Fall is almost upon us, the kids are heading back to school, the farmers are in the fields taking in their harvest, and the air is full of the sound of rattling sabres. For two and a half years now, Syria has been wracked by civil war as jihadist insurgents have sought to unseat the Ba’ath government of Bashar al-Assad. As this sort of thing happens all the time in the Middle East until now few people have seen much of a need for the rest of the world to involve itself in Syria’s internal power struggles. Then, on August 21st 2013, something happened to change that, something which has world leaders outraged and US President Barack Obama determined that he will not go down in history as the only liberal Democrat President since the beginning of the twentieth century other than Jimmy Carter not to get the United States into a major war. (1) Over the Labour Day weekend, Obama announced his belief that America should bomb Syria and his intention to ask for approval to do so the reconvening houses of Congress.
What happened on August 21st that has the president of the meaningless slogan of change and the empty rhetoric of hope beating his ploughshare into a sword and setting aside the olive branch of Irene so as to take up the spear of Mars?
Well, according to the August 30th press release from the White House, the Syrian government launched rockets into the Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya and Mu’addamiyah in the Ghouta suburb region of Damascus. These rockets are supposed to have contained chemical weapons such as the sarin nerve toxin and to have killed over a thousand people including children.
There seems to be a strange sense of déjà vu attached to this story. The villain, an authoritarian Ba’ath government, is accused of using WMDs against its own people, therefore providing the excuse whereby the hero, the president of the United States, can justify his intervention by way of blowing things up and killing even more people. Where have we heard this story before?
It would appear that the United States is preparing for the military equivalent of a cheap Hollywood sequel.
Wars always have their supporters and their detractors, their hawks and their doves. Pacifists, who for religious or philosophical reasons are opposed to all wars on principle, have also been around for a very long time. During the Cold War, however, a new type of peacenik entered the scene who was neither a traditional pacifist nor merely an objector to a particular war. Instead, his shtick was to always condemn the United States in particular or Western civilization in general as the aggressor in every conflict and to always takes the side of the enemy. Declaring himself a realist, he affected to find a commercial motive behind all American/Western military action and to treat that as sufficient proof of the righteousness of the other side. Although Soviet infiltration undoubtedly played a part in creating this new type of peace activist he has survived the collapse of his patron and has continued to oppose all American and Western military action in the decades since the Cold War ended. It is to no credit to him that more often than not that military action deserved opposition and it is more than a little ironic that if any American president could be said to be his president, i.e., the president who represents who he is and what he stands for, it is the man currently beating the drums for war in Washington D.C.
That irony, I am afraid, will not be enough to put a smile on the faces of Syria’s Christian minority. Ten years ago, when the American government against all common sense and reason went into Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Christians paid a terrible price for George W. Bush’s decision to bring the blessings of liberal democracy to their country. Should the United States take out the Assad government the same fate will befall Syria’s Christians as yet another Middle Eastern country falls under the control of jihadists.
Not that such considerations are likely to affect Obama’s decision. A little over a year ago he told the press that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” which, if crossed by Assad would mean that the United States would intervene in the civil war. By making this remark he thereby informed the Syrian insurgents of exactly what they would have to do to get the United States to enter the war on their side, i.e., stage a chemical attack and blame it on the government.
The White House has dismissed this interpretation of the events of August 21st, saying “We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely” (2) just as Obama is now trying to pass the responsibility for his remarks off on everybody else by saying “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line.” (3) Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, the Rockford Institute’s foreign affairs expert, however, has made a compelling case that the attack was, in fact, a false flag perpetrated by the insurgents. He argues that Assad had no reason to use chemical weapons because he was winning the war and every reason not to use them because UN chemical weapons experts had just arrived on the scene. The insurgents, however, had plenty of reason to conduct a chemical attack and try to pin it on Assad and have a history of attempting to fake such incidents to garner world sympathy. (4)
These arguments make a lot of sense – certainly a lot more sense than the Obama administration’s case for bombing Syria. The Russian government maintains that the rebels were behind the attack and claims that it presented evidence to the UN earlier this year about the Syrian rebels having used chemical weapons – sarin gas specifically – in Khan al-Assal, a suburb of Aleppo last March. (5) Alternatively, there are reports that the Syrian rebels have actually admitted being responsible for the attack in Ghouta, claiming they had mishandled chemical weapons given them by the Saudis. (6)
Even if Assad’s forces were proven to be behind the chemical attacks, however, it would make little sense to bomb Syria in response. “We don’t want you to use chemical weapons to kill your own people so to punish you for doing so we are going to kill even more of your own people by dropping powerful explosives upon them.” What kind of insane reasoning is that?
There are those who maintain that Obama has to bomb Syria in order to save face and maintain American and Western credibility. Oddly, this position always seems to go hand in glove with the counsel of haste – bomb first, ask questions later, the longer you put it off the more credibility you will lose. What will happen to American credibility, however, if Obama bombs Syria and it is later conclusively shown that the rebels were behind the chemical attack?
What happened to American credibility ten years ago when the hidden weapons of mass destruction for which the Bush administration had pled an urgent necessity to depose Saddam Hussein failed to materialize?
When the Cold War ended, the first president Bush announced the dawn of a “New World Order”, in which a coalition of the free nations of the world, led by the United States, would police the world against aggressors. The first test of this new Pax Americana was the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. The Americans ended that occupation in Operation Desert Storm with a broad international coalition behind them. Since then, every subsequent American administration has followed the precedent set by the first Bush and continued his policy of using American military might to police the affairs of the nations of the world. With each successive administration, the coalition of nations standing behind the United States has shrunk as international support for her leadership has dwindled.
Today, Obama can count on the support of our own Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and of French President Francois Hollande. British Prime Minister David Cameron would like to support Obama but the British Parliament has said no. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wishes to see the Americans take out Assad and Turkey is taking a similar line. There is notably less support for bombing Syria today than there was for invading Iraq ten years ago.
In fact it is difficult to see why Obama has even this much support. Bombing Syria will not accomplish anything other than more death and destruction and could create worse problems in the form of a larger conflict with Iran and Russia. Should the United States use its military might to depose Assad, as Israel’s Netanyahu wishes, the new government is unlikely to be an improvement, except perhaps from the perspective of Islamic fundamentalists.
Of course it remains to be seen whether Obama will actually do anything. When he announced that he was seeking Congressional approval for the air strikes he made it clear that he believes he is within his constitutional rights to order such strikes upon his own authority. Whether or not that is actually the case, having sought Congressional approval, he is unlikely to order the bombings if such approval is withheld. He has scheduled an address to the American nation for next Tuesday, in which he will explain why he believes bombing Syria is the right thing to do and why Congress should give him the approval he seeks.
Perhaps in that speech it will suddenly become clear that bombing Syria is the thing to do, that it ought to be done without delay, and that all objections are moot and pointless. Perhaps the American president will provide incontrovertible evidence that the Assad government was actually behind the chemical attack of August 21st, that he did not actually stick his foot in his mouth when he gave that “red line” ultimatum last year, and that if bombs do not immediately fall upon Damascus Assad’s agents will unleash sarin gas in Washington DC, New York, Tel Aviv, Ottawa, London, Toronto and Paris.
For some reason I am not holding my breath in anticipation of that.
(1) Woodrow Wilson got the United States into World War I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt got them into World War II, Harry Truman into Korea, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Lyndon Johnson got them into Vietnam, and Bill Clinton got them involved in the various ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, including the Kosovo War of 1999.
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