Senator Lindsey Graham is one of several Republican lawmakers calling for US intervention. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon.)
Part I of “Stay Out of Syria” can be found here.
Even as a stunning article in The New York Times ripped the cover off Syria’s civil war, neoconservatives—along with “liberal interventionists” such as the aptly named Anne Marie Slaughter—want war.
Let’s start with the Times. In a page-one piece over the weekend, the paper described the true face of the rebels leading the fight against President Assad, reporting in great detail that the vast majority of them are either violent Islamist extremists with ties to Al Qaeda or slightly less militant, but still dangerous, Islamists. The key conclusion of the piece:
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
Read that again: there is no secular fighting force in Syria. So, who exactly is the United States supposed to back? Added the Times:
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Readers of this blog know that for months I’ve been writing that the anti-Assad forces are mostly right-wing, extremist Islamists. They draw their support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, especially from ultra-wealthy individuals in those countries who are probably the same people who’ve backed Al Qaeda and the Taliban since the 1980s. Back then, they operated in concert with the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, in support of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Now they’re flexing their muscles once again, in support of an increasingly radical Syrian jihad. A big danger is that if a Sunni-led jihadist movement takes over in Damascus, it will radically exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite conflict across the region, pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran, with Iraq as the epicenter of the conflict. Iraq is already tilting into civil war again.
Even as Republicans demand direct US intervention in Syria, various liberal interventionists are demanding the same, with Slaughter making a spurious and invidious comparison to—what else?—Rwanda. Just as many pro-Israel radicals constantly invoke the Holocaust, whose mass atrocities occurred nearly seventy years ago, Slaughter and her cohort can’t help but bring up Rwanda every time civilians are being killed. Joining with Slaughter all too often are key allies such as Samantha Power and, unfortunately, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who is line to become President Obama’s national security adviser.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post titled, “Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria,” Slaughter waves the bloody flag of “genocide” about the civil war in Syria, and she puts the onus on Obama to makes good on his promise that the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces would trigger a game-changing US military action. She writes:
Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons? That is a question you must be in a position to answer.
Lots of people have died in Syria since 2011, perhaps 70,000 or more, but it hardly qualifies as genocide. If Damascus were to engage in the massive, unrestrained use of poison gas against its civilian population, it would be different—although even in that case it’s hard to see what good options the United States might have. So far, at least, the cases of chemical-weapons use, if any, seem to have been extremely limited, and Obama is right to approach the crisis in Syria very, very cautiously—even though he boxed himself in by saying, last year, that use of WMD by Assad would be a game-changer.
Meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose intelligence service is cooperating the CIA to train anti-Assad rebels, Obama made an important shift in rhetoric, saying that what might trigger a US military response is the “systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations.” That’s an important qualification, since so far there’s been no systematic use of such weapons, only a tinyhandful of unconfirmed cases. Meanwhile, US intelligence agencies are uncertain about what the initial reports of poison gas really mean.
That hasn’t stopped militant right-wingers in the United States, too, from demanding that the United States go to war in Syria. They’ve proposed all sorts of actions, from air attacks to no-fly zones, and they’re using Obama’s own red-line rhetoric against him, as conservative writer Joe Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) does in a recent piece in Foreign Policy:
You’ve got to hand it to him. Bashar al-Assad may be a cruel and ruthless dictator, but he does know how to play his cards. His careful, incremental introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict has turned President Barack Obama’s clear red line into an impressionist watercolor, undermining the credible threat of US military intervention. Despite Obama’s statement on Friday that “we’ve crossed a line,” Assad knows that the United States does not want to be dragged into a Middle Eastern civil war and is attempting to call Obama’s bluff.
Perhaps the most bombastic of the critics is South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Bombs-away Graham makes the point that, having warned Assad against use of gas, Obama now has to take action or risk credibility in dealing with Iran and North Korea. Said Graham:
If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action toward Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program.
Along with Graham, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, that noted expert on Syria, called on Obama to bomb Syria:
Graham and Chambliss agreed there’s no need for the US to send troops there. The US, they said, could intervene by taking measures such as bombing Syrian air bases. “You don’t need to go deep into Syria to do that,” Graham said. “If you could neutralize the air advantage the Syrian government has over the rebels, I think you could turn the tide of battle pretty quickly.”
Well, no, you can’t. What you can do is provide direct assistance to Islamist fighters—and then what?
Of course, it was the selfsame Institute for the Study of War that houses Joe Holliday that recently published an alarming report by Elizabeth O’Bagy that dissected the alarming alliance between Syrian Al Qaeda types and Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch.
Media Matters, which monitors conservative media outlets, has pointed out that Fox News and other publications and broadcast sources are beating the drums for war in Syria without quite knowing what, exactly, to do:
William Kristol wants to go to war in Syria, but he won’t say what that war should look like. Appearing on Fox News Sunday to discuss reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the Weekly Standard editor (and noted Iraq war hawk) attacked President Obama as “totally irresponsible” for indicating that he doesn’t want “to start another war,” saying: “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
When host Chris Wallace pointed out to him that there are “no good choices” for intervening in the Syrian conflict and asked, “so what do you do?,” Kristol brushed it off without indicating how he thought the president should respond: “You do what you think is best. You’re commander in chief, you’ve got an awful lot of options.”
Kristol’s call for (non-specific) military action got a boost from Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume, who observed: “There’s something to be said for doing something. That if they cross a line, you’ve got to do something. Now whatever it is may not directly affect the chemical weapons use, but if it directly affects and harms the regime’s prospects in the war, that would at least be a consequence.”
Obama isn’t likely to pay attention to the likes of Kristol. But he is, however, capable of listening to people such as Slaughter, Rice and Power.
The solution that Obama ought to be pursuing, nearly full-time—since the crisis in Syria has risen to Number One on his priority list—is a diplomatic solution. The key is working with Russia, but there’s an emerging diplomatic initiative by Egypt, which sent top-level representatives to Iran in search of a coalition including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt to use its influence on all warring parties to the conflict. The Egyptian delegation met with nearly the entire top-level leadership of Iran’s foreign policy establishment, which is important because Iran is Syria’s main regional ally. Besides talking to Russia, Obama ought to be encouraging the Egyptian initiative, which could be helpful in opening doors into Iran, too.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on why the United States needs to deal with Russia on Syria.