Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Syria situation after Obama's Tuesday speech

There are lots of questions that I have about the whole Syrian situation.

First, there is the sentence at the start of President Obama's Address to the Nation on Syria yesterday. "In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement." (my emphasis)

In other words, we're taking sides in the Syrian civil war. There has been some reporting in the mainstream press providing glimpses of this. But this should really be a core part of the discussion, whether the subject is Dead Babies propaganda or chemical weapons negotiations.

Yes, propaganda can be true, and in fact the best propaganda is based on reality. But if we want to understand wars, we also have to understand how the propaganda functions.

Anti-German Dead Baby propaganda postcard from the First World War

Most people now look at the First World War as a gigantic, mindless slaughter. But millions of English and French soldiers were sent to the front fired up with anti-German war atrocity propaganda. There is little doubt that if the political elites on all sides in 1914 had showed a minimum of good sense and decent human judgment, they could have avoided having the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand turn into a world disaster that set the stage for an even bigger round of carnage two decades later. Avoiding these things means that people have to use their heads.

Another question is, doesn't securing Syria's chemical weapons require a sustained ceasefire in the civil war, a ceasefire that would presumably not be advantageous to the hopes of our friends "the moderate opposition." As Karen Weise explains in Risky Business of Destroying Chemical Weapons Bloomberg Businessweek 09/11/2013, you don't just flush these things down the kitchen sink.

Jim White writes (Journalists Grope Blindly Around Syria CW Destruction Without Discovering Need for Ceasefire Emptywheel 09/11/2013):

In my post yesterday morning on the French move to submit a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to an international group for their safe destruction, I noted that this process naturally would require an immediate ceasefire. My underlying assumption was that the need for a ceasefire would be obvious to anyone giving the situation any thought. Personnel will need to move freely about the country to find and log the materials that will need to be destroyed. These materials will need to be moved to central locations for incineration or chemical processing to render them safe. If the personnel and the dangerous materials they will be transporting are attacked indiscriminately, the risk of releasing huge quantities of very dangerous agents looms large and the very process of trying to prevent civilian deaths could instead to lead to widespread lethal exposure. ...

Yes, there are many different factions on the "rebel" side in this conflict, but even brief investigation shows that many of them are actually proxies for several of the foreign powers that claim to have “interests” in Syria. A UN resolution that has at its heart a ceasefire would be a huge step toward showing that all of the various countries supporting militias in Syria intend to provide the opportunity for safe destruction of what could be the third largest repository of chemical weapons in the world. Although a truly international force of armed peacekeepers likely will be needed, sending them in without a ceasefire already negotiated would make the whole process of rounding up and destroying the chemical weapons a recipe for a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

Of course, a true optimist would note that a ceasefire would open the door to discussions to defuse political tensions within Syria while the process of destroying the chemical weapons is carried out. That would of course thwart those whose real objective is regime change in Syria through violent means but would perhaps create the opportunity for peaceful regime change. Is the world finally ready to give peace a chance after twelve years of unfocused rage? [my emphasis]
In President Obama’s Doubtful Grounds for Military Action against Syria Informed Comment 09/11/20132, Juan Cole has the following international-law observations:

I don’t disagree that units of the Syrian military deployed chemical weapons against rebellious populations in the outskirts of Damascus, and that this serious breach of international law deserves condign punishment. However, leaked intelligence has raised questions about from how high in the government the command came, and it is possible that a local rogue commander exceeded his orders out of panic at a rebel advance. If Syria really could be referred to the International Criminal Court for this incident, it is not clear to me that prosecutors could get a conviction of President Bashar al-Assad. (Syria cannot be so referred at least so far, because the ICC only has jurisdiction if a country has signed the Rome Statute that created the court. The only way to get around this restriction is for the UN Security Council to forward a case to the ICC, which can be done even for non-signatories, as with Gaddafi’s Libya. Russia and China so far, however, have kept Syria from being so forwarded at the UNSC).
I would like to think that deploying poison gas against one's own population in a civil war would be illegal. But as I mentioned in a previous post, it's not clear to me, horrible as it is, that the action is actually illegal for Syria in the situation in question.

He warns that the Arab Awakening has reshaped the political game board for American actions in the Middle East: "Public opinion now matters in a way it did not used to, and getting making a whole generation anti-American is a definite risk."

In my understanding, the use of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not war crimes in 1945. But the points he makes here are important:

The third idea, that the US is 'exceptional’ and bears a special responsibility to intervene in Syria after the chemical weapons use seems to me not only incorrect but extremely dangerous. The US is a country like any other, and certainly no more virtuous than most others. It blithely polished off 200,000 Japanese women, children and noncombatant men at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Some were made into shadows on the wall as their bodies carbonized. Thousands suffered from lingering cancer afterwards. No US official was ever so much as reprimanded for this war crime, which was carried out at a time when Japanese had been dehumanized and demonized with the worst sort of racism. The atomic bombs did not hasten the end of the war; the Russian advance into Manchuria did that. One could go on with US infractions against international law and shameless killing of innocents, from the Philippines to Nicaragua to Vietnam.

The US helped craft the UN Charter in hopes of deterring ‘exceptional’ naked aggression, making it illegal to attack another country except in self-defense or with UN Security Council authorization. I am not unsympathetic to the idea that the UNSC is broken, and that partisan uses of the veto by the five permanent members warp and deform it, rendering it useless in cases such as Syria. Some have argued that a set of multilateral organizations could legitimately do an end run around the UNSC in such cases of paralysis, where the fate of thousands or hundreds of thousands weighed in the balance.

But in the instance of Syria, the US has no multilateral support for military action, not the Arab League, not the European Union, not NATO. Nada. [my emphasis]
I would say that it would be more realistic to say that the combination of the atomic bombs and the Russian invasion brought about the surrender. But the Russian invasion was effectively airbrushed out of Cold War remembrances of the end of the Pacific War in the US.

Peter Beinart caught something in Obama's speech that struck me as well, a problem presented by the level of threat inflation in which he and his Administration have indulged over Syria (Obama Fails to Make the Sale on Syria Bloomberg Businessweek 09/10/2013):

In his speech Tuesday night on Syria, President Obama — as is his tendency — tried to have it both ways. And it didn’t work. On one hand, he tried to argue that Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons could endanger Americans. If unpunished, he claimed, Assad’s actions might create a world in which "our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield" or Iran would be more emboldened to build a nuke that could threaten the United States. If we "stop children from being gassed to death" in Syria, he argued, we "make our own children safer over the long run."

But Obama's national security argument sounded like a Rube Goldberg-machine. Would Syria’s use of chemical weapons against defenseless civilians really increase the likelihood of an enemy using chemical weapons against American troops, who could respond with massive force? After all, Obama himself admitted that "the Assad regime" — chemical weapons and all — "does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military." Likewise, in a half-sentence, Obama claimed that permitting Assad's chemical weapons attack would embolden Iran to build a bomb, but he never bothered to explain why. [my emphasis]
But Stephen Walt came up with my favorite comment so far on the current situation (Flying Down to Rio Foreign Policy 09/10/2013):

As for Syria, one should not be churlish and cavil about the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough that gets Obama and Kerry out of the corner they painted themselves into. The path by which we got here wasn't pretty, but as Lefty Gomez said, "I'd rather be lucky than good." Or as Bismarck famously noted, there's a special providence that "looks after drunkards, fools, and the United States of America." We've some ways to go before the chemical weapons issue is resolved, of course, and this is at best a first step toward ending the grinding civil war in Syria, but realists take what we can get in this imperfect world. Right now, this deal looks better than bombing Syria to no good purpose or having Congress in visible revolt against Obama's handling of the whole matter.
Tags: , , , , ,