A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
The reported use of chemical weapons by Syria’s Assad regime has not made much difference in that tormented country. Tens of thousands have been killed in the brutal fighting so far, and the violence continues with no end in sight.
The chemical weapons allegations have, however, had a dramatic effect in the United States. Last August, the president warned that the use or movement of large quantities of such weapons would be a “game changer” with “enormous consequences,” marking a “red line” that must not be crossed. Ultimatums rarely make for artful diplomacy; in this case, it gave an opening to the neocon hawks. The same armchair warriors who relied on phony WMD claims to drive us into Iraq—William Kristol, Robert Kagan and others—started pounding the war drums again. They did so even amid uncertainty over nearly everything having to do with the chemical weapons reports: not simply whether they were used, but who—rebels or regime—may have used them.
Alarmingly, liberal interventionists have also begun talking up military action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning in the Obama State Department, led the charge in a bellicose Washington Post column comparing the president’s cautious response to the latest allegations to the Clinton administration’s fumbling over genocide in Rwanda. That “shameful moment” for America, she said, arose from Clinton’s reluctance to clearly acknowledge that genocide was taking place; such an admission would have compelled intervention. Now, she argued, Obama is repeating the dodge because, like Clinton, he wants to avoid war. Slaughter was joined by The New York Times’s Bill Keller, who urged the administration “to assert control of the arming and training of rebels.”
Neither the neocons nor the liberal interventionists seem aware of the deep divide in the Muslim and Arab world over this conflict, and they seem unconcerned that there is no legal justification for intervention. Apparently, it is enough that the United States is, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once boasted, “the indispensable nation.” All that matters to the armchair warriors is Washington’s fragile “credibility,” which is apparently endangered whether a conflict involves an ally or an enemy, a near neighbor or a distant land.
Perhaps recognizing the foolishness of declaring red lines, the president has recently displayed a sensible caution that others would do well to emulate (and that includes Israel, whose recent airstrikes have dangerously increased the chances of a regionwide conflagration). Given the terrible costs of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian fratricide, Obama is surely right not to rush into another Middle East conflict.
The lessons of those previous wars are particularly relevant. As Syria specialist Joshua Landis has argued, the country has many parallels to Iraq. Like Iraq, Syria is rife with sectarian, ethnic and class divisions. As with the Iraqi Baath Party under Saddam Hussein, when a minority built around kinship and sect ruled over a Shiite majority, so in Syria a minority of Alawites, allied with other minorities, has ruled over a restive Sunni majority.