Tag Archives: Chemical Weapons

“No War in Syria”: A Response to the Anti-War Left

17 Sep

Debate over intervention in Syria has raged across the blogosphere with particular intensity since President Obama’s announcement that he would seek congressional approval airstrikes on Syria’s military infrastructure.  Fortunately, that potential disaster was averted by the recent chemical weapons deal.  During this debate, one strong voice against intervention came from the anti-war far left.  Though I agreed that the administration’s plan was an atrocious idea, I was seriously disappointed by these arguments; they were generally sloppy, simplistic, and sometimes even downright racist.  However, I saw few mainstream commentators or even bloggers I read take on this issue.

The “No War on/in Syria” rallying cry really irked me.  There is already a war in Syria and on Syrian civilians, a war in which over 100,000 people have already died.  Arguing from the “No War on/in Syria” starting points espouses a US-centric point of view and general ignorance.  It’s also important to differentiate Obama’s proposed plan from how we conceive of ‘war’ generally.  The mandate and timeframe of the intervention were both explicitly limited, and there would have been no American troops on the ground.  Another problem with the left’s aversion to intervention was criticized well by Ari Kohen, “The idea that staying out of the Syrian conflict is so obviously good “for humanity” is just as monstrously foolish as the idea that shooting missiles at Syrian targets is so obviously right and good. But Madonna and so many thousands of others are absolutely certain that humanity is obviously best served by sitting idly by while so many people are killed.”  Many among the anti-war left would hold the respect for human life as one of their dearest values, but simply arguing against any type of intervention at-large without understanding the potential impacts is a direct contradiction of those values.

The knee-jerk reaction from the left against the Obama administration’s plan distorted and essentialized the Middle East.  The American interest in Syria was assumed to be somewhere between oil and imperialism, forcing Obama to state that Syria would not be ‘another Iraq or Afghanistan’.  This line of argument has become well-entrenched post-2001, but it couldn’t really be farther from the truth in Syria.  Yes, Obama’s decision to go to Congress for authorization was a political decision, but it was not an attempt to please the military-industrial complex, conquer foreign peoples, or any of the other false narratives anti-war groups propagated to score political points.  Another well-known trope hijacked by those opposed to intervention in Syria was the terrorist bogeyman (this is not to say that extremist groups do not play a major role in the Syrian opposition).  Ironically, the anti-war left had fought against dehumanization and Islamophobia since 9/11, but were more than happy to reproduce these racist stereotypes and partner with the far right or even Bashar al-Assad to improve its visibility on a hot-button issue.

None of this is to say that intervention in Syria was a good idea.  Intervention would likely increase civilian casualties, close off diplomatic avenues, and do little to change the facts on the ground.  In my opinion, those are the right arguments.  As I noted on facebook, there is nothing more frustrating than people that agree with you but delegitimize themselves by making poor arguments.  The anti-war left heroically and persistently fought against America’s follies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have let themselves and their supporters down on Syria.

Syria Policy Statement

5 Sep

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog.  It outlines STAND’s official policy on Syria.

STAND has kept a close watch on Syria from the first days of peaceful protests in 2011.  Since then, we have have been shocked and dismayed as cycles of violence have become further and further entrenched.  We have consistently urged the United States government, as well as other international actors, to create and implement strategies to mitigate violence against civilians.  However, we feel that the Obama administration’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria is not one such strategy.  Therefore, STAND strongly urges Congress to reject the current plan of action, and in turn urge the Obama administration to pursue alternative strategies aimed, first and foremost, at protecting the lives of all Syrian civilians.

There are multiple reasons STAND does not feel it can support strikes.  First, relevant academic studies suggest that this intervention will likely kill more civilians than it will save.  Second, the limited timeframe and mandate of the intervention will likely not change the fundamental dynamics of violence in Syria.  The Assad regime will come out only marginally weakened and more motivated to exact revenge on civilians.  Third, STAND believes that a negotiated solution to the conflict would provide the best situation for civilians even despite the current unlikelihood of that happening.  An airstrike campaign will only decrease the already slim chances of bringing the various players, both Syrian and international, to the negotiating table.  Furthermore, a military intervention will divert crucial resources from other more productive avenues.

Instead, there are three strategies that STAND urges the United States government to adopt to facilitate civilian protection.  First, we urge a total weapons embargo of Syria.  The United States is certainly not the only player supplying arms, so it should put diplomatic pressure on Russia, Iran, the gulf countries, the EU and all other international players to cease providing weapons to various groups in Syria.  We believe stopping the flow of arms to all sides to be justified in the interest of civilian protection.  Second, we urge the United States to lead the international community in raising the $3.5 billion the UN has requested in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and IDP’s.  This is one of the most concrete ways the international community can aid the millions of Syrians in need in the midst of a crisis that is quickly consuming the region.  The United States should also pledge to allow Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the US.  Lastly, we urge that the United States continue to work with international actors to find a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria.  In the interest of civilian protection, the United States should do its absolute best to end this conflict as soon as possible.  It is neither in the United States’ national interest nor in the interest of Syrian civilians to pursue policies that will exacerbate the conflict while simultaneously closing off avenues to end it.

Quickfire Thoughts on Obama’s Syria Announcement

31 Aug

Obama’s big Rose Garden announcement today deserves some attention.  I don’t have time to write a full post, so here are three reactions I had.  Any pushback is appreciated.

This was not Obama’s first choice

Obama has been quite cautious on intervening in Syria despite significant pressure to the contrary.  His approval of arms transfers smacked of an attempt to silence the critics.  This is evidenced by the fact that the FSA is yet to actually receive any of those arms.  The chemical weapons attack on Ghouta presented another instance in which pressure from within the administration and from other countries (France and Israel primarily)  forced Obama’s hand.  Enforcing the norm against chemical weapons likely played a role in Obama’s decision to take this route of action, but it is clearly a compromise to ‘do something’ rather than an intentional strategy Obama believes will help achieve his objectives.    Passing the buck to Congress was a brilliant political move.  Instead of taking unilateral (or perhaps multilateral if France and Israel jump on board) action, he’s making congress take the blame for an intervention that’s both widely unpopular and unlikely to achieve positive results.  These factors may mean an intervention doesn’t happen, allowing Obama to not use military force and coming out looking looking less weak than inaction would have.  Whatever Congress decides, it also improves Obama’s image as a consensus-seeker.

This is not a humanitarian intervention

Charli Carpenter said it well on Foreign Policy.  It’s not R2P because it’s not going through the UNSC.  Also, the scope and target of the mission are not consistent with protecting civilians.  Studies on interventions that target the incumbent demonstrate that they actually lead to more civilian deaths.  If an intervention was open-ended, and included a more expansive mandate, it could possibly decrease civilian casualties.  While my STAND colleague Hannah Finnie drew  my attention to the similarities between Obama’s speech and LBJ’s Vietnam speech, I think further escalation beyond a limited timeframe and mandate is unlikely.  Two key phrases encapsulate this line of thinking.*  First Obama said, “We know our military cannot solve the underlying conflict in Syria.”  This points to a limited and focused intervention.  Second, POTUS argued that the “ancient sectarian differences” present in Syria are impossible to solve with military force.  This is reminiscent of Clinton’s thinking on Bosnia (influenced by the Robert Kaplan book Ghosts of the Balkans), which caused him to be very pessimistic about the benefits of intervention.  While the US did eventually did get further involved in Bosnia, it was not at Clinton’s behest.  Obama’s buck passing has squashed the possibility of expanding the mission, at least for the foreseeable future.

Intervention, if it happens, is unlikely to be successful

Obama stated that the primarily goal of the mission was to enforce the norm against chemical weapons.  While there is generally an international consensus against chemical weapons use, it’s important to remember Syria hasn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, so it didn’t break that international law in the Ghouta incident (it was still a war crime according to my basic understanding of international law).  The limited timeframe  of this intervention makes deterrence against further use unlikely, however.  Assad already knows that Obama is reluctant to use force, and assuming the bombing happens, it’s unlikely Assad will be cowed into refraining from chemical weapons use following the conclusion of the US mission (doubts about CW’s strategic value aside).  There is simply not the political will for a open-ended mission that would potentially prevent the long-term use of chemical weapons.  Even then, it’s unclear what the value of such an intervention would be.  Many more civilians have been killed by conventional means than chemical weapons, and even if the latter arouse our disgust.  Deaths are deaths, and if a limited intervention is going to cause more than it prevents, it’s clearly a bad policy.  I seriously doubt that this is what Obama wants, but when military inaction becomes impossible, he’s judged that seeking congressional approval for a piecemeal strategy that’s bound to fail is preferable to a large-scale, boots on the ground intervention that has a slightly higher chance of success.

*I don’t have the speech transcript in front of me, so these were transcribed from memory.

Use of Chemical Weapons Signals the End for Assad

6 Dec

News is coming out of Syria tonight that the Syrian military is preparing to use its chemical weapons against domestic targets.  Though previous articles have highlighted the difficulty of deploying chemical weapons, NBC’s article tonight makes it sound as if the initial hurdles have been overcome.  While the weapons could inflict high casualty rates, it also demonstrates that Assad is running out of options.  Assad is betting that his domestic military gains will outweigh the total deterioration of international opinion toward Syria, which is a very risky bet indeed.

Various US and UK government officials have repeatedly stated that the use of chemical weapons would cause them to ‘revisit their approach‘ to the conflict.  While it’s unclear what the international reaction would be, there does seem to be a credible threat of military intervention, and at this point, it would certainly spell the end for Assad.  The use of chemical weapons would also make continuing support for him basically impossible.  While Iran may be able to hold on, Russia would surely have to abandon Assad’s sinking ship.  If videos of the carnage find their way out of the country, then the negative publicity would be too great for even Russia to sustain.  Assad will have shifted the discourse surrounding intervention from the imperialism vs. humanitarian intervention paradigm to one that focuses on international security.  This narrative is much more powerful than humanitarian intervention, and unified action, especially on the UNSC, will be much more likely.

Assad’s back is clearly right up against the wall.   Using chemical weapons is strategically a very poor choice, and even announcing possession was not well thought out.  However, if Assad is actually willing to use his chemical weapons supply, then he has accepted the fact that he can no longer win.  Assad will fall, and now, unfortunately, it’s just a question of how many civilians he’ll kill along the way.