Sunday, September 15, 2013

Before the latest Syria crisis heads to the memory hole ... (Updated)

The Syria crisis that was resolved for the moment by the US agreeing to the diplomatic track proposed by Russia was quite a ride. It was like a condensed version of the run-up to the Iraq War, only this time with a happier ending, as of now. Ray McGovern describes it this way in How War on Syria Lost Its Way Consortium News 09/14/2013:

The just announced U.S.-Russia agreement in Geneva on a “joint determination to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons (CW) program in the soonest and safest manner” sounds the death knell to an attempt by Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to get the U.S. into the war in Syria.

Equally important, it greatly increases the prospect of further U.S.-Russia cooperation to tamp down escalating violence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. That the two sides were able to hammer out in three days a detailed agreement on such highly delicate, complicated issues is little short of a miracle. I cannot remember seeing the likes of it in 50 years in Washington. [my emphasis]
Before our mainstream media move on to other bright and shiny objects like the latest Miley Cyrus publicity stunt, I want to mention some key points that I would hate to see get lost about this incident.

One is the significance of Britain refusing to go along, with the Parliament rejecting the participation with the US that Prime Minister David Cameron had proposed, and Cameron deciding to follow Parliament's wishes. It's an interesting development in European politics, as well, because the UK has previously been willing to follow the US in even such a disastrous adventure as the Iraq War even when many of its European partners were opposed. British support has been especially helpful to the US in the past, not least because British leaders are good at and very experience in about presenting a case for military action to the American public. Britain in generally perceived by Americans as a long-standing ally. Support from France or Germany doesn't have quite the same cachet.

I suspect we'll find out eventually that this was a major factor in Obama's decision making in that Syrian crisis.

Another is the fact that the United States has been actively supporting Syrian rebels for some time. America's involvement in Syria is not only about chemical weapons.

Obama acknowledged in his interview with George Stephanopoulos on This Week of 09/15/2013:

... there are radical elements in the opposition – including folks who are affiliated with al-Qaeda, who, if they got their hands on chemical weapons, would have no compunction using them in Syria or outside of Syria.

And part of the reason why we've been so concerned about this chemical weapons– issue is because we don't want – those folks gettin' chemical weapons, anymore than we want Assad to have chemical weapons. ...

What this is about is how do we make sure that we don’t have the worst weapons in the hands, either of a murderous regime, or– in the alternative, some elements of– the opposition– that– are as opposed to the United States– as they are to Assad.
But backing rebel forces isn't a speculative future program. It's already happening, although in theory we're vetting those receiving assistance to make sure they aren't "al-Qaeda." Jim White discusses the aid in the dramatically titled US: "Never Mind That Guy Eating a Heart, We Have Handwritten Receipts For the Guns" Emptywheel 09/13/2013.

Third is the vagueness with which issues of international law were discussed by politicians and the media, so far as I observed. There seems to be a near-complete consensus that the use of poison gas by the Syrian government against its own citizens would be a crime in international law. Obama repeated it again in his Stephanopoulos interview. (Do I even need to say that Stephanopoulos didn't press him on the point?) But not every heinous action is a violation of international law. The discussion largely focused on the political feasibility and practical problems of the proposed action, which are obviously hugely important questions. The fact that for the United States or any other country to attack a country which had not attacked it is illegal, unless the country being attacked presented an imminent threat or the UN had authorized the intervention, was scarcely discussed at all. (I'm genuinely uncertain on the question of whether use of poison gas by a non-signatory state to the Chemical Weapons Convention, as Syria was at the time of the August 21 attack, is on its face a violation of international law. Presumably targeting non-combatants would be a crime of murder under Syrian law.)

{Update 09/17/2013: From UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's statement yesterday: "The Secretary-General condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons and believes that this act is a war crime and grave violation of the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare and other relevant rules of customary international law."}

Fourth is the war resolution itself that was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It authorized the President to do far more than just make a couple of limited bombing strikes. It authorized up to three months of warmaking on Syria, essentially at the President's discretion. It banned the use of US troops in Syria - "boots on the ground" in the current jargon - only "for the purpose of combat operations", which leaves a lot of leeway for US troops in Syria to do "training." It established as a policy goal of establishing "a democratic government in Syria," though it did specify getting there through "a negotiated settlement." It also specified several groups of the Syrian opposition that it would be the policy of the US to support, even with "all forms of assistance," whatever that hair-raising phrase might mean. Some better reporting and wider public discussion on the meaning of that resolution would have been more than appropriate.

We should learn more from the UN report that should be coming out soon about the incident itself. Based on what I've heard, it seems plausible and even likely that the Assad regime was behind the attack. The UN investigators are not tasked with determining who gave the orders, only with reporting on the facts of the attack itself. Gareth Porter made an interesting catch in his report, Obama's Case for Syria Didn’t Reflect Intel Consensus Inter Press Service 09/09/2013.

And we'll probably hear more on the "isolationism" meme. Jim Lobe does a reality-check in U.S. Public-Elite Disconnect Emerges Over Syria Inter Press Service 09/14/2013. It's clear that the Obama Administration has some real credibility problems on foreign policy that were displayed by the Syria crisis, and not just with people who think he's the Islamic Antichrist. Ray McGovern discussed some of those in Time to Reveal US Intel on Syria Consortium News 09/09/25013.

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