This is a response to a Facebook post by someone who posed a question about US attacks on the Syrian regime. Her question was based on a recent op-ed piece by Nicolas Kristof (The Right Questions on Syria, The question he raised was basically this, “How can “you” (meaning those opposed to US military action in Syria) really be for peace and do nothing about Syria’s use of chemical weapons?” That question is rather easily answered.

Non-intervention is in the greater service of peace because the options available to the US are 1.) not likely to improve the situation in Syria, eliminate chemical weapons, or reduce deaths there from any cause and 2.) They do not even meet the lowest standard that any intervention that claims to be humanitarian should meet, i.e. that such intervention should at least do no greater harm than exists under current circumstances. This simple notion is the essence of the Hippocratic oath. Perhaps that is the basic standard that should be applied in these situations.

In fact, US intervention (as currently envisaged) is predicated on the notion that “Assad must go.” In other words, regime change. The words “as currently envisaged” should retain our attention. It is a commonplace of military history that the best of plans rarely survives its initial contact with the enemy--or with the real world.

I usually like Kristof’s work; he has often been a principled voice for peace and human rights, but he falls down badly in this piece. His argument is riddled with nonsense.

He claims to reexamine premises, yet he totally buys into the most problematic and fundamental one: the notion that “Assad must go.” As he puts it, further diplomatic efforts are in vain because, “Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down.” In other words, his bottom line premise is regime change (not a principled effort to defend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or to reach a negotiated settlement or to provide relief to non-combatants). That premise is what Obama’s unfortunate policy choice—and Kristof’s article, are really all about. Let’s take a close look at that premise. How bad is this regime in comparison with others which we have left to do as they like?

I deplore the extreme measures which Assad has taken to defend his regime, but all regimes tend to defend themselves and their country. I visited Assad’s Syria in 2004. It was in every way a nicer place to live than the country where I worked at the time---our staunch ally Saudi Arabia. I like the Saudi people, but in all honesty, Syria was far friendlier, more tolerant and more open. It was far more progressive in terms of women’s rights and religious freedom. It was a moderate, secular, somewhat socialist country, following the older path of secularist Arab nationalism.

I have good Syrian friends (fellow teachers) who are extremely well-educated modern Arabs. They went to university in the US. They are Sunni, but could well be local middle class American Christians of almost any progressive denomination. They believe in science, civility and human rights—they are in every way the kind of Arabs that US policy makers loudly wish there were more of. Contrary to what you might expect from these credentials, they all support the Assad regime (in spite of the fact that the Assad family is of the minority Shiite Alawite sect). I suppose that this is because, as open-minded people who are very knowledgeable about their own country and the wider region in which they live, they understand the current alternatives to Assad far better than we do. These are just some of the folks who will likely be victims of the overthrow of the Assad regime. In spite of its faults, the Assad regime has protected the many minorities that constitute oft mentioned “Syrian people.” Those minorities include the Alwaite Shiites, other Shiites, The Druze, Christians, Kurds, and secularists. The destruction of these people will in no way enhance the prospect of the Middle East, nor will it really advance any legitimate US interest.

What about Assad’s international role? In the wake of 9/11, Syria (like Iran at the time) gave unprecedented assistance to US security forces. Iran was quickly rewarded by being branded part of the “axis of evil.” Syria fared little better. In 2002, Syria (like Iran) endorsed the peace plan of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Abdullah, a plan which would have normalized Israel’s relations with the Arab world in exchange for a just and comprehensive peace in Palestine along the lines that the US and Israel had urged for decades. (All of the 57 states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference) have expressed their support for the Arab Peace Initiative as did the Quartet and many other nations. Israel’s Likud government at the time said no! Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that “No!” in 2007). Around 2005, when the “Cedar Revolution” took place in Lebanon, Syria (in the midst of much demonization) quietly removed its troops. Most people forget that the international community had urged Syria to take on the peacekeeping role in Lebanon in the wake of the chaos that Israel’s invasions of 1978-1982 had created. All this hardly indicates the mind of a power mad despot trying to impose his evil will on the region.

I was living in Saudi Arabia during the Arab spring and I got a lot of news and perspective from local media as well as from Arab students and colleagues. Almost from the outset, demonstrations in Syria were different from those in Egypt. Mass demonstrations were permitted in Syria (as they were not in Saudi Arabia at the time), yet they were not largely non-violent (as those in Egypt were). They started much later than the demonstrations in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Most Arabs gave Assad’s solidarity with the Palestinian cause as a reason his regime was less loathed than these other regimes. Almost from the start, however, snipers were clearly present on the fringes of these popular demonstrations. It seemed pretty clear that human rights advocates were being used as a cover for something more sinister. Almost every demonstration was accompanied by tallies of dead Syrian policemen. As many regimes will, the security forces then regularly overreacted—and the conflict grew. Still, there is little doubt in my mind that the Assad regime was subjected to repeated—and extreme— provocations.

Ironically, most of the current Islamist hostility towards the Assad regime originated in the late 70s and early 80s in response to his crushing of the Islamist rebellion in the Syrian city of Hama. As a US Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen in 1989, I heard many Muslims with Islamist tendencies condemn Hafez al-Assad as a tool of the West because of this act. In fact, the secularist, nationalist and socialist government of Syria had already long been challenged by conservative Sunni militants (often quite wealthy and opposed to Assad on the basis of class issues) that had initiated a campaign of terror against the regime. This fissure had existed in Syrian politics since the 1940s, but in 1982, it erupted into a concerted uprising against the regime.

The current resistance (also dominated by Sunni Islamist extremists, and also with the backing of Saudi Arabia’s wealthy royal class) are the heirs to the movement crushed by Bashar al-Assad’s father. The prospect of American airstrikes (which will damage the regime and empower the resistance) should force Americans to consider whether they really want to side with radical Islamists.

I can almost guarantee that in terms of human rights, the results of a resistance victory won’t be pretty. I’m guessing that in coming years, whenever we see the final outcome, everyone who backs these strikes in the name of humanitarianism and human rights will have ample cause to hang their heads in shame. The premise that you are going to empower a better Syrian regime merely by launching airstrikes that will weaken Assad against a really unpleasant opposition is just lame. I would suggest that empowering the opposition by such strikes will bring a much longer, much more brutal war into being.

Frankly, I suspect that to the victims, the difference between dying by gas, by small arms fire, or by a US cruise missile strike (sincerely meant to help them no doubt) makes very little difference. I suspect that in spite of all the hopped up US propaganda about how Muslims long for martyrdom, most Muslims would just like to survive. That is certainly true of the hundreds of perfectly rational Muslims I have met.

A key argument of those who support a strike on Syria is the supposed sanctity of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Details of the history of this treaty can be found on Wikipedia. Apparently, CBS news is not able to access even such a rudimentary research tool. On September 4th, the CBS evening news reported that Syria had signed the CWC. Actually, it has not. This is a key point in viewing the US role as envisaged by Obama. Are we not crossing a red-line here? Will the US use military force to enforce treaty obligations on those who have not signed those treaties? Won’t that make the use of international agreements almost meaningless? Almost without debate, an important precedent is being set. Talk of the US as the world’s policeman falls far short of the new reality—apparently we are to become the world’s sole judge, jury and executioner.

The examples of Iran and Israel are notable in the context of treaties against weapons of mass destruction. Iran has suffered the threat of imminent military attack by both Israel and the US for several years. The (thin) rationale for those attacks is Iran’s supposed non-compliance with various aspects of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act. If you read the factual record carefully, you will find that the alleged violations of that treaty by Iran are highly technical and hinge on very ambiguous elements of the treaty—that is, they are highly open to interpretation. Nonetheless, Iran is only subject to the treaty at all because it signed it. Since it has gotten nothing but grief for that, other nations will be unlikely to sign such obligations.

Israel, on the other hand, has a widely acknowledged stockpile of between 200 and 300 nuclear warheads. It is not subjected to any inspections, questions, criticisms, or US sanctions on this score simply because it never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act. If there is a principle that not signing a treaty makes you immune to prosecution on account of violating that treaty, what in the world is the legal basis for any action against Syria ? For the record, Israel has never ratified the CWC either. Neither has Egypt. In this context then (and certainly as the Arab world will read it) the real US policy in the region is simply that Israel’s opponents are expected to unilaterally disarm in the face of continued Israeli aggression. (This in spite of the violence that the Israeli regime has subjected its neighbors to…)

Some fans of intervention in Syria argue that failure to help the Syrian insurgents will cause chaos in the wider Arab world, and result in the same kind of ethnic cleansing that went on in Iraq. If we want to stop ethnic cleansing, why do we continue to support Israel? They continue to demolish Palestinian homes, displace native Palestinians and settle Palestinian land with our full support. The recent “Prawer Plan” in Israel evicts some 40,000, native Bedouin from their lands. The US government has hardly a word of criticism for this egregious ethnic cleansing. It is also a fact that some 2 million refugees fled the situation created by the US in Iraq. Do we really believe that these displaced people have not played a major role in destabilizing Syria? Weren’t many of them Sunnis fleeing the US attack on Sunni insurgents in Iraq? Isn’t it likely that they have now turned on the nearest Shia leader (Assad) as a way of venting their fury?

In assessing the weakness of the CWC in 2005, it has been noted that the CWC specifically did not prohibit:

· use against not-ratifying parties

· retaliation using such weapons (effectively making it a no-first-use agreement)

· use within a state’s own borders in a civil conflict

· research and development of such weapons, or stockpiling them (Wikipedia)

Please remember that, given the great possibility that rebels actually used chemical weapons first, all these caveats apply to Syria. (According to Wikipedia, even the U.S. military and American Chemical Society lobbied against the CWC, causing the U.S. Senate not to ratify the protocol for 50 years.)

Obama and Kerry have both spoken about defending critical “red-lines” and about “sending messages” that would enhance the credibility of international law. Unfortunately, in the wider context of US policy, that is just nonsense. Any real discussion of respect for international law must begin with the fact that these sacred principles are never enforced when Israel violates them.

Israel’s continued refusal to allow the return of the refugees it created with its ethnic cleansing program of 1947-48, their continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and their continued settlement activity there, are all total and longstanding violations of international law. Israel’s use of white phosphorus during its 2008 assault on Gaza—an action that left over 700 Palestinian civilians dead (and which certainly constituted the use of a kind of chemical weapon), was never punished by the US. Israel remains in violation of numerous UN resolutions, yet in spite of international law (or the sequester), US aid to Israel flows even more bounteously than ever. It currently runs at about $8 million A DAY! So nobody anywhere—let alone the Middle East— is going to see a US strike on Syria as proof of our “credibility” when it comes to enforcing “principles.”

My point is simple and it is one that has been made many times—our policy of always supporting Israel, no matter how egregious their violations of international law, makes any coherent US policy based on “principles” in the Middle East totally impossible. Given this context, is there a real case for US action against Syria? If so, what is it?

First, we must challenge the totally unfounded proposition that the Syrian regime is just casually massacring its own people for no reason. According to a report of June 4, 2013, of the some 100,000 casualties in the Syrian Civil war so far, at least 44% of the victims were members of the regime or their supporters. In other words, this is not a one-way street.

Second, other evidence suggests that earlier reported uses of chemicals weapons may well have been committed by the resistance. In any case, it is fairly certain that the resistance (which will only benefit from any US action) has ruthlessly executed surrendering regime members (POWs) in blatant violation of international law. Is the current Syrian resistance really worthy of our support? Not, apparently, on any truly principled basis.

Third, we can go back to Kristof’s version of the Obama case for war. Kristof writes

that missile strikes “just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.” (Note the stress on word like “might”,margins” and “modest”). This is hardly how one would expect a principled people to defend real principles.

Kristof then rather puzzlingly asserts that, “Sarin nerve gas is of such limited usefulness to the Syrian army that it has taken two years to use it in a major way, and it’s “plausible” (my emphasis) that we can deter Syria’s generals from employing it again if the price is high.” Enquiring minds are left to wonder why Assad would take such a risk for such a limited reward. (An argument that applies equally to Assad’s act and Obama’s contemplated response).

Here is one possible answer that I have not heard discussed in the tidal wave of debate over this issue. Both sides can send “messages.” We can (and do) often dismiss the messages that the other side sends, typically decrying them as the irrational acts of madmen. Perhaps we should take Assad’s seemingly inexplicable act as a message. As I see it, that message must be read in light of the three Israeli strikes on Syria that are already a matter of record. All three were clear acts of war and clear violations of Syrian sovereignty. Syria has not previously retaliated to any of them. So the use of chemicals against its own rebels may be a simple message addressed to three recipients—the rebels, the US, and Israel. The message is, “We will not be bound by your hollow talk of principles—we will fight to the end in our self-defense.”

That message should be taken seriously, not just dismissed. It suggests that further ill-conceived use of military force by the US and Israel will force a much wider, more brutal war than anything Obama has in view (what Israel has always had in view, of course, is to somehow get the US to attack Iran - an attack on Syria is just a bonus for them).

What even a US attack on Syria will do to the wider region is anyone’s worst guess. If Sunni Iraqi refugees have destabilized the Alawite/Shia regimes of Syria, I think we can be sure that Shiite/Alawite refugees will pour into Lebanon and Jordan and destabilize those regimes. Viewing the results of our action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, can we honestly say of any of these nations that they are on track towards peace, democracy, or even marginal improvements of the lives of their people? Doesn’t really look like it.

Apparently Kristof’s contention is roughly this: a barroom brawl has broken out. Kristof is willing to take a few shots into the crowded room in the general direction of the bartender in the hope that his own gunfire will deter any further gunfire… At the same time, he turns aside to those unwilling to shoot and condemns them for not really being serious about keeping the peace…hmmm. I can’t buy his argument. I suspect in coming years he will disavow it (just as David Brooks, Fareed Zacharia and others have basically disavowed their earlier support for our ill-conceived Iraq War).

In short, what President Obama is proposing in regard to Syria seems simply unacceptable from any truly principled moral perspective. There is little likelihood it will make civilians safer, contain Syrian chemical weapons, restore our credibility, or make international law more respected. It is almost certain that we will simply add to Syrian civilian casualties and further enrage the Arab world. We may, in fact, help bring a much worse regime into power and amplify the overflow of this conflict into the wider region. These are just some of the very good reasons that many of our allies (including the UK) are backing away from the Obama position. I can only hope that most Americans will also have the common sense to oppose an attack on Syria. However you dress it up, this misguided adventure portends another US disaster in the Middle East.

In light of these facts, I hope you will join me in telling our representatives and the President not to launch attacks on Syria at this time.


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