In philosophy circles, bullshit is a technical term denoting a claim presented as “fact” although its veracity has not been established. The truth value of bullshit is largely irrelevant to its propagators. Bullshit is disseminated in the service of particular ends, typically opaque to the audience. There is no better description for the White House’s case for intervention in Syria.
It stinks of Karl “Turdblossom” Rove, who once said:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The Obama Administration had been intending to use the Ghouta incident as a pretext for changing the balance of power “on the ground” in Syria. They were prevented from direct military action as a result of the deft maneuvering of Syria and Russia, so they have instead ramped up the delivery of arms to the rebels, and stand poised to shift the training of said rebels from a small CIA operation into a much larger Pentagon-run operation. Simultaneously, the State Department has began sending the rebels vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment, advanced combat medical kits, and other gear–collectively, these actions amount to a “major escalation” of U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
Moreover, the White House continues to make its case for strikes, despite the deal which was recently achieved with Russia and the al-Asad government. There are bills being floated in the Senate which would empower the President to “punish” Syria if the Administration deems the regime’s progress “unsatisfactory,” even in the absence of U.N. agreement. If the history of Iraq is any indication, we can rest assured that the progress will be deemed insufficient regardless of how well the Syrian government complies, providing ever-new pretexts to increase “allied” involvement. The opposition is already calling for further military restrictions on the Syrian government.
That is, while the recent developments were inconvenient for the Administration, the plans to depose al-Asad have been in the works since 2004–they will not be abandoned so easily. Sanity may have prevailed in this particular battle, but the war rages on. What follows is the most direct and systematic refutation of the Administration’s case for military intervention in Syria—deconstructing their justifications one by one.
Justification #1: Al-Asad crossed the ‘red line’ in the Ghouta Incident.
While uncertainty remains just how many people died and were injured from the sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta – Medecines Sans Frontiéres estimates 550, the U.S. 1,429 – there is also no clear culprit. Much of the evidence points its sarin-soaked finger at rebel groups now backed by the White House, armed by Saudi and Qatari money funneled through Istanbul.
Despite the growing influence of al-Qaeda within Syria and throughout the region, and the UK’s own assessment that al-Qaeda in Syria is working tirelessly to obtain the Bashar Al-Asad’s chemical weapons, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the possibility as “vanishingly small” that affiliates such as the al-Nusra Front could have been responsible for the recent chemical attacks. The Obama Administration has claimed the rebels “do not have the capacity” to carry out such an attack; the CIA might beg to differ.
In a 2007 report, the agency asserted Al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists have,
“a wide variety of potential agents and delivery means to choose from for chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) attacks… Analysis of an al-Qa’ida document recovered in Afghanistan in summer 2002 indicates the group has crude procedures for making mustard agent, sarin, and VX.”
And their capacity has grown substantially in the subsequent years. In fact, al-Qaeda has a long and well-documented history of obtaining, developing, and deploying chemical weapons—even in the Syrian theater.
In May, Turkish authorities disrupted a Jahbat al-Nusra cell and discovered sarin gas in the possession of the opposition militants. This is the same chemical agent supposedly used in the small-scale attacks in April, which the Obama Administration attributed to the al-Asad regime. Following closely after this event in Turkey, the Iraqi government claimed to have disrupted another major al-Qaeda plot involving chemical weapons, this time on a massive scale.
Despite these incidents, in June the Obama Administration declared that al-Asad had crossed its “red line” by deploying chemical weapons. After reviewing all of the intelligence the U.S. and its allies provided to substantiate this claim, the United Nations experts declared that it was not up to UN standards and ordered their own investigation. Subsequently, Carla del Ponte, a prolific investigator assigned to investigate human rights violations in Syria, declared the evidence suggested strongly that it was the rebels who used the sarin gas in the disputed attacks. It is clear that al-Qaeda and its affiliates within and around Syria have access to chemical weapons, as well as the intent to deploy them—contrary to the Obama Administration’s dubious assertions to the contrary.
According to recent reports including testimony from rebels, survivors, and doctors on the front lines, the incident in Ghouta was not an attack at all but an early, perhaps accidental, use of them by rebels on the Saudi payroll. This would not be surprising: most of the indigenous rebels are not seasoned fighters or military defectors, but rural farmers who were disenfranchised by al-Asad’s Washington-backed economic liberalization scheme. Even with conventional weapons, many have died in the Syrian conflict from misuse of heavy weapons in fluid and urban environments. Chemical weapons are far more sensitive tools requiring a degree of control and specialization beyond RPGs or automatic rifles.
Consider the battleground: the neighborhood of Ghouta in the capital of Damascus. While there are still pockets of al-Nusra resistance, the neighborhood was largely reclaimed by the government in May. It is simply inaccurate to call East Ghouta a “rebel-held” area (as the media has consistently done). Many have posited that the regime shelling of the area “proves” that most of the residents support the rebels—this logic is beyond tortured:
Consider the Jahbat al-Nusra occupation of the Christian town of Ma’lula—the town was seized because of its strategic location, and also to evoke terror in a population known to support the Syrian government. The government has been bombing parts of the town, and has placed it under siege. Most of the town’s residents have fled to Damascus, even as the al-Nusra extremists desecrate their sacred Christian holy sites. Could we infer from the government’s persistent shelling that most of town’s residents therefore support the al-Qaeda affiliated rebels and despise the government? Is this why they fled to its capital?
The Christian population of Ghouta is significantly higher than in most Sunni areas further from the capital (Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities disproportionately reside in and around Damascus and Aleppo). It is certain that many Christians were among the victims of the Ghouta massacre, they may have even been its target. Al-Nusra and other extremist groups frequently target Syria’s vulnerable minority populations. In fact, there were multiple churches at and near the epicenter of the attack.
So if it was an intentional act committed by the rebels, it would not necessarily be an instance of “rebel-on-rebel” violence. Moreover, “the rebels” are not a monolith: thousands of competing factions comprise the Syrian opposition, with these tensions often descending into armed struggle. If it was a rebel-on-rebel attack, it would hardly be the first or the last.
Regardless, the al-Asad regime had no incentive to deploy chemical weapons in this region largely under its domain, and especially when victory seemed so close at hand:
The Ghouta incident occurred just when the regime had nearly broken the insurgency. Moreover, in the lead-up to this incident, international attention had been consumed by the crisis in Egypt. The momentum in the Syrian conflict was with the regime. According to NATO reports, the government was not just winning on the battlefield but also in the “hearts and minds” of the Syrian people. Just when the regime stood poised to quietly “close the deal” for all intents and purposes, the very last thing al-Asad would want would be to risk even greater international intervention. The regime would be especially hesitant to deploy chemical weapons at a moment when UN investigators had just arrived in the area to follow-up on the earlier incidents. For these reasons, Damascus perhaps rightly described the accusations as “illogical.” No satisfying answer has been provided as to why the al-Asad regime would undermine and jeopardize its own campaign at such a critical moment. The government has no need to deploy chemical weapons: there would be little to gain and a lot to lose from such an heinous attack.
While the regime is unquestionably ruthless in prosecuting the war, it is tactically ruthless and relatively measured in the use of force. Contrary to the pop-media narrative, the government does not indiscriminately kill people, as any detailed analysis of the casualties in Syria would suggest. Between 60 to 70 percent of the casualties of the conflict have been combatants, not bystanders. Of the non-combatant deaths, many were killed at the hands of the rebels—both unintentionally (for the reasons previously described) and intentionally (e.g. in hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities and/or social elites). Many other deaths cannot be principally attributed to one side or the other. All said, the non-combatants killed by the government represent a fairly small (if ethically significant) share of the total dead. Concrete, verifiable evidence proving the regime carried out the chemical attack remains “elusive.”
In defiance of this counter-evidence, the Obama Administration put forward its own extremely circumstantial case for the al-Asad regime’s culpability. We encourage everyone to read the internal White House documents using flimsy and manipulative arguments—not to mention their inflated and completely unsubstantiated casualty statistics.
The administration’s so-called “smoking gun” consists of wiretapped conversations between the Syrian Ministry of Defense and various military officers furiously seeking answers in the fallout of a chemical attack on their country’s soil. They confirm chemicals had been deployed – but were themselves unsure of who carried out the attack or why. The Administration’s case is heavily reliant upon conflating evidence that a chemical attack did in fact occur, which the Syrian government never denied, with statements that the regime carried it out. They frequently pretend as though evidence of the former is proof of the latter.
It is important to bear this in mind when interpreting the U.N. findings on the Ghouta incident: U.N. investigators are not permitted to say who committed the attack, they can only state whether or not a chemical attack occurred, and which chemical agents were used– and the U.S., through the U.N. Security Council, attempted to prevent even this much information from coming to light. A look at the report reveals why—investigators acknowledged that a good deal of the samples and munitions may have been manipulated by the rebels (p. 18); the munitions were likely delivered by an unguided rocket (p.19)—i.e. the type of munitions commonly used by the opposition, not the government. As we have already explored, the chemical agent used in the attack, sarin, is a compound that al-Qaeda has long had access to.
It should be clear why there is widespread skepticism about the Obama Administration’s case: one need not be a regime sympathizer, a conspiracy theorist, or a Russian to find the White House’s case to be weak and eerily reminiscent of the lead-up to Iraq.
However, the Obama Administration’s sketchy case against al-Asad need not, and should not, be the primary reason to oppose intervention in Syria. Even if there were incontrovertible evidence al-Asad used chemical weapons (or really, any compelling evidence), military intervention would still be the wrong course for America, for Syria, and for the world.
Justification #2: An attack on Syria preserves and upholds international norms and international law.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly declared that the purpose of bombing Syria is to support international law and international norms. This, despite the fact that such a strike would be a major violation of international law—as U.N. chief Ban Ki Moon, as well as U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, have both stated unequivocally. Both have repeatedly underscored that no military solution to the Syrian crisis exists.
Towards this end, the U.N. has continually asked the U.S. and its allies to cease arming, funding, training and supplying the rebels. The United Nations, created in the aftermath of a generation of globe-spanning conflict to stop such conflagrations, has argued this support only perpetuates and exacerbates the conflict. It is a clear violation of international law and norms to arm or fund non-state actors against foreign governments. Yet, France and Britain were prepared to arm the rebels in defiance of not only U.N. law, but even their own European Union embargos. Because this coalition has such a flagrant disregard for international law and norms, al-Asad called upon the BRICS nations to help stem the tide of foreign money, weapons, and people in Syria.
Similarly, the U.N. along with former SNC head Sheikh al-Khatib have called upon the Obama administration to drop the precondition that al-Asad resign before any negotiated settlement—a caveat which Washington has insisted upon in defiance of the Geneva Communique they signed onto.
That is, resistance to the US, EU and Gulf plans for intervention is a matter of defending international law, by the international community forged in the wake of decades-long international conflict–NOT the result of Chinese or Russian “intransigence.” This is the position of the U.N. itself. It’s easy to draw another parallel, then, between the Obama and Bush administrations – both have treated the U.N. with contempt regarding the Middle East continuing until today.
The notion that the strike on Syria is mandated by international law, or serves to enforce or preserve international norms—these justifications are hollow. The greatest threat to international order seems to be those calling now for more war to create peace.
Justification #3: A Strike on Syria is Needed to Preserve US Credibility
The notion that a strike on Syria would “preserve U.S. credibility” is severely undermined by its illegality.
In truth, it is Barack Obama’s credibility tottering on a red line—not that of the United States. And he put himself on this precipice with reckless language throughout the Syrian crisis. Ego and reputation are not acceptable reasons to go to war.
Regrettably, as a nation, we don’t have much credibility to lose when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. Since the end of the World Wars, the United States has been among the primary actors to deploy these weapons—and on a scale others could scarcely imagine.
Consider the use of chemical agents Agent Orange and napalm during Vietnam, which killed not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands. To this day, Vietnamese are still plagued by birth defects and other health epidemics linked to these American chemical weapons.
Washington once approved and supported another secular Arab dictator using chemical weapons: Saddam Hussein, then shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld, was a key point of stability in the Pentagon’s strategy; they were happy to support him as he gassed Iran. The U.S. would later use depleted uranium shells and white phosphorous on Iraq during the Gulf Wars. The Pentagon only recently admitted to using these horrific chemical weapons, which in terms of birth defects, cancer, and other long-term health outcomes were worse than the U.S. nuclear attacks on Japan.
And lest we forget, America’s top regional ally is an apartheid state which exercises an unyielding disregard for international law. Israel, like Syria, is one of only a handful of nations which failed to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. The U.S. did not (re)act in the slightest when the Israel deployed chemical weapons in their 2006 invasion of Lebanon.
The international community, and in particular the Arab and Islamic worlds, are well-aware of these facts. After the euphoria of a post-Bush White House, the idea that our planet’s nations look to Washington for moral leadership in upholding humanitarian values is absurd. Instead, as a result of decades of armed conflict, coups, invasions, and increasing drone strikes, there is widespread international skepticism of the U.S. and its intentions. America’s credibility and standing around the world would be harmed much more by another unpopular, illegal, indefinite, and ill-fated campaign in the Middle East justified by sketchy intelligence on WMDs than by failing to follow through on words which should have never been spoken.
But perhaps most significant to note is that the only “evidence” we have that “U.S. credibility is at stake” are the alarmist proclamations of pundits, generally ideologues, hawks and hacks. In fact, contemporary social and cognitive science suggests rather robustly that the whole popular-discourse about credibility is ill-founded and misleading.
Justification #4: The Strike on Syria Will Prevent Further Use and Proliferation of Chemical Weapons
On August 20, 2012, President Obama offered up the following fateful remark:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
While social media erupted in red line jokes and bad math, please think about these “other players on the ground.” Most likely he was talking about and to the rebels. What, exactly, did Obama’s words about veiled promise of a strike mean to them?
Part of the problem with “red line” talk is that it creates moral hazards, possibly incentivizing “false flag attacks” where chemical weapons are used by the rebels but blamed on the government in the hopes of spurring Western intervention. The regime has repeatedly accused the rebels of attempting this. We have previously explored evidence suggesting the rebels may have been behind the chemical attacks in April and August. If they were, United States’ response in both cases would be tantamount to having rewarded the opposition for committing crimes against humanity— encouraging more frequent and more severe future episodes.
Let us side-step this concern momentarily in favor of another:
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria are desperately trying to get their hands on al-Asad’s vast chemical weapons stockpiles. It is likely that if the government infrastructure is severely weakened as a result of U.S. strikes, these agents would fall into the hands of al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of the Libya invasion, much of Moammar Gaddhafi’s chemical weapons arsenal was seized by militants during and after the NATO campaign (significantly, this included the delivery systems for deploying chemical weapons through artillery rounds, which is how sarin was deployed in Ghouta according to the U.N. report). And despite the grave mismanagement of Gaddhafi’s arsenal, according to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the challenge of securing Syria’s chemical weapons would be ”100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya.”
There is no way to secure Syria’s chemical weapons without “boots on the ground.” In fact, according to Pentagon estimates, it would take more than 75,000 troops to neutralize these weapons. Such an operation would carry a high risk of allied casualties and mission-creep, would be extremely expensive, and would not enjoy a clear “exit strategy.”
Then there is the question of President al-Asad’s “red line.” He has been very clear from the beginning of the conflict that he would never use chemical weapons on his own people. However, he was also unambiguous in asserting that, in the event of direct foreign intervention, he would not hesitate to deploy them on invading and occupying forces.
s Syria war plan has stated that it was not designed for, and is not suitable for the objectives the White House has laid out. Which demands the question: is the U.S. primarily concerned with preventing the use or proliferation of chemical weapons?
On September 9th, Secretary Kerry said the U.S. strike could be canceled if al-Asad surrendered his chemical stockpiles within a week. The Russians and Syrians called the bluff: shortly after Kerry’s remarks, the regime agreed to relinquish its entire stockpile into international custody to be decommissioned, posthaste, potentially putting the Syrians ahead of America in chemical disarmament. Al-Asad further agreed to sign onto the Chemical Weapons Convention—something Benjamin Netanyahu won’t even joke about.
Considering that a military strike would dramatically increase the chances of chemical weapons being proliferated and deployed, why didn’t the U.S. jumped at this deal? The United Nations did.
Instead, Secretary Kerry insisted his comment was “merely rhetorical” — a fancy way to say bullshit — and that he (Kerry) was not offering any serious policy proposal in his previous remarks. Despite the option to achieve America’s supposed objective without violence, Kerry said he saw “no reason” to slow the war machine. Fortunately, the Senate disagreed and tabled the resolution on Syria. This forced the White House to take the proposal seriously: despite the President’s bluffs to the contrary, the War Powers Act does not negate the need for Congressional approval to start a war.
However, the Obama Administration’s bald determination to move forward with the attack despite the potential breakthrough speaks volumes about their intentions. Despite the agreement, it seems likely that the Administration will simply rustle up another justification for war. After all, the U.S. deposed Gaddhafi even after he abandoned his nuclear program—in fact, sacrificing his nuclear arsenal likely made him an even more attractive target for regime change.
Justification #5: The Strike is Necessary to Push al-Asad to the Negotiating Table
Despite the ever-increasing financial, logistical, material and diplomatic assistance the U.S. and its allies have provided to sustain the rebellion over the last two years, the regime stands on the brink of a de facto victory. It is thus reasonable to assume that had the U.S. not inserted itself into the crisis in Syria, it would have already been resolved. Clearly, the big problem is al-Asad, right?
According to Secretary of State Kerry, the regime has refused to negotiate an end to the conflict because al-Asad assumes he can just “shoot his way out of this.” Military intervention is needed to “change Bashar’s calculus.”
Anyone who has followed President al-Asad’s rhetoric closely should know that he is much more willing to reach out to the opposition and to offer concessions when negotiating from a position of strength. When his back is to the wall, he is likely to dig in and become more rigid, more defiant, and more subversive. The U.S. should know this by now, having just had their war plans deflated by al-Asad’s deft maneuvers. If certain international players wish for the Syrian President to resign, they would have been better offering guarantees and incentives rather than threats and coercion.
More importantly, it is simply false to claim that al-Asad has been unwilling to negotiate, or that his first instinct is to resort to force. While the security forces were brutally overzealous in attempting to maintain public order (a big factor in the protest movement’s initial growth), President al-Asad had initially hoped that he could reform his way out of the crisis—enacting a number of significant measures which were met with wide popular support, including a new constitution which would have forced an end to his rule after one more presidential term. Since then, the government has dramatically reformed its security sector, subverting the loathed mukhabarat and prosecuting them if they step out of line or commit crimes against civilians.
As the crisis progressed, al-Asad has consistently endorsed, proposed, and complied with ceasefires. The primary reason these measures have failed is because the opposition’s “leadership” had no control over the disorganized militias. They can agree to ceasefires, but cannot get the rebel forces to comply; this remains the case.
Al-Asad has consistently been at the forefront of pushing for negotiations and dialogue, including recently calling on the BRICS nations to help end the bloodshed in Syria, because Western powers and their regional allies continue to exacerbate the violence. Looking at the casualties per month, there is a direct correlation between the rate of killings and the amount of arms, aid, and training being provided to the rebels.
The primary sticking point to negotiations remains the Syrian National Coalition’s insistence that al-Asad resign as a precondition to any settlement—a condition which is set in defiance of the Geneva Communique. While this insistence serves the geopolitical interests of the SNC’s patrons in the U.S. and the Gulf, it does not reflect the will or interests of the Syrian people. Since the beginning of the protests, they have overwhelmingly and unambiguously sought a piecemeal, democratic, and then diplomatic solution to the crisis—not an armed revolution.
Why has the U.S. ignored these non-violent aspirations?
It is important to bear in mind that the armed opposition is not representative of the broader opposition movement. Among political forces, while Western media focuses primarily on the SNC, due primarily to their perceived friendliness to Western intentions, this group has never enjoyed legitimacy in Syria itself. They were and remain an expatriate movement stationed outside of Syria. In contrast, there are a number of indigenous civil opposition movements who have from the beginning rejected the armed struggle and continue to call for negotiations with the regime without preconditions. The most significant of these groups is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC).
In fact, despite the intransigence of the SNC, many of the armed militias have entering into direct negotiations with the regime and laying down their arms in exchange for amnesty and protection from the more malevolent rebel groups.
And even within the over-emphasized SNC, the issues of pressing for an advantage in negotiations through military means is a matter of contention. Shiekh Moaz al-Khatib (in)famously stated that there is no military solution to this conflict, calling upon the SNC to negotiate with the regime immediately, abandoning any preconditions. The fate of Syria, he argued, was far more important than the fate of one man. Ultimately, the sheikh resigned in disgust from his post as president of the SNC, claiming that neither the opposition nor their international supporters were primarily concerned with saving Syria.
Rather than pushing anyone to the bargaining table, the U.S. strategy of “equalizing force” in Syria is likely to render a negotiated settlement impossible. It will do nothing to address the fact that the rebels have been hitherto unable to solidify into an interlocutor for the state capable of articulating a coherent vision or set of demands. It will do nothing to get the rebels to abandon their non-constructive precondition. Simultaneously, the strike will render the party that has been consistently eager to negotiate less willing and able to do so.
What the U.S. should be doing is pushing for peace by any diplomatic means necessary. That would be moral leadership. Working with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the EU, American freezing of arms, supplies, and training to the rebels would dramatically reduce civil strife in Syria just as diplomatic pressure keeps al-Asad at the negotiating table working through post-conflict reconciliation and, most likely, his early retirement.
Remember this as Samantha Power insists that the “White House has exhausted all non-military options” in Syria: the one thing they have never tried over the last two years is heeding the U.N.’s advice and working with the international community to de-escalate the conflict. This does not seem to be on their agenda any time soon, either.
Justification #6: The Strikes Serve the Will and Interests of the Syrian People
“It is a general popular error to assume that the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.”
Edmund Burke, Observations on a Late Publication on the Present State of the Nation
The essence of democracy is more than a set of (liberal) institutions or occasional election rituals. Instead, that governments be representative of, and responsive to, the will and interests of the majority of its citizenry.
There is no question that the al-Asad regime is authoritarian, guilty of a number of crimes before and during the conflict. Within al-Asad’s cult of personality there are civilian militias which have carried out further atrocities on Sunnis who were perceived as sympathetic to the uprising. Astonishingly, there are many within the regime who believe that the President has been too soft on the protestors—they believe that had al-Asad reacted with overwhelming force like his father, the uprising could have been put down in its infancy. Many of these forces are beginning to “go rogue,” utilizing these brutal methods in defiance of government orders for restraint–prompting the President to dramatically reform his security apparatus and the Ba’ath Party leadership.
Bashar al-Asad came into power with the sincere intent to transform the state, to distance himself in practice from the brutality of his father-and-predecessor, instilling some hope in a more democratic, less violent future. But he fell under the influence of the very institutions he sought to reshape — not unlike President Barack Obama, whose “change” few still hold out “hope” for.
While there should be no doubt that most Syrians want to see the government dramatically reformed, do they support the revolution?
Listening to the pop-media narrative, one might take it for granted that most Syrians support the rebels, oppose President Bashar al-Asad, and want him gone by any means necessary. One might even think they would overwhelmingly welcome the action the U.S. is proposing. Inside the Beltway, and beyond, it seems al-Asad has lost “all credibility” with the Syrian people. Unfortunately, despite the confidence with which these proclamations are made, there is absolutely no empirical evidence which would substantiate them. If one pays attention, evidence is never offered. In fact, the Syrian people are overwhelmingly ambivalent or opposed to the insurrection.
From the outset, the demonstrations against president al-Asad were not calling for his resignation, but for an acceleration of his reform agenda. These protests were fairly small and confined primarily to the rural areas (as opposed to urban spaces like downtown Damascus or Aleppo). And while underreported in the media, the anti-government demonstrations were usually accompanied by counter-rallies showing support for the government. In fact, these rallies were typically much larger than those of the protestors. In defiance of opposition calls to boycott the President’s reforms, the majority of Syrians ratified a new parliament and a new constitution—indicating their desire to work with the government towards resolving their grievances.
In fact, even by the most generous estimates, it is difficult to establish that even two percent of Syrians have taken part in the protests or the armed insurrection. While there are likely a number of people who sympathize with the rebels without having taken up arms or picket signs—there’s no credible way to assert that anywhere near a majority supports them. Demographically, as has been widely reported, most ethnic and religious minority groups, as well as the Sunni bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo, are not merely unsupportive of the rebels, they overwhelmingly support the government. Additionally, the vast majority of the military continues to side with the state. From these groups alone, we might be approaching a plurality of the Syrian population actively supporting the president.
Meanwhile, as the opposition has grown more violent and more extreme, it has also grown smaller and more homogenous. In fact, according to a recent NATO report, al-Asad is not only winning on the battlefield, but “in the hearts and minds” of the Syrian people: 70 percent of Syrians support the al-Asad regime over the rebels, 20 percent were neutral, and only 10 percent of the population continues to support the insurrection.
The rebellion is being propelled primarily by Western-trained and sponsored opposition groups, whose cultivation began under Bush administration. The political opposition is headed up primarily by expatriates, Washington insiders, and pro-Western ideologues—most of whom have not actually resided in Syria for decades, and try to oversee the conflict from cushy hotels in Europe and the Gulf. Qaeda affiliates. While they represent a minority in terms of numbers of fighters, they are unequivocally the most effective and influential bloc of combatants in the theater. Accordingly, the Syrian people overwhelmingly, and correctly, view the opposition as largely exogenous. Direct intervention by America will only reinforce this narrative, further delegitimizing the “friendly” rebels America wants to empower—even as it helps al-Asad argue that his regime is Syria’s last line of defense against the imperialists at the gate.
The indigenous elements who have taken up arms against the government have little in common with those who were initially protesting (who, themselves, were not reflective of the broader population)—they are an extreme minority of an extreme minority. And they are nothing like the picture the Obama Administration is attempting to sell:
According to a New York Times report, there is no evidence of any secular or liberal fighting force anywhere in rebel-held Syria. According to a recent U.N. report, the overwhelming majority of the armed opposition is disinterested in, or even averse to, democracy and pluralism. And according to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dempsey, there is no chance that the extremely small and disorganized numbers of Western-friendly or compliant forces would be able to effectively seize, wield, or maintain power or legitimacy were Bashar al-Asad overthrown.
In fact, many of the rebel factions are not concerned about the fate of Syria, at all. While the media have focused extensively on the sectarian aspect of the conflict, there is probably a greater element of class warfare, with many militias occupied primarily with looting and otherwise taking vengeance upon Syria’s elites. Warlords have risen up and seized large swaths of territory for themselves; others have organized vast criminal enterprises smuggling people, resources, money, weapons, and even priceless artifacts across Syria’s borders. Others engage in kidnappings. A major source of infighting among rebels is access to the country’s oil reserves. Others are separatist groups, such as the Kurds, hoping to establish an autonomous zone independent of greater Syria. And then there are religious extremists who occupy themselves principally with purging Syria’s religious minorities or enforcing their interpretations of “sharia law” over rebel-held areas.
As most Syrians are opposed to the insurrection, they would certainly not welcome a U.S. strike which would empower and embolden these actors even as it weakens the ability of the government to combat them. In fact, the intervention is controversial even among the armed opposition. The U.S. justification for war is Orwellian: in the name of “democracy” they will undermine the will of the people, forcing upon them a revolution they do not want. In order to ”protect the Syrian people,” they will bomb them.
Make no mistake, despite all of the media bluster about the accuracy of U.S. cruise missiles, there will be a good deal of collateral damage. Thousands of civilians died in the Libya intervention—and that country is sparsely-populated and largely desert. Syria has thrice the population in a much smaller space. Each innocent life that is lost will only fuel the growing anti-American sentiment in the region, further energizing the momentum of al-Qaeda and its ideological brethren.
Not only is the intervention against the will and interests of the Syrian people, but also the citizens of America, Turkey, France and Britain—despite their respective governments’ commitment to the measure. The intervention is not just against the will of the people—it is unambiguously against their interests as well.
Justification #7: The Intervention Will be Limited in Scope and Duration
No one should believe the Obama Administration’s claims that military action in Syria will be “limited in scope and duration.”
The war resolution the president originally put before Congress was astonishingly open-ended—the Senate version paired this down a bit, but was still full of loopholes through which the President could expand the US campaign at will. Ironically, most of the proposals being circulated in Congress following the chemical weapons agreement confer much broader authority upon the president, should the bills’ ill-defined “triggers” be transgressed.
Regardless of what bill ultimately gets through the Congress, the U.S. has a long and consistent history of overstepping its war mandates, be they from Congress or the U.N. More broadly, military interventions almost always run much longer than predicted and cost much more in terms of lives and treasure; many secondary effects and blowback are virtually impossible to strategize for beforehand. To his credit, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dempsey, has been up front with this—asserting that regardless of Washington’s semantics, people need to understand that any attack on Syria would be an act of war, with all that entails. Moreover, virtually all options for military intervention carry a high risk of mission creep. For this reason, most US military planners have been profoundly averse to direct involvement in Syria (as have most rank-and-file soldiers).
In the Foreign Relations committee hearing, Secretary Kerry said it is important that the Senate resolution not “take it off the table” that U.S. ground forces could be deployed into Syria; the Pentagon is already preparing up to 20,000 troops for rapid entry into the theater. The Administration has asked the Pentagon to expand its list of military targets in Syria, even as Kerry described the impending strikes as “unbelievably small.” Unbelievable, indeed.
As currently structured, the Obama Administration’s strategy is clearly aimed at prolonging, rather than ending, the conflict within and around Syria. But it is important to note that, even if Bashar al-Asad is deposed, the civil war will not end—in fact, a collapse of the state would radically exacerbate the conflict. The bad actors previously described would not suddenly abandon their enterprises, disarm, and join hands in a chorus of kumbaya; instead, in the absence of a common enemy, even the more sincere rebel groups would almost certainly turn on one another, vying for power or influence in the aftermath. This is already a common and growing phenomenon in the ungoverned zones.
Unbeknownst to many, this is not the United States’ first disastrous incursion into Syria. During the Cold War, America also attempted to “bring democracy” to Damascus—the result was decades of war, rendering Syria one of the least-stable countries in the region, due primarily to US involvement in, and support of, a series of successive coups and insurrections (hoping in vain with each “transition” that someone they liked would come to power). Apparently, America has learned little in the intervening decades.
This period of instability was only ended with the rise of the Alawite regime: under Hafez al-Asad’s iron hand, Syria emerged as one of the safest and most stable countries in the region. Generations have grown up knowing only the Ba’athist legacy of secularism, pluralism and security—a legacy which is quickly being eroded by the current conflict. And it is not only Syria which may spin out of control as a result of this crisis:
The Lebanese Civil War persisted for decades and was only eventually contained as a result of an extended Syrian occupation, dubbed the Pax Syriana. Obviously, Damascus will be in no position to play this stabilizing role, should Lebanon again devolve into civil war as a result of the crisis in Syria—an outcome which looks increasingly plausible. Syria and Lebanon share a common history, and in many respects, a common destiny.
Iraq has also been struggling to overcome a decade of civil war brought about by the Bush Administration—and they are losing this fight as a result of the Syrian conflict, which threatens to tear the region apart along its ethnic, religious, and geopolitical faultlines. The rate of killings in Iraq is now approaching the worst period of the US occupation, and the country is on the verge of also descending back into a full-on civil war.
While each of these crises are individually and uniquely severe—collectively they threaten to engulf the entire region for generations—the consequences of which would be difficult to predict and nearly impossible to contain; the severity and scale of such a crisis would cause the world to reminisce fondly about the quagmires of the Bush presidency. There is no good outcome which could come from military action in Syria.
At the outset of the Syrian uprising, the U.S. calculation was that IF they could depose al-Asad and replace him with a compliant/friendly alternative, it would weaken Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas; it would strengthen Israel; it may even help push Iraq back to the “allied” column (since the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Iraq has grown increasingly close to Iran and Russia). It should be obvious by now that this fantasy will not be realized. Despite predictions by the White House for the last two years of al-Asad’s imminent demise, he has retained control over 11 out of Syria’s 12 provincial capitals throughout, and stands poised to altogether rebuff the insurrection.
At this point, even were the regime to precipitously fall, the outcome would be nothing like the US had hoped for—it would cast the entire region into chaos for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, it is time for the Administration to radically reconsider its goals and strategy in Syria, rather than doubling-down on the failed policies of the last two years.
Don’t believe the Obama Administration’s false dichotomy of a choice between military strikes and “doing nothing.” This is bullshit. We can all agree that the longer the crisis goes on, the more Syrian society will be brutalized, the more sectarianism, extremism, and lawlessness will become entrenched within the country and the broader region. We can all agree that US half-measures are unquestionably escalating and propagating the conflict rather than resolving it. We can all even likely agree on the need for international intervention into the conflict.
The primary decision lies in defining the aims and methods of intervention: should it be oriented towards peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in support of a negotiated settlement? Or should the intervention be military in nature, oriented towards particular geopolitical and security objectives (chief among them deposing Bashar al-Asad)?
Apologies for our false dichotomy: there is no real choice here if one values international law, the fate of Syria, or the will of the Syrian people. Lay down your arms, President Obama. Perhaps Pope Francis expressed it best:
“We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! …At this point I ask myself: is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”
En sha Allah.