Syria: the threats, costs, claims and lives

What the civil war in Syria has exposed is that the massive political and social transformation, and real regime change under way is led by people themselves. US military involvement serves only to escalate the destruction.

Politically-driven demands for direct US intervention in Syria – more arms to the rebels, establishing a 'no-fly' zone, creating a safe area somewhere – have been flying around for months. So far, President Obama and the Pentagon leadership have resisted the political pressure. But Obama’s resistance has been weak and cautious; we don’t have enough evidence yet, it’s not clear the red line has been crossed. The clear implication is that if there is more evidence, if some claimed red line is crossed, then all bets are off – and in today’s diplo-speak, “all options are on the table.”

Now, allegations of chemical weapons being used in Syria and Israeli airstrikes against Syrian military targets have given rise to a whole escalating campaign for direct US military intervention. And it’s getting very dangerous.

Neo-Con redux

Most, though not all, of the calls for intervention come from the same people who led the calls for invading Iraq: neo-cons and other hard-line militarists, pundits and Congressmembers, mainly Republicans but plenty of Democrats too, including the 'humanitarian hawks', those who never saw a human rights crisis that didn’t require US military involvement to solve. It’s not a coincidence that many of the loudest voices – people like Republican Senator and defeated presidential contender John McCain and others – have been calling for direct intervention and regime change for more than two years now, starting way before any allegations of chemical weapons ever surfaced.

Making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows last week in the midst of the 'chemical weapons' hysteria, McCain’s call for escalating US intervention in Syria was that Obama needs to do “what we've been demanding for more than two years.” It was actually a fascinating acknowledgement that McCain's concern isn't with any alleged chemical weapons use – it's the same regime change he's been demanding since Syria's edition of the Arab Spring erupted more than two years ago, when no such chemical weapons allegations were on the table.

But the bi-partisan support for militarism remains. At least as far back as President Johnson in the 1960s, too many liberal Democrats believed they could only advance a domestic social agenda of civil rights, health care, education, etc., if they were prepared to out-macho the Republicans. They reversed the lesson Martin Luther King taught us, of the need to link civil rights to the struggle for peace if either is to have any chance. And what we’ve seen instead is a pattern of Democrats in government who still act on the belief that a hawkish, militarized foreign policy is necessary to advance any social policy that benefits anyone beyond the 1%.

The cost

The drumbeat is spreading. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller, reprising his 2003 “reluctant” support for the Iraq war, once again supports US armed intervention in Syria. Why will this time be better? Well this time, unlike Iraq ten years ago, Syria represents a “genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region."

Guess he hasn’t looked very carefully at Iraq today. His point about what happens if Syria collapses is true (despite his leaving out the far more dire impact on the Syrian people), but he ignores the crucial point that his description of a future failed Syria if we don’t intervene, matches precisely what exists today in Iraq – as a direct result of US intervention. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the exploding Sunni-Shi’a violence across Iraq and over the borders into Syria among other places; today’s post-intervention Iraq is precisely what Keller warns of if the US doesn’t join the Syrian civil war. He didn’t look at Lebanon, where the already-shaky confessional system French colonialists imposed in the 1930s is under renewed strain from the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into the country, as well as the political-military pressure of the Syrian civil war itself. He didn’t look at Jordan, where more than 500,000 Syrian refugees have stretched the country’s social fabric to a near-breaking point.

Oh yeah, as to his abject years-later apology for getting it wrong on Iraq, a mistake he recently called “humbling?" Not to worry – he’s figured it all out. This time will be different, because “getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.” For Keller, and for too many like him, it seems that “getting over Iraq” is today’s equivalent of the Iraq-era “getting over Vietnam.”

It is important to recognize one of the key differences between this drumbeat for war and that of the pre-Iraq period in 2002-03: unlike the years of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith, the most important war hawks are not occupying the White House and the top echelons of the Pentagon. While not enough – Obama’s resistance to the calls for war is dangerously weak – the administration’s position is a far cry from echoing those calls for war. The Vice-President, Secretaries of State and Defense, none of them are pushing for war. And in the Pentagon, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described himself as “cautious” regarding greater US military intervention in Syria, because of explicit “doubts that it would halt the violence or achieve political reconciliation.” That’s all important – even though so far the proponents of a new US war in the Middle East have shown far more energy and intensity than its opponents. That’s what has to change.

The failure of militarism

What neither side of the Washington debate have considered, however, is that the overall escalating crisis in the Middle East is taking place in the context of the significant decline of US power and influence. With US economic and diplomatic power reduced, military force remains the one arena in which the US is the indisputable champ. The $800 billion annual US military budget has become largely irrelevant in determining history. The US-NATO campaign in Libya was partly, though not entirely, an attempt to remilitarize problem-solving in the region and thus re-legitimize US centrality. But it failed.

What the civil war in Syria and the Arab spring have exposed is that the massive political and social transformation and real regime change underway is led by people themselves – largely without military force and certainly with no role for the US. US military involvement serves only to escalate the destruction, while distracting from other failures. The people on the ground engaged in those political struggles don’t want US military intervention; the only ones who benefit are the arms manufacturers whose CEOs and shareholders continue to reap billions of blood dollars in profit.

War hurts civilians, but US wars hurt and kill civilians far from the US – so consequences remain far from US public consciousness. The problem for US policymakers is that an arms embargo also hurts their key campaign contributors: the arms dealers. The US remains the largest arms exporter in the world; can anyone doubt that sending US arms to one side of Syria’s civil war (even, or especially, if it extends the war) helps justify things like the pending $10 billion arms deal to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Or that instability in Syria, whatever its cause, can only help reinforce calls for increasing the existing $30 billion ten-year commitment of US military aid to Israel? No wonder the international Arms Trade Treaty – not to mention any potential for global gun control – remain far from the top of the agenda in Washington.

Chemical weapons?

Let's start with the 'even if' argument. Use of chemical weapons is illegal; there are separate international laws prohibiting such weapons, and any use, by any side, is undoubtedly a war crime. But how would escalating the civil war with more arms to the opposition side, or creation of a Libya-style US or US-NATO no-fly zone, prevent any further use of chemical weapons – inherently something as easily hidden in a civilian garage as in a military storage facility? It would not; it would only insure that more Syrians would die and be forced from their homes.

As it was in Libya, creation of a no-fly zone is widely understood as a step towards regime change. According to Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense during the US intervention in Libya, the first act in imposing a no-fly zone is an extensive bombing campaign – an act of war. This time around, that would mean bombing Syria, to destroy its sophisticated anti-aircraft system. How many civilians would die in that bombardment, given the widespread presence of anti-aircraft facilities across the country, including in populated areas?

We should also note that Israel’s ability to send bombers to attack several discrete sites in Syria, apparently from the skies above Lebanon, has little relation to the consequences of flying the dozens of US sorties flown directly into Syrian airspace that would be needed to neutralize the entire strategic Syrian anti-aircraft system. Drones won't be enough for this one. So when the first US bomber pilot is shot down, and special forces are sent in to rescue him, what happens to the 'no boots on the ground' rule? Ignore it because the special forces guys wear sneakers instead of boots? Do we really want to claim that killing more Syrians with conventional bombs, to prevent the future possible use of alleged chemical weapons, is somehow a legitimate 'humanitarian' effort?

Second, we should note that even the US government officials themselves acknowledge they don't have specific enough evidence chemical weapons were used at all. And even if they were (which is certainly a possibility), they appear to have no evidence of who used them. Reports from UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte point to use by the rebel forces, not the regime. Footage circulating on the Internet shows several ill people whose symptoms appear to include dilated pupils and a bit of foaming from their mouths, but no evidence of who and where they are, when or where they were injured or got sick. A Syrian doctor who treated them tells al-Jazeera that since they showed no sign of bombing or other trauma, no broken limbs or shrapnel, than it must be chemical weapons – but he provides no evidence of why it could not be one or more of the variety of other diseases and poisons (including several common fertilizers) that a quick Internet search indicates can cause those same symptoms. In a hugely complicated civil war, where the fighters on one side include many defectors and weapons from the other side, that means there's simply no definitive evidence of what side, if any, may have used chemical weapons at all. 

That's an awful lot of "no evidence" on which to base a new threat of a massive military escalation. And of course, it sounds way too familiar. Who among us has forgotten the certainty of George Bush's lying claims of WMDs in Iraq – yellowcake uranium from Niger, aluminum tubes from China, and of course the ubiquitous Curveball, the source of all that secret information…?

Third, the chemical weapons issue is being used very much as a partisan issue. For neo-conservatives and Republicans there is little downside to supporting unlimited militarism: if Obama and the Democrats resist using military force, they are deemed weak on national security. If they do use force, Obama and the Democrats will be blamed for the inevitable disasters that follow [see Benghazi…]. Certainly there are Democratic hawks, including supporters of so-called “humanitarian intervention,” who never saw a human rights crisis that didn’t need a military response, crying for greater US military involvement. But it's also being used for Republican attacks on Obama. Republicans remain far more supportive of many of Obama’s war policies – his troop surge in Afghanistan, the Libya attack (despite the claimed outrage over Benghazi), the escalating drone war and more – than most Democrats. So they are all too eager to use the current Syria crisis to portray the president as soft on “terrorism,” unwilling to enforce his own “red lines,” and overall insufficient as commander-in-chief.

Finally, the presence or even use of chemical weapons does nothing to change the fundamental illegality of any US military escalation. The fact that use of those weapons represents a violation of international law does not legitimize any military action by an outside party. The international laws of war have not changed – the only two ways a military attack by one country against another can be legal is in response to a UN Security Council authorization, which does not exist, or in the case of immediate self-defense. And there is no way even the most hawkish warmongers among the pundits or the Congress can claim that an unconfirmed small-scale use of an illegal weapon against a few Syrians somehow represents an immediate national threat to the United States. Any US attack – with or without a Congressional mandate (which unfortunately would be all too likely forthcoming if requested) – would still be a violation of international law. 

Israel enters the fray

And right now there’s the new question of Israel’s recent attacks on Syria. The rationale for those missile strikes, reported to have killed scores of people including both civilians and high-level Syrian military officers, remains opaque. Ordinarily, the assumption would be that Israel is striking Hezbollah, the key ally of its sworn enemy Iran, in the interest of both weakening Iran and ratcheting up pressure on Washington to escalate military involvement against Syria. The distinction this time is that while Tel Aviv’s focus may well have been on Iran and Hezbollah, the impact of its attack on Syria’s civil war doesn’t serve Israeli interests. Israel has not been leading the charge against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, nor urging the US or others to escalate their involvement in Syria for the simple reason that Assad’s regime, like that of his father from 1970 till 2000, has been very helpful to Israel. Despite all the puffed up rhetoric about Syria as part of a regional 'axis of resistance', the Assad family has largely kept the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights pacified, the border quiet, and the Palestinians in Syria under their control. Instances of cross-border violence were short-lived and rare.

It should not be forgotten that the Assad regimes have also been very useful to the United States. In 1991 Hafez al-Assad sent his air force to join Bush Senior’s Operation Desert Storm attack on Iraq. By 2002 Bashar al-Assad was a partner in Bush Junior’s “extraordinary rendition” program of the global war on terror – accepting prisoners from the US, including Canadian Maher Arar, for interrogation and torture at the hands of Syria’s feared security police.

The great Israeli journalist Gideon Levy described the Israeli attacks on Syria in Ha’aretz:

The truth is, this is just a pilot run. Israel is prodding U.S. President Barack Obama, catching him in his use of the words ‘red line,’ challenging and provoking him to reach the real thing: bombing Iran. Israel wants to reveal the president's nakedness on the Syrian matter in order to present him as naked on the Iranian issue. Perhaps he won't bomb Syria, as Israel requested; the key thing is that he should bomb Iran. This policy of manipulating the American president, at the expense of Syrians' blood, perhaps will pan out in the short run. But it will also make Israel even more loathed in Washington.

The real purpose, as well as the outcome of Israel’s strikes remains uncertain. But whatever the goal, what remains clear is their complete illegality. As is the case with Israel’s nuclear arsenal, unacknowledged by Israel but universally documented outside Washington and Tel Aviv, the Israeli attacks on at least three sites in Syria have neither legitimacy nor legality and must be condemned. No international law allows preventive attacks (these were not even the legally-ambiguous preemptive strikes), not even when they are carried out by Washington’s most-favored ally. Again it’s the 'even if' rule: Even if one of the targets was indeed a shipment of missiles heading for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel still has no legal right to attack Syria.

The silence of not only the US (where it is expected) but in Europe, in capitals in the global South and in the United Nations in response to the Israeli bombing represents the serious problem of double standards in the application of international law. That means global apartheid in foreign policy: not only in the distinction between how poor people’s weapons (suicide attacks, chemical weapons, close-up and personal killing with guns….) and rich countries’ weapons (nuclear arsenals, cruise missiles, drones, B-52 bombing…) are responded to, but in the broader dualism of good/bad violence. It’s the acceptable, perhaps regrettable but necessary violence of the cowboy, the colonizer, the conquistador, the rich, in the form of the US, NATO, Israel, versus the unacceptable, inherently evil violence of the Indians, the colonized, the occupied, the poor.

What if, just for another example, Syria decided it had had enough of Jordan allowing Saudi and Qatari weapons to transit its territory en route to Syrian rebels, and Syria took preventive action by bombing Jordanian military targets near Amman? What if dozens of Jordanian civilians and military officers were killed by Syrian bombs – and what if those killed included some of the 200 or so CIA officers now training Syrian rebels in Jordan? Would the US government simply acknowledge Syria’s right to prevent its enemies from getting arms? Would the United Nations secretary general confine himself to an expression of “concern” and urge “all sides” to be calm?

The Israeli airstrikes ultimately raise the political pressure on President Obama; they don’t change the situation on the ground or change the illegality of any US military attack on Syria.

(And note, this is all besides the hot-button question of just who these armed rebels really are, anyway…)

So what should the US do?

The first thing is to de-escalate the fighting – to staunch the horrific bloodletting that Syria’s civil war is creating for the Syrian people. Initially, that means stopping the arms shipments to all sides. That means negotiating directly with Russia, on a quid pro quo agreement to stop US and allied training and arms shipments to the rebels, in return for an end to Russian and allied arms shipments to the Syrian government.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent Moscow meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the follow-up diplomacy underway hold out a small bit of optimism. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a joint commitment to “undertake an obligation to use the possibilities that the US and Russia have to bring both the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table.” The first move was a Russian-US call for an international conference with the Syrian government and the opposition. So far, there is no indication that either the US or Russia are prepared make any concession towards pulling back from military support of their respective Syrian sides – but renewed calls for such a conference could be an important start. We should also push to insure that negotiations look carefully at what the economic incentives and pressures are for each of the players as part of seeking non-military approaches to move forward.

The US should also take more responsibility for funding the huge cost of caring for the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced. The UN’s humanitarian funding appeals for Syria remain seriously under-resourced– yet Washington’s “humanitarians” continue to debate only military action. A new US policy would include full funding for all United Nations agencies’ appeals, as well as a campaign of diplomatic pressure on all sides to honor international obligations to protect non-combatants.

And instead of debating between a no-fly zone and bombing Syrian weapons depots, or which factions to arm, why not consider deployment of an international human rights observer force? Even without a peace to keep or enforce, a thoroughly international observer team sent under UN auspices (who would have to volunteer as individuals for an extraordinarily risky assignment) might serve to deter some of the worst attacks on all sides.

The US should also support a broad UN mandate for a truly internationally credible inspection team authorized and empowered to investigate all claims of chemical weapons use, by any side in the conflict. The White House cavalierly dismissed del Ponte’s report that her UN team found potential chemical use by the rebel side, not the Syrian regime. But any serious UN investigation must be based on a mandate to identify all violations by all sides. (Perpetrators of any violations of the chemical weapons convention must be held accountable, but the timing of achieving such justice may have to wait for an end to the fighting.)

With an arms embargo and chemical weapons investigation in place, the parties on the ground and their regional and international backers must begin serious negotiations to end the whole set of wars (national, regional, sectarian, global) now being waged in Syria, and to resolve the conflict on a political basis. Those negotiations will have to include the government of Syria, the armed rebels, and the still-struggling non-violent democratic opposition movement that first launched the Syrian spring more than two years ago. To bring the sides to the table, their strategic backers will have to be involved as well – Iran and Russia, and the US, France and Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will all have to play a role to push their recalcitrant allies to negotiate. The United Nations will have to take the diplomatic lead. And problematic as it is in so many ways, the Arab League will probably need to be involved as well, though perhaps in the form of individual member states of the Arab League participating separately. 

To have any hope of long-term viability, those negotiations must be grounded in the broader effort towards creation of a WMD-free zone throughout the Middle East. Once and for all the UN goal articulated back in 1991 must finally be implemented. When the Security Council passed resolution 687 that year to end the first Gulf War, Article 14 called for “establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons.” No exceptions. That means Israel's unacknowledged arsenal of 200-400 high-density nuclear bombs in its Dimona plant would have to be brought under international supervision and destroyed. It means neither Iran nor anyone else in the region would ever be able to create a nuclear weapon any time in the future. And it means all the existing chemical and biological stockpiles – the poor countries' WMDs – would be identified and destroyed. The US drafted and supported that resolution 22 years ago. It's time Washington moved to implement it.

Conflict oil?

Finally, there should be consideration in the UN – and especially among civil society organizations around the world – of the need to create an international 'conflict oil' regime similar to the work on conflict diamonds, conflict minerals, etc. While continuing to oppose the broad economic and oil sanctions imposed by the US and its allies that have so undermined diplomatic potential and harmed civilian populations in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, international civil society can shape campaigns with Syrian and regional civil society to challenge the use of oil resources as a fuel for conflict and war.

That's the context within which a Syrian arms embargo would really begin to mean something. None of this will be easy. But proposing military escalation as a response to fuzzy, uncertain allegations of chemical weapons, or imposing a no-fly zone because Israel attacked Syria, let alone threatening military force to overthrow a regime, is a far too dangerous road. We've been there before. President Obama needs to get out in front and say “We will not allow ourselves to be bamboozled into war again by unproven claims of WMDs. We will not allow supporters of regime change to hide their intentions in the anodyne language of ‘humanitarianism.’ We have learned the lessons of our dumb war in Iraq. We will not go to war.” But so far, he refuses to say anything so definitive.

That puts the obligation squarely on our shoulders. As we’ve seen with the rising power of global and US civil society movements to use boycotts, divestment and sanctions to end Israel’s violations of international law and human rights, we must take responsibility as people to raise the political costs of a new war in the Middle East so high, that it stays off the table for good.

About the author

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terror.