A U.S. strike on Syria won’t help Syrians

There’s a great deal of self-deception circulating the Internet and mainstream media with respect to President Obama’s (and now the U.S. Senate’s) intent to lash out against the regime of Bashar al-Assad—so much so, that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

One of the more popular contentions of the pro-war punditry, is to the effect that “the international community can no longer stand by and do nothing, while a madman gases his own people.” (Leave aside for now the fact that the Obama administration has yet to furnish conclusive evidence to this effect, and the inevitable comparisons to the debacle over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.) The armchair generals are anxious to see the U.S. respond forcefully to this travesty, to teach Assad and his regime a lesson. In more than a few dimensions, their arguments mirror the inane pronouncements of the American president himself, who has declared that a military strike on Syria would amount to a “shot across the bow,” demonstrating to Assad that the U.S. and its Western allies find the use of chemical weapons unacceptable.

Or do they?

Locals stand in the rubble of a house in Azaz, Syria. Image c/o Scott Bob, Voice of America News/wikimedia commons

Locals stand in the rubble of a house in Azaz, Syria. Image c/o Scott Bob, Voice of America News/wikimedia commons

No moral leg to stand on

As has been amply reported, there is no basis in international law for a U.S. military intervention in Syria. So the question before us is really a moral one. But based on its history and ongoing behaviour, the U.S. dearly lacks moral credibility.

Not only is the U.S. responsible for an unprecedented international assassination strategy in the form of the drone program, it has also employed chemical weapons against civilians on multiple distinct occasions in the last forty years: including in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where it doused the jungle in Agent Orange in the 1960s; and in Fallujah, Iraq, a city U.S. forces bombarded with white phosphorous and depleted uranium in 2004. The U.S. also provided intelligence to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, which Hussein used to target Iranian positions with lethal nerve agents, and subsidizes the genocidal Israeli and Egyptian militaries to the tune of billions of dollars each year.

Ulterior motives

When he announced that chemical weapons would form a “red line” for him, President Obama effectively painted himself into a corner: failure to respond to a chemical attack by the Assad regime would expose him to charges of weakness, or even cowardice, leveled by his detractors. But doesn’t the fuss over chemical weapons seem odd, given the number of Syrians—nearly 100,000—who had perished in the country’s civil/proxy war by the time of the recent chemical attacks? Why was Obama apparently unwilling to intervene militarily in the mass slaughter of Syrians with bullets, mortars, missiles and bombs, only to be roused into action by the regime’s alleged use of nerve agents?

Don’t be deceived by the holier-than-thou, humanitarian buzzwords of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry; the prospect of a U.S. attack on Syria has little to do with principle, or with helping the Syrian people, and much to do with political calculus. Obama has framed the debate in such a way that only two options exist—the U.S. can either “act” by striking the Assad regime’s military installations, or fail to act by refraining from a Syria strike. The latter option, the argument goes, would hearten rogue leaders like Assad to continue to flout international norms and laws prohibiting the use of chemical agents in warfare, and undermine America’s credibility. (Incidentally, Obama is less outspoken on the question of how a misguided military strike against Syria might affect America’s credibility.)

The former option is more virtuous, Obama and co. contend, since it involves taking action to punish an evildoer for his misdeeds. But the endgame, and how a strike may affect the outcome of Syria’s armed conflict, are less clear.

Moreover, Obama’s “red line” is itself a received idea. According to Alternative Information Centre economist Shir Hever, the notion is the brainchild of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is anxious to monger fear in his own country, where a political appetite has been growing for cutbacks to the expansive military budget in favour of enhanced social spending. What better counterweight than the threat of a gas attack on Israeli territory by Bashar al-Assad?

Likewise, the prospect of warfare is a major boon to defence contractors, whose lobbying presence in both Israeli and American politics is gargantuan. Not coincidentally, as Obama’s intention to attack Syria crystallized this week, the top seven defence contractors in the U.S. celebrated record stock prices.

As for the armchair hawks…

If you support Obama’s incoherent mission to lash out against the Assad regime, there are a couple of questions you ought to ask yourself.

First, what is the objective here?

Although Obama maintains that regime change in Syria is not the intent of his government’s policy, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Since last year, the U.S. (along with Canada and others) have been funnelling logistical and financial support to Syrian rebel groups, some of which are openly jihadist and/or extremist, others filled with elements from outside Syria’s borders. Saudi Arabia, a chameleonic U.S. ally, has been doing the same, and in some cases, has provided rebel groups with weapons. Russia and Iran are involved in the conflict, on the side of the Syrian regime. And, as infrastructure is destroyed and stability eroded through war, various religious and ethnic sects—including Alawites, Druze, Sunni and Shia—have become embroiled in struggles for their own survival.

Syria is not a state that formed organically, but rather a former French colony that, under the contemptible rule of Bashar al-Assad and his father, has nonetheless featured secularism and relative religious tolerance. If an armed rebel group eventually seizes control of the Syrian government, this may no longer be the case. And if the violence in Syria continues for an extended period of time, no religious or ethnic group in the country will be safe.

At this point, we must evaluate Obama’s planned strike on Syria by its probable consequences, and those include the loss of civilian life from the strikes themselves, a shift in the balance of power away from the Assad regime (which will likely sow the seeds of regime change, in spite of the president’s affirmations to the contrary), and the potential for an irate or even retributive response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia. In any event, there is not even a remote possibility that the violence in Syria will end as a result of a U.S. military strike. It also seems highly unlikely that the safety of Syrian civilians would improve as a consequence of U.S. military action.

There is only one remotely realistic way to bring peace and stability to Syria and save lives, and that is through the negotiation of a ceasefire between the various warring factions, and enforcement of that ceasefire under the auspices of the UN. There are also legions of Syrian refugees in need of humanitarian aid and a place to live, a situation to which the Swedish government has responded by offering permanent residency to Syrian asylum-seekers within its borders.

Displaced Syrians at a refugee camp in Lebanon. Image c/o Freedom House/flickr

Displaced Syrians at a refugee camp in Lebanon. Image c/o Freedom House/flickr

However, as long as Obama and his supporters omit these topics from consideration, the debate will continue to revolve around military action.

The second key question is, what is your real motive for supporting a U.S. strike on Syria?

At this point, you can’t claim that your backing of Obama’s strategy is about protecting civilians, because both the strikes themselves and their broader ramifications will only endanger civilian lives. If you’re especially disturbed by Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, why have you waited so long to demand action, after nearly two years of civilian slaughter by the regime and various rebel factions within the country? Is there genuinely a moral distinction between murder with chemical weapons and murder with bullets, explosives, drones, or even throat-slitting? If there is, I have to admit I don’t see it.

Is it possible that you would like to see the U.S. strike Syria because you feel badly about “sitting idly by” while a genocidal maniac somewhere deploys chemical weapons against his own people (as if that’s not what you would have done either way)?

Are you really interested in bettering the welfare and safety of the Syrian people? Or is it possible that your support of Obama’s planned attacks on Syria is really about assuaging your own personal guilt?