Saturday, May 11. 2013
A little over two years ago the "Arab Spring" pro-democracy movement broke out in Syria, a nation that nearly everyone agreed could benefit from more political freedom, seeing as how it's been ruled by the Assad family since the 1960s and by one military clique or another even further back. Similar dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly; struggles against the dictators of Yemen and Bahrein dragged out inconclusively; but in Libya and Syria demonstrators were met with violence and some fraction of the military establishment broke against the regime, plunging those nations into civil war. Demonstrations in Jordan faded quickly with a few token reforms. And nothing much happened in Saudi Arabia, probably the one nation in the region most in need of a democratic overhaul.
One prism into understanding how these movements played out is to map them against US influence in the region. US interests and actions in the Middle East have been schizophrenic since the late 1940s when US administrations found themselves not just allied but in love with two conflicting suitors: Israel, and Saudi-Arabian oil (although any oil would do, especially Iran's from 1953-79). One problem was that those paramours came with a lot of baggage: Israel was constantly at war with its Arab neighbors and its own [Palestinian] people, forging an elite militarist culture that thrives on conflict, foments hatred against everything Arab, and has turned most of world opinion against them -- the major exception America's own fundamentalist Christians and militarists. The Saudi ruling family, on the other hand, is joined at the hip to the most extremely reactionary Salafist Muslim clergy, and has spent billions of dollars attempting to export their religious orthodoxy throughout the Middle East and into Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it turned virulently anti-American. But America's true obsession was the Cold War, in service of which no tyrant or ideologue could be found too unsavory. The Israelis and Saudis became expert at camouflaging their own obsessions as anti-communist fervor, so the US could embrace them both.
But another facet of America's Cold War obsession was promotion of democracy, not so much for allies as for countries on the other (or no) side, but as a contrast to the "unfree" Soviet-style regimes. So when masses of people demand democracy, our natural tendency is to applaud. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt -- secure military allies with tired and unsavory leaders -- Obama had little reason to resist, so the US subtly nudged their power structure to go with the flow. In Yemen, one of Obama's favorite drone-shooting ranges, and Bahrein, with its Shiite majority possibly tilting toward Iran, the US was more reserved. But Libya and Syria were rarely US allies, and most of the "brains" behind US policy in the region -- especially the "neocons" -- have spent most of their careers bashing their leaders, so the US had no interests in maintaining them, but also no influence or leverage that could be used to democratize them. Consequently, the more the US leaned against them, the less then had to lose by suppressing their revolts violently. In hindsight, the best way the US could have helped to democratize those nations would have been to develop normal relations with them. (It is worth noting that the only Soviet bloc states that didn't democratize are the ones the US fought wars against, followed by long, grudge-filled periods of isolation: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba.)
As soon as Libya and Syria broke into civil war, the neocons -- most vociferously, Senators McCain and Graham, who never miss an opportunity to plunge us deeper into hell -- and their "liberal hawk" cronies started crying for the US to intervene. How anyone could think that inserting the US military into a conflict would save lives is beyond me. (The historical basis for that idea was probably the NATO intervention in Bosnia. After just two weeks of bombing, the Serbs accepted a ceasefire and signed the Dayton Accords ending a war between Serbia and Bosnia that had dragged on for more than two years. That intervention surely did save lives, at least if you don't factor in the subsequent Kosovo War, which was made all the more likely by the expectation that NATO would again intervene against Serbia -- as it did.) But you can't judge interventions by simply balancing deaths on one side versus the other. US intervention means that people who wouldn't have been killed otherwise are now being killed by the US -- a fact that won't be easily rationalized by the people the US attacked.
Obama did finally agree to intervene in Libya, but only after France and the UK had committed to do so. US firepower quickly degraded Libya's military power, and the civil war turned against Gaddafi, ending after about three months. Obama was careful not to land US troops, or to put the US into a position where the US would have any responsibility for postwar administration and reconstruction. Nonetheless, last September a group of Islamic jihadists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi -- the center of the anti-Gaddafi resistance, presumably the most grateful city for the US intervention -- killing four Americans, the sort of blowback that should always be expected. The Benghazi attack has since become a cause celebre for the Republicans, who have gone so far as to argue that Obama should be impeached for his "cover up" of the attack. (As far as I can tell, that "cover up" consisted of nothing more than Susan Rice making some erroneous statements the day after, confusing the violent attack in Benghazi with non-violent anti-American protests elsewhere. I would write more about this if I could make any sense out of it, but I can't. The one thing I can say is that attacking Obama for something bad happening after he intervened in Libya isn't likely to be the most effective way to convince him to intervene in Syria, where the number of bad things that can happen is much greater.)
Dexter Filkins has a long article, The Thin Red Line, on Syria, the pressures put on Obama to intervene there, and some of the risks. Filkins is one of those reporters for whom war is just business -- booming, as his book, The Forever War, shows. He recounts much of what I wrote above on Yugoslavia and Libya, while only glancingly mentioning less "successful" US interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan. The title refers to Obama's casual warning to Assad that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" leading to US intervention. ("Red lines" have been much in the news lately, especially regarding Iran's "nuclear program" -- what degree of offense would "justify" Israel and/or the US to preemptively attack Iran.) Consequently, advocates of going to war with Syria are scouring the data for any evidence of poison gas use, under the theory that having drawn a red line there, Obama will have no choice but to intervene -- the entire credibility of the US is put at stake by Obama's careless use of jargon.
The Syrian Civil War has resulted in, to pick two recent estimates, between 70 and 120 thousand deaths, with more than a million refugees, and many more internally displaced. Those are substantial numbers, even if they are still less than the death-and-refugee toll of the Civil War in Iraq that was triggered and abetted by the US invasion and occupation. (At least no one was so stupid as to urge anyone to intervene to "save lives" in Iraq. Of course, enforcing a "no fly" zone against the US would have been difficult, but we are talking about genocide here, something the world has committed to tolerate "never again.")
Filkins reports on three options for US intervention: establishing a "no fly" zone; arming the rebels; and somehow securing Syria's chemical weapon sites. The "no fly" zone is regarded as more difficult than it was in Libya because Syria has more sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, although they don't seem to cause Israel much trouble. The bigger problem is that in itself it's unlikely to have much effect -- e.g., on artillery and missiles. One suggestion is to use the "Patriot anti-missile system" to intercept Syrian SCUD missiles. (Is this the source of the adage that "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels"?) So it's very likely that a "no fly" zone will be a stepping stone to deeper involvement, as indeed it was in Libya.
Arming the rebels is relatively easy to do, and is already being done by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and possibly others. However, this gets real tricky real fast. There are multiple groups of rebels, and some of them are friendlier to the US than others, and the last thing you want is to send arms to Al-Qaeda-types in Syria -- which are a formidable part of the resistance -- who might wind up using the arms against American targets, so you want to pick and choose who gets what, but in doing so you're not only arming the rebels against Syria, you're arming them against each other. And while you might argue that a "no fly" zone is a neutral way to level the battlefield, arming select groups of the rebels ends any pretense at neutrality or disinterest. You now have a "dog in the fight": which is not only bad news for Assad, it's a challenge for anyone who is wary of American power in the region -- a short list which includes Iran and Russia, even before this revolt provided Syria with arms. The result is surely an arms race, escalating even further the level of violence.
Arming the rebels also means forgoing the alternative, which is to negotiate an arms embargo with Syria's suppliers, and enforce comparable limits on the rebels' suppliers. The desired effect would be to let the conflict degrade into a stalemate, which would give both sides reason to negotiate a power-sharing agreement and move toward a democratic scheme which protects interests allied with both sides. If the US goes in and arms the rebels, that option disappears. The rebels become more convinced in their eventual triumph, cementing their resolve to fight on. From that point the only way to long-term suffering is to shorten the war by increasing the rebels' firepower and leverage, which not only helps them defeat Assad, it also allows them to more completely dominate the social, ethnic, and tribal groups that had favored Assad. And it also makes more likely an internecine war between rebel groups -- as happened when the Russians finally quit Afghanistan.
Even Filkins admits that the third option -- securing Syria's chemical weapons -- is a fool's errand. Nobody knows how many sites there are, how many munitions there are, where they all are, or much of anything else about them. What you really need is a UN disarmament team to set up camp in Syria and track them all down, but for that to happen you have to stop the shooting, in which case you might as well solve the conflict. As for the US doing it directly, Filkins reports an estimate that it would take 75,000 troops: the basic scheme there is to conquer the country, then look for the illicit weapons -- for lessons on how this "works," see Iraq. Even if you could magically wipe the country clean of chemical weapons, it's unlikely that the conflit would be less deadly. They wind up being nothing more than a side-thought: a problem people should have thought of before starting a war that makes their use much more likely.
Obama has managed to frustrate virtually every side in the conflict. He never offered any pretense of neutrality, and has gone out of his way to offend Assad backers from Iran to Hezbollah. He's had better relations with Russia, but not much. Saudi and Qatari arms shipments inevitably smell of US approval, as does Israel's recent bombings of Syria -- one thing the latter does is to test Syria's air defenses, useful research for that "no fly" zone. The CIA is reportedly on the ground in Syria, feeding intelligence info to the rebels. On the other hand, it's hard to tell who's "winning" the war, and nothing Obama has done is likely to tilt the balance, so he's not winning points with the neocon crowd -- nor should he, given the way they've lashed out at him over Libya, which he finessed about as elegantly as any American president could.
As far as I'm concerned, Assad's extremely violent counterrevolt is inexcusable, ensuring his future as an international pariah. However, the more I read of the rebels, the less sympathetic I am to them, and the more I fear their possible triumph. Andrew Bacevich makes an interesting point:
If Assad falls, either democratically or by arms, the successor state will very probably be more conservative, more devoutly Islamist, and very likely more aggressively anti-American and anti-Israel -- in other words, it will be a state that most Americans who reflexively clamored for Assad's ouster will find disappointing. And as such it will ratchet America's frustration with the region even deeper. It will also be a war-torn wreck, with few prospects of reconstruction any time soon. Barring US occupation, it is unlikely to become as corrupt as Iraq or Afghanistan, but like those two disaster areas, its people has already fragmented into many conflicting identities, which will continue to tear at the social fabric even after the war ends. Moreover, as far as the US is concerned, Syria will always be on the wrong side of Israel, and for that matter the wrong side of Lebanon, and if those features fade it will revert to no meaning at all. The only reason McCain and Graham and their ilk care at all about Syria is that they smell war there, and they see in every war an opportunity for the US to assert its omnipotence.
I too see war in Syria as a test for the US, and especially as a test for Obama: the test is whether we can finally see clear to stay out of a conflict where in the long run we can only hurt ourselves. The US is so infatuated with itself that it is a sucker for the likes of McCain and Graham, and Obama has repeatedly allowed himself to be seduced by American power -- partly, no doubt, because the Republicans so delight in trash talking to him, taunting him as an apologist, impugning him for every irresolute doubt. Obama once said that he wants to change how America thinks about war, but he seems unable to even change how he himself thinks. Syria is a test of his ability to pit sanity against jargon, for rarely has a course of action -- intervention -- loomed so temptingly yet been so clearly fraught with folly.