The Decision to Bomb Syria

Robert E. PraschBy Robert E. Prasch

Congress Gets to Vote on a War!

Our most gracious sovereign – Barack Obama — has condescended to allow the elected representatives of the American people to engage in what his Administration openly states is a “non-binding” vote over whether or not the armed forces of the United States should enter into hostilities with yet another Middle East nation. This, it goes without saying, is a significant development. After all, our representatives have never been asked to debate or authorize the ongoing bombing campaigns being conducted in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or any other of a number of nations with substantial Muslim populations. No wonder the Washington establishment is all aflutter.

The Principle at Stake

What has brought about this historic occasion? Well, if we can believe the Administration (and given this Administration’s penchant for prevarication, this is a big “if”), Syria has broken a long-standing taboo. Indeed, the Syrian government may have violated a long-standing principle that is well-known among nations. What is this principle?  It is that only nations working in concert with the United States, and advancing an agenda pre-approved by the United States, may deploy lethal gas against its enemies (or alternatively, against its own civilians as occurred in Halabja). If we can believe the Administration, Syria has violated this taboo.

While Saddam Hussein conducted the gas attacks described above, he was neither then nor now deemed to have been in violation of the principle as stated. Why? Because at the time he was de facto allied with the CIA and the upper echelons of the Reagan Administration in a conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The United States was, then as now, preoccupied with weakening Iran for having had the temerity to overthrow the ruler the CIA had installed after orchestrating a coup in 1954. By the logic of the Washington foreign policy establishment, the Iranians had displayed arrogance on a grand scale. For that reason the CIA was complicit in the Iraqi Army’s deployment of lethal gases against the Iranian Army in the 1980s. Emboldened by what he could only perceive to have been a “green light” from the Reagan Administration, Saddam Hussein later gassed approximately 100,000 Kurdish civilians, whose transgression was to either be in the wrong place at the wrong time (that is to say their own villages) or for taking an anti-Saddam Hussein stance before such a position had been formally sanctified by the United States.

Three Options in Syria

This brings us back to what should be done about Syria’s transgression. In effect, the Obama Administration has indicated that we have three options: (1) do nothing other than express outrage, (2) engage in a serious bombing effort, one designed to significantly reduce the fighting capability of the Syrian Army so that it becomes vulnerable to succumbing to the several rebel forces now in the field, or (3) engage in “limited strikes” wherein targets are selected in a manner that “teaches a lesson” without disturbing the current balance of power of the ongoing civil war (although interestingly, the actual wording of the letter sent by the President to Congress requesting authorization is very open-ended on the use of force). Before continuing, let us take a moment to think through option (3). Given the size and severity of the rebellion it is hard to imagine what targets would actually qualify. Perhaps the United States could bomb some lonely outposts or check-points outside of the combat zones, military vehicles or aircraft that are undergoing repairs and/or about to be replaced, or perhaps we would demolish Syria’s Department of Motor Vehicles office. Seriously, it is hard to say which targets would fall under this third category.

As things stand, if we care about bringing an end to the war and the stopping the death and destruction along with the alarming rise in the number of refugees, choice (1) or (2) should almost self-evidently dominate (3). After all, (3) simply brings the United States into another conflict in a manner designed to ensure that nothing is done that might change the situation on the ground and thereby move the combatants toward a resolution of the war. Again, by design, the point of such a bombing campaign would be to solely and singularly express the United States government’s willingness to uphold the less-than-glorious principle expressed above. Worse, it defends this principle by killing or maiming a number of low-ranking Syrian Army troops and whichever civilians happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. My guess is that neither of these groups would have been enthusiasts of gassing civilians in the event that they had been asked. However, Bashar al-Assad has shown that he is as inclined to be as concerned with the public’s position on decisions related to war and peace as … well, never mind.

But what of the principle being upheld?  Surely it is important to establish that only regimes working to advance ends pre-approved by the United States government have the right to deploy lethal gases. Not many people living outside the United States support the principle summarized above. True, many people across the globe do favor a complete ban on the use of lethal gasses as weapons, but if the United States were to adhere to this latter principle, it would be necessary to mount an investigation and prosecution of the Reagan-era officials and agencies that actively assisted and/or covered up for Saddam Hussein’s use of lethal gas during the Iran-Iraq War. The Obama Administration has demonstrated that it can be feckless on its campaign promises, but no one can claim that they have not vigorously stood by the principle that any and all American officials who engage in war crimes should be favored with absolute legal impunity. If we believe the news reports, this last decision was taken because the Administration was pained to discover that there was low morale amongst those who claimed that they were “just following orders” when they knowingly committed war crimes.

Why Does the Administration Favor a “Limited Strike”?

Let us assume that a decision to bomb Syria has been or will be taken. Why would the Administration elect to limit the scope of such a strike before it begins? The answer is actually right in front of us – the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, wishes to preserve the Assad regime or something that looks and acts very much like it. Why? The reason is that, despite formal enmity, the United States has something of a “working relationship” with Assad. We also know that a genuinely democratic Syrian government, even if largely free of fundamentalist influence, would want the return of the Golan Heights (and the all-important right of access to water from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee that comes with it), support Palestinian claims over substantially more of the Occupied territories than the current Israeli government is inclined to cede, and will generally take “awkward” or “unsettling” positions on a variety of other regional issues. Worse, it could do so with all of the legitimacy that the world tends to confer on democratically elected governments.

Moreover, Assad has long proven his willingness to work with the United States on what might be described as “delicate matters.”  One could say that the United States and Syria share an implicit understanding about several matters of mutual importance. For example, we rarely hear of attacks on Israel from Syria, even by irregular forces (Israel, by contrast, periodically bombs Syria). Consider another example. In September 2002, the United States government was anxious to have a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent questioned under torture. At the time it was thought that it would be awkward for the United States government to do the job, so the intended victim was flown by private plane to Jordan where the wonderfully cooperative and “enlightened” King had Maher Arar transferred to Syria for a year of utterly inhumane treatment accompanied by extended torture. A year later Syrian officials apologetically reported that, despite their best efforts, they had found Arar absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing. Needless to say, the Bush and Obama Administrations, along with the US judiciary, will never forgive Arar for being innocent, which explains why to this day he cannot enter the United States and remains on the No-Fly list despite a formal apology and $10 million settlement from the Canadian government.

This, I submit, is the crux of the problem. Barack Obama probably doesn’t like Assad. As well, it is likely true that Sec. of State John Kerry really believes that the President of Syria is like Hitler (although not so much like him as to ruin the lovely dinner that then Sen. Kerry and his wife enjoyed with President Assad and his wife). We can safely assume that they would like to see a world in which Assad did not play a part. But, as with the case of Egypt, the Washington foreign policy establishment generally and the Obama Administration in particular have a deep and visceral fear of the Syrian and Egyptian publics. Their concern is that the peoples of the Middle East have shown a disconcerting tendency to make up their own minds when voting for representatives, rather than selecting those whom the United States government wants them to want. Until the peoples of the Middle East learn to vote “correctly,” the United States government can be counted upon to resist the emergence of democracy across the region.

This, ultimately, is the logic of Option (3). The United States government, when push comes to shove, wants Assad or someone very much like him to rule over Syria. A disdain or contempt for public opinion across the Middle East is the underlying reason why there has long been a bi-partisan consensus in support of military rule in Egypt, in support of the violent repression of the people of Bahrain, in support of the extreme fundamentalists who have long miss-ruled Saudi Arabia, and in support of a policy of relentless hostility directed towards Iran.

Worse of all, from the perspective of the Washington establishment, Assad fully understands the situation and the leverage that it inadvertently grants him. This was the reason that Assad demonstrated his contempt for President Obama’s implied threat of a “Red Line” by deploying lethal gas. The Administration is especially angry because in their hearts they already know that they are going to let Assad get away with it.

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Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College.

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Guest Post: Syria and the International Left

Today’s post responds to an urgent question that has re-emerged in the wake of the uprisings of the last year: how should we understand what it means to support the efforts of a people to resist an autocratic government even as we are suspicious of foreign intervention, given its deleterious and devastating patterns of destruction? In a sobering and insightful column, Prof. Omar Dahi offers some important reflections as the question of intervention in Syria becomes immediate. I encourage you to continue to reflect constructively in the comments section.–FS

Guest Post: Syria and the International Left

by

Omar Dahi, Hampshire College

When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt, Arab and International Left groups rallied to the cause of the protestors. These groups emphasized the role that the US, EU and their regional allies had in propping up and supporting these authoritarian regimes. However, the US government and its allies, caught off guard, tried assertively to manage the uprisings so as to preserve or further their own interests. By “they,” I refer to the US, the EU and the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This aggressiveness manifested itself in three primary ways: 1) They established and sustained financial and military ties with friendly remnants of the old regimes in those countries and cultivated ties with new ones, in particular Islamist political parties. 2) They consolidated their cooperation with existing pro-US regimes, such as Morocco and Jordan, in an attempt to head off revolutionary movements in those countries. 3) The Gulf countries moved assertively to re-spin the uprisings from their initial form as movements demanding civil rights, social justice, and democracy into a false picture of a sectarian Sunni-Shia battle. This shift had the double benefit of shielding themselves from domestic demands for radical reform and ensuring that a Sunni ally would come to power in those countries, such as Syria, undergoing mass upheaval.

In Syria, the Left has much to be suspicious about, including the following: the proclaimed support for Syrian freedom and human rights by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world; the fact that the largest exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC) consists of pro-Western allies who race to please and appease the West by promising to cut off ties with Iran and Hizbullah and demand western military intervention; and that the uprising has been at best poorly covered by the Western media, or at worst, fabricated to make the Syrian government appear a lot more brutal than it really is and to cover the brutality and crimes of its opponents.

Why should the International Left care about what happens in Syria? Should it do anything other than oppose cynical US efforts to overthrow an official enemy? The answer depends on how one answers a basic question: Is the Syrian uprising part of the revolts and uprisings sweeping across the Arab world, demanding freedom and denouncing oppression and corruption, or is it a separate case to be evaluated on its own? This question has been asked many times since March 15th 2011. But it needs to be emphasized that the answer, whichever it is, carries ethical, analytical, and organizational implications: Ethical, because it conditions whether one supports a people’s aspirations for freedom; Analytical, because it conditions one’s understanding of the motives of the protestors; Organizational, because it conditions who the Left believes to be its allies in this struggle.

At the political level, the Syrian uprisings were a militant civil rights movement against the Security-Party-Military nexus. As recently as a year ago, merely signing a petition that called for some more freedoms made Syrians vulnerable to punishment of several years in prisons under charges such as ‘weakening national morale’ and other Orwellian phrases. In the first scattered demonstrations that took place in Damascus, even before the incidents at Dar’aa, the main slogan chanted by the demonstrators was “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated.” Political debate was stifled and discussions in public were guarded and reserved. Syria’s authoritarian regime was not just a danger for political dissidents; navigating daily life in Syria was a struggle for most ordinary and lower-class Syrians. The state-security apparatus had extended its tentacles to all aspects of Syria’s political economy. Everyone from the taxi driver, street vendor–all the way up to businessmen– had to curry favor, and bribe and appease the mukhabarat (the notorious secret service apparatus) to get the simplest task done, or simply to be left alone.

However these grievances against the Syrian state have been well-documented; some aspects of the regime, including the more claustrophobic side of daily life in Syria-with ubiquitous security presence- have lessened or improved in the last decade. Many aspects of this corruption became worse, not better, under the rule of Bashar Al-Asad. That is because the revolts were an expression of anger against economic deprivations, corruption and inequality, and poverty. Jamal Barout found that according to some measures of poverty, the percentage of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from 11% in 2000 to 33% in 2010; . That is to say, about 7 million Syrians live around the poverty line. The last decade has seen the increasing marginalization of Syrians, especially in the rural areas. This marginalization has exacerbated the increasing desertification of the country, most notably the devastating drought. The International Crisis Group reported that the dispossession of the several hundred thousand farmers in the Northeast as a result of the drought should not be thought of as merely a natural disaster. The increase and intensive use by agro-businessmen (including land previously kept for grazing), as well as the illegal drilling of water wells (by whom?) (facilitated by paying off local administration) have contributed to the crisis of agriculture. Both of these practices are a manifestation of the inability of the Syrian government under Bashar Al-Asad to check the power of influential businessmen or to perform basic regulatory functions.[1]

Fundamentally, this means that the protests denounced the capture of the state by a few oligarchs. This can be best seen by the level of anger against Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the President. Makhlouf and his close associates, who turned Syria into their private fiefdom over the past decade. They did so by building a large economic empire through a mixture of coercion and intimidation, instrumental use of state power (including the judiciary) and outright fraud.[2] As Bassam Haddad argued in a recent article, the “private sector’s march in Syria is undermining both state and market” due to extreme cronyism and patronage networks which are unable or unwilling to change despite the fast changing pace of events in the country.[3]

In other words, the Syrian regime is a corrupt and authoritarian power that a very large sector of Syrian society no longer supports and to and which it refuses to acquiesce to. The regime continues to enjoy the support of many sectors of society, including from minority populations and those who have been traumatized by the destructive legacy of US invasion of Iraq. The invasion has killed hundreds of thousands and contributed to the ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred in Syria. However the fact that the Syrian uprising is being manipulated and highjacked by imperialism and its allies does not mean the regime is worth supporting or simply opposing any intervention or help for Syrians. It also does not mean that the brutality of the regime is not real and in fact, the casualty rate may be in fact worse than is being reported.

We can challenge military intervention in Syria—an intervention that is likely to have disastrous consequences there as well as in Iraq, in terms of the actual destruction caused by the invasion. We can also anticipate as a certainty that the invading powers will ‘pick winners’ and install their own allies, further destroying the fabric of Syrian society. The International Left, as well as the broader International civil society, must intervene in a way that sustains (through education, solidarity, and aid) the uprising. It must also, as much as possible, attempt to sustain and protect the agency of the Syrians themselves, while opposing armed intervention. We must choose among the least worst options, since doing nothing will ensure that that the crisis continues to be manipulated by cynical powers.


[1] Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution. Middle East/North Africa Report N°108, 6 Jul 2011.

[2] Carsten Wieland. 2011. “Asad’s Lost Chances.” Middle East Report Online.

[3] Bassam Haddad. 2011. The Political Economy of Syria: Realities and Challenges, Middle East Policy, 17(2): 46-61. See also Bassam Haddad, “Dictatorship, Military Intervention, and False Binaries on Syria.”

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Omar S. Dahi is assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa and on South-South economic cooperation. His publications include articles in the Journal of Development Economics, The Middle East Report, and the Review of Radical Political Economics.