Syria: The case for inaction (and for action?)

by Omar Ali

Mideast_Syria-08c3cI was very clear when this crisis started that the US should not launch an overt military strike on Syria. Not for reasons of naïve pacifism (or for more vacuous notions, like the editor of “The Nation” wanting to have her cake and eat it too by demanding that Obama “use the United Nations and tough diplomacy”, LOL), but because I believe the US now lacks the institutional and cultural capacity to successfully carry out such an intervention. That slight qualification (“now”) may not be necessary, but all I mean by it is that irrespective of whether the US once had the ability to quote democracy and human rights while promoting hardcore imperialist interests, it does not have that ability anymore; and it never had and still does not have either the legal authority or the institutional mechanisms or the cultural consensus to act effectively as worldcop. These are, of course, the two most commonly cited reasons for “doing something” in this case. Either we are supposed to be doing it because there are serious imperial/national interests at stake and we have some (right or wrong) notion about how those interests are promoted by this action, or we are doing it because we are the world’s policeman and the police cannot possibly allow a criminal regime to carry out new and unprecedented atrocities using chemical weapons.

I did write a quick piece last week saying that the US lacks the ability to do either with success and that this is especially true in the Middle East (due to the complexity of the region, the importance of oil, and the role the US has played as Israel’s benefactor and supporter). After all the US failed in Iraq by its own standards; and it has done poorly in Afghanistan in spite of holding so many cards there (I firmly believe that it was very much possible for the US to impose a non-Jihadi regime in Afghanistan and to stabilize it, clever sound bites from William Dalrymple type analysts notwithstanding). In short, I argued that leaving aside all arguments about legality and morality (and there are strong legal and moral arguments that can be made against military action), US intervention is not a good idea because it is unlikely to work well (either as imperial action or as worldcop). Not because Obama and Susan Rice are amateurs (though there may be some truth to that), but because the official institutions of the US are systemically incapable of doing such things well, and because the majority of the US public is not ready to take on either role (again, irrespective of whether it was or was not willing in the past).

The official institutions of the United States (the state department, the Pentagon, the inteliigence agencies) are not staffed by mysterious aliens. They are staffed by Americans, educated in American universities, with the strengths and weaknesses of American culture. They (on the whole) neither understand the Middle East too well, nor act according to some uniform and well thought out secret plan. For example, it was not just Bush or Obama who were foiled in Afghanistan; it was thousands of officers and advisers who (frequently with the best of intentions) spent half a trillion and could not achieve what Russia or Pakistan could (and did) achieve in the face of more powerful enemies with just a few billion. Are there good reasons then to think that the same officials will do any better in Syria? And of course when it comes to public opinion, it is obvious that most Americans (not just fringe leftists or rightists) are tired of foreign wars and are unwilling to take on the job of worldcop even if it is legally and morally justified.

But since then, as public opinion and events seem to have swung further against intervention, I have had some second thoughts. Not yet enough to change my mind, but enough to become a little conflicted.

And here are some of the reasons why:

  1. The more I think about it, the more it seems that chemical Weapons SHOULD be a red-line. And even if we accept (debatable) that the US or Israel have used chemical weapons in the past (Agent Orange and white phosphorous being cited by many on the left as examples), this is really not a sufficient argument against acting now and in this case. The fact that murderers were sometimes let go in the past, or that the current cop’s previous incarnations themselves committed some crimes, does not necessarily mean that the current cop should not try and stop new and very shocking crimes from occurring. And the fact that there are situations where the current cop will still not intervene (e.g. against nuclear armed powers, or against Israel if it were to use such weapons, to give two obvious examples) does not mean his deterrent value against many other regimes is zero. There are literally thousands of tons of chemical weapons in the world, many in the hands of regimes like Syria. These are truly indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction and one reason why they have NOT been used extensively already is because these various regimes are deterred by the thought of international sanction, including the possibility of serious coercive action by the United States (a superpower that really does possess the material means to take coercive action). If no action is taken now then more chemical weapons are likely to be used in the future. There are many crimes and atrocities against which a universal or near-universal taboo does not exist yet. But the taboo against chemical weapons is relatively effective. If it goes, then more carnage is very likely. Do keep in mind that the Baathist regime in Syria has committed mass atrocities using conventional weapons in the past (look up Hama) and as Robert Fisk has written, they are not very shy about killing people now either. Raping family members, crushing testicles and so on have all been routinely used for a long time by this regime (as they have been used by many others, including some who are US allies, but also by some supported by Russia and China). There is little reason to think that such a regime will be held back forever by purely humanitarian concerns. If they carried out this attack (and there seems to be a good deal of evidence that they did) then they should be punished (by whomever, in whatever form). If the rebels used them, then they should be punished. If whoever used these weapons is not punished, they are more likely to use such weapons again, and so are other “middle-powers” who have the ability, but until now have lacked the nerve. This does not necessarily mean the US should attack Syria. It may not have the right, it may not be effective and the Assad regime may not even be the culprit. But see next point.
  2. Saying that something SHOULD be done does require that we know who committed the crime. I personally am increasingly convinced that the Syrian regime did it (or someone in the regime did it, which is the same thing if the regime is not actively trying to catch and punish that someone). But I agree that there is a credibility gap for the US, especially after Iraq. Still, suppose for a moment that it is proven to your satisfaction that the regime did it. Who then should take action? The UN cannot reach consensus on coercive force while Russia (and maybe China) are willing to defend their allies with vetoes (and Russia clearly is willing in this case). And even if the UN were to reach such a consensus, it does not have the coercive ability to do anything against a country that possesses a regular army and an air-force. The US and its NATO allies are practically the only powers that have the ability to enforce such a decision.
  3. The Syrian civil war started as a protest movement against the extremely oppressive Baathist regime. The regime’s willingness to kill protesters in large numbers was what turned it into a civil war. Especially in the beginning, the civil war was not just a Sunni versus Alawite-Shia civil war nor was the opposition mainly Salafist-Jihadist. But as it has dragged on, it has more and more become such a civil war. This is partly the logic of war and mass violence; lines are drawn and “with us or against us” choices are forced upon people (on both sides) even if they have to hold their nose to support their own side. But if this goes on much longer, it will become a larger regional conflagration and will aggravate Shia versus Sunni problems even in faraway countries like Pakistan (already many Sunni jihadists from Pakistan have gone to Syria to fight Shias). So beyond chemical weapons, there is also an interest in seeing the civil war come to an end and for a broad-based regime to be established in Syria. Such an outcome is not likely if the current confrontation ends with an Assad victory. That will only strengthen the regime and harden the partition of Syria (because even a strengthened regime is NOT capable of retaking all of Syria).
    And it will not happen with regime collapse and rebel victory either. The only way a relatively broad-based compromise regime can be created in Syria is if the regime and the rebels compromise under international supervision. That can happen if the regime faces harsh action and increasing defections and is forced to compromise, while a workable deal is made with Iran and an international peacekeeping force is put in to help protect minorities and to establish a workable Syrian regime again. This dream outcome is very hard to imagine under US auspices (given the tremendous ability of the US to mess up such things, given the short-sighted priorities of some of its regional allies, and given the insecurities of Iran and its allies) but it is impossible to imagine it without US leadership. That is just how things are at this moment in that region. If the civil war will continue, regional powers will get more involved and the Shia-Sunni battle will become much worse (and the mess will extend very far). US credibility is a key to even the remote possibility of a better outcome. Americans may not care too much for this point, but Syrians and their neighbors may need to worry a bit more.
  4. Maybe, just maybe, the Obama regime does have a plan and they do know what they are doing. Maybe the coming intervention won’t be just a half-assed missile strike that will have all the downsides of military intervention and none of the possible positives. I admit that this seems hard to believe, but I have been wrong before. Maybe I am underestimating the President’s team?
  5. Finally, the most heretical thought of all: a world without a cop, even a biased and corrupt cop, may not turn out to be a better world if it happens suddenly. Many regional conflicts and international hotspots are (for varied reasons) kept damped down by the world’s largest superpower and its many allies. Many of them are likely to get worse (at least until a new international system can evolve) without the US supervising the playground. Neither Putin nor Xi Jinping strike me as better umpires and the thought that countries like Pakistan and Syria and Israel will all become more peaceful rather than more jittery and violent if the international order breaks down strikes me as a bit unlikely. I am well aware of how this statement is likely to play among my liberal friends: to say something like this is to be orientalist/patriarchal/arrogant/imperialist/racist, but could it be that it may also be true? A world without a cop is a very desirable ideal to work towards; it is not necessarily a good idea if it suddenly happens. Weak states (even very large weak states, dear Indians, I am thinking of you) may need to give that a thought.
  6. Last but not the least; I do have a soft spot for President Obama. For better or worse (probably for worse) he has put his credibility on the line here. If he doesn’t carry it off, he will massively lose face. That may delight his many opponents (and may be a major motivation for Republican opposition to this mission), but I don’t expect his loss to be Mahatma Gandhi’s gain. I expect his loss to be the gain of people who I find much less desirable, especially on the domestic US front.

0906-obama-syria-vote_full_380Still, these second thoughts are not necessarily a change of mind. They just mean the decision looks harder than it seemed at first sight. While no one in authority is going to depend on my advice for deciding this, I do believe that anyone who comments should either give an option, or freely admit that they just don’t know what option to pick. After some thought, my own pick today (i.e. on Sunday September 8th) remains “don’t do it”. But I am not a liberal interventionist who believes “someone must do something to stop atrocities” but has no workable proposal regarding the coercive authority that will impose these rules? Under what authority? Using what violence? With what checks and balances? I am afraid that the US is the only country with the power to actually impose penalties and create deterrence in this case, but I don’t trust the US to be able to do a good enough job. So I am still voting for “stay out of it”. But I am doing so with the awareness that the consequences of staying out are also unpredictable and potentially dire (especially for those inside the region; I don’t think Americans will suffer too much if the whole place goes up in flames). So while I still think it is best for the US not to get more involved where it does not seem to have a coherent strategy or domestic or international support, I can see that it is not an easy decision. And if it does not seem entirely easy to someone like me, with little or nothing directly at stake, it is probably ten times more difficult for those who are actually in the position of having to decide things. The Onion, as usual, gets it exactly right.

PS: if anyone is interested in reading well informed debate about this issue, then the US-military focused “” is not a bad place to start. It may also cure some of simplistic notions about the US military and its intelligence and good sense (or lack of the same). For example, if you just want to know what Syria looks like and who lives there, try this thread.