ordinary Syrians favor an attack.
In fact, distrust of America is nearly unanimous among Syrian poll-takers. Only 7 percent of those interviewed thought that the U.S. government was “a friend of the Syrian people.” There wasn’t much disagreement on this point among supporters and opponents of Assad. 79 percent of supporters, 61 percent of opponents and 57 percent of non-aligned said the U.S. was “an enemy of the Syrian people.”
Leave aside the fact that the intellectual architect of the Iraq War and of the Bush-Cheney torture program has the gall to call any president “incompetent.” His column today conveys a very 20th Century mindset. It’s a zero-sum world and the US must control as much of it as possible. So we have this puzzlement:
Take at face value Obama’s claim of authorship. Then why isn’t he taking ownership? Why isn’t he calling it the “U.S. proposal” and defining it? Why not issue a U.S. plan containing the precise demands, detailed timeline and threat of action should these conditions fail to be met?
Because he does not want the US to “own” Syria or this proposal. How’s that for an obvious answer that Krauthammer cannot imagine – because he is so trapped in power trips for a second American Century? But Obama, reflecting American public opinion, is perfectly happy to have Putin assume responsibility for the Middle East. Let Russia be drained, bankrupted and exhausted by managing that fractious and decreasingly important part of the world.
Then we get an honest account of what the architect of the Iraq catastrophe wants now – more enmeshment in the sectarian warfare of the Middle East:
Assad is the key link in the anti-Western Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus and Beirut to the Mediterranean — on which sits Tartus, Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union. This axis frontally challenges the pro-American Sunni Arab Middle East (Jordan, Yemen, the Gulf Arabs, even the North African states), already terrified at the imminent emergence of a nuclear Iran.
At which point the Iran axis and its Russian patron would achieve dominance over the moderate Arab states, allowing Russia to supplant America as regional hegemon for the first time since Egypt switched to our side in the Cold War in 1972.
And that would be a terrible outcome for the US because … ? He doesn’t spell it out. Here’s what I think would be a terrible outcome for the US: taking sides in the intra-Muslim endless conflict between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam. The US has no, zero, zilch, nada reason to take such a position. It infuriates each side in turn – we backed the Shia in Iraq (Krauthammer’s bright idea) and now he wants us to back the Sunnis in Syria. This latter strategy, as Leon Wieseltier explained on AC360 Later the other night, is all about Iran. Where Krauthammer and Wieseltier agree is on perpetual conflict with Iran. Because the other thing they agree on is running American Middle East policy as if it were indistinguishable from Israel’s.
Look: If you accept their premises – that we need to be even more deeply involved in the Middle East, by joining one side in a hugely explosive religious schism – their argument makes sense. But I do not accept the premise. I think engaging in the Middle East to back one sect’s interpretation of Islam over another’s is a mug’s game – as I also think is true of the entire paradigm of unchallenged US hegemony in a uni-polar world. That hubristic, over-bearing posture all but guarantees over-reach and disaster. It has already done a huge amount to destroy this country’s reputation, and thereby soft power. It has led us to alienate almost everyone in the world, including most of our allies. At some point, we ought to question the logic of such a cycle of self-defeat.
And look: We have no serious enemy like we did with the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. No other power even faintly matches our strength. We are in a different world. Moreover, we are bankrupt as a nation.
Kabul-based journalist Tom A. Peter contends that The Onion has published some of the best commentary on Syria in recent weeks:
It can be exasperating playing it straight when you write news about a situation that regularly produces absurd scenarios. The Onion’s format allows its writers to plainly make sense of ridiculous situations that can be difficult to explain or fully appreciate in a normal news article.
In an interview about the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, Assad declared that, “When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized.” Ezra focuses on Assad’s demand that America stop arming the rebels:
Assad is demanding the U.S. choose between its goals of enforcing the ban against chemical weapons and getting Assad out of power.
Right now, Assad’s got the upper hand in Syria’s civil war. The U.S. could change that in two ways. One is directly bombing Assad’s military assets. The other is aggressively training and arming the opposition — something we’re really only just beginning to do.
The discussion around the Syria disarmament deal has mostly focused on defusing the U.S.’s threat to bomb Assad. But what Assad is saying here is that’s not good enough: The U.S. also needs to stop arming his enemies. That means the real cost of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons is watching him crush the opposition and retain power.
That phrase passed my lips last night on “AC360 Later”, in a heated and, I thought, really interesting discussion. I was pounced on as prejudiced or misinformed or even channeling neoconservatism. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain what I mean by that.
Syria as we now know it was created by one Brit, Mark Sykes, and one Frenchman, Francois Georges-Picot in 1920. Originally, it included a chunk of Iraq (another non-country), but when oil was discovered there (in Mosul), the Brits wanted and got it. With that detail alone, you can see how valid the idea is of a Syrian “nation” is. Certainly no one living in Syria ever called the shots on the creation of the modern state. More to the point, it was precisely constructed to pit a minority group, the Shiite Alawites, against the majority, Sunni Arabs, with the Christians and the Druze and Kurds (also Sunnis) as side-shows. Exactly the same divide-and-rule principle applied to the way the Brits constructed Iraq. But there they used the Sunni minority to control the Shiite majority, with the poor Kurds as side-kicks again.
You can see why colonial powers did this. How do they get a pliant elite of the inhabitants of their constructed states to do their bidding? They appeal to the minority that is terrified of the majority. They give that minority privileges, protection and military training. That minority, in turn, controls the majority. It’s a cynical policy that still reverberates today: the use of sectarianism as a means to maintain power. Over time, the Alawites in Syria and the Sunnis in Iraq entrenched their grip on the state and, as resentment of them by the majority grew, used increasingly brutal methods of oppression to keep the whole show on the road. You can see how, over time, this elevates sectarian and ethnic loyalties over “national” ones. Worse, it gives each group an operational state apparatus to fight over.
The only time of relative long-term stability in the area we now call Syria was under the Ottoman empire which effectively devolved government to local religious authorities. The empire was the neutral ground that kept the whole thing coherent – a monopoly of external force that also gave the Shia and the Sunnis and the Christians their own little pools of self-governance.
Remove that external force and create a unitary state and you have the recipe for permanent warfare or brutal, horrifying repression. It is no accident that two of the most brutal, disgusting dictators emerged in both countries under this rubric: Saddam and Assad.
Now check out Syria’s history after it gained formal independence from the French in 1936 and operational independence after the Second World War in 1946: