Sunday, November 23, 2014

Syria and September 11

PARIS – By chance, it appears that the US Congress will decide on or around September 11 whether to endorse President Barack Obama’s proposal to respond militarily to the Syrian government’s use of poison gas against civilians. The shadow of two previous events that took place on September 11 looms over the outcome – indeed, over the fact that the question is even being considered at all.

Long before September 11 became a day of infamy in the United States, it acquired similar significance in Chile, where 40 years ago, on September 11, 1973, the armed forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the country’s democratically elected government. More than any other event of our era, that violent coup was responsible for launching both the contemporary global movement for human rights and the American movement to promote human rights internationally.

In part, this reflected the new regime’s cruelty. More than three thousand people were murdered or “disappeared” during Pinochet’s rule, thousands more were tortured by his forces, and tens of thousands were forcibly exiled. To an even greater extent, however, the motivation that spurred the human-rights movement was revulsion worldwide, including in the US, against American aid to Pinochet’s forces, a policy directed by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In the US, members of Congress turned the coup into a platform for efforts to promote human rights. They condemned developments in Chile, held hearings about the importance of promoting human rights, and adopted legislation – over President Gerald Ford’s veto – requiring that human-rights standards guide US foreign policy.

A slightly revised version of that legislation remains in force. Obama’s proclamation that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” – and his implicit threat to use force if that line were crossed – reflects the commitment that the US has made during the past four decades to promote human rights worldwide.

The events of September 11, 2001, are also playing a crucial role in deciding the question of a punitive strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One consequence of the terrorist attacks 12 years ago is that Americans and others in the West became aware that developments in the Middle East could affect their own safety and security.

Initially, the attacks unleashed a strong desire to retaliate, which later gave way to caution about intervention, owing to unforeseen consequences. In Britain, continuing intense resentment over the deceptions that led to the country’s engagement in the Iraq war seems to be the main reason for Parliament’s refusal to back a strike against Syria. Wariness of another Middle East war has also underpinned Obama’s unwillingness to go beyond a one-time punitive strike on Syria – with some in Congress opposed to even that.

Though Congress must guard against repeating its disastrous mistake in 2003, when it supported the war in Iraq, the commitment to promote human rights that the US made following September 11, 1973, seems a more appropriate standard for weighing Obama’s proposal for US military action in Syria. Maintaining the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons is an urgent concern.

The Assad regime’s culpability for using these weapons is not in doubt. If the US Congress deals with Obama’s proposal responsibly, and does not yield to those motivated by a partisan desire to embarrass him at every turn, it will enhance its own claim to recapture the constitutional power to authorize military conflict – a power that has been disregarded more often than not in the past half-century. A critical part of its role must be to consider with care the limits that should be placed on a punitive strike.

The war in Iraq was misconceived from the start, because it was an attempt to avenge the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by invading and occupying a country that had no part in them. Obama’s proposal to strike Syria, by contrast, is an attempt to enforce an important human-rights norm by directly punishing – through means that do not involve invasion and occupation – those who committed a gross violation. It restores human rights to the central place in American foreign policy set forth after September 11, 1973.

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    1. CommentedKrishnan Unni

      Is it just me or the media is keeping real evidence of Syria's use of chemical weapons a secret? What are these contributors knowing that we common people are not allowed to see?

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        Actually from all that I've seen reported, a reasonably clear picture emerges. It is one that indicates the wisdom of Putin's proposal for Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile would be the best approach--and perhaps legitimately acceptable to Assad (he's likely not to try shenanigans). With Obama carefully watching, but tentatively agreeing to the proposal, this may truly be a victory for at least mutually responsible type framework of global group decision making.

        1 - There were 300 to 1300 victims.

        2 - The cause of death was sarin was used (whether by choice or by legitimate necessity Assad escort only gave 90 minutes to the UN team, but it was enough time to identify sarin. More bodies examined wouldn't change that fact).

        3 - Israeli intelligence intercepts of Syrian communications indicate that weapons were used either by mistake by troops on the ground, or the decision of a low-level officer who left senior officers in an after-the-fact fact finding panic.

        [While Israel could have provided false information to the United States for their own interest concerning Syria, (a) it is a dangerous thing to due and would threaten the important general trust between US and Israeli intelligence services, (b) Israeli interests are probably ambivalent here--increasing the hegenomy of the Sunni Jihadists and the advantage of stability under Assad (better the devil you know), vs. weakening Hezbollah and Iran's projection of power against Israel, (c) Clear interest either way would be to ignore the intercept, or make it appear as approval from high-ranking Syrian officials. -- In short, everything points to the Israel report being accurate.]

        The implication is that Assad is at fault, but for negligence. It appears that given the flash point this represents for the West, and embarrassment to his and Iran's important ally, Russia, he would be unlikely to intentionally use the weapons save truly backed into a corner with nothing to lose, and all indications is that he is at worst in stalemate with the Rebels. Having so badly blown it here, it now might actually be in his best interests to agree to disposal to diffuse the clear and present danger to his regime's survival.

        CommentedZsolt Hermann

        I agree with you.
        Even this article says the regime's involvement is not in doubt.
        If they want to convince the world-wide community why not put those clear evidences on the table?
        But even more importantly, even if it is without doubt that Assad authorized the use of chemical attack past examples, past precedents do not help us here.
        Today the world is different.
        The US cannot decide or drive a punitive strike, or bully "allies" with their own self-interest in the matter into it.
        They do not have the credibility and the mandate doing so.
        They and other "big players" have to get used to the notion that we live in a global world, where as in any other integral system each cogwheel is equally important.
        Only a global, mutual agreement can have the credibility and mandate to deter further atrocities.
        If those "big players" swallowed their pride, stubbornness, and selfish calculations and sat down around a round table in order to truly solve this and other global problems threatening our future, if in this case they confronted Assad with a united declaration and ultimatum, there would be no military strike necessary, we could guarantee he would not use chemical weapons any more, there could even be an opening for a resolution for the civil war.
        We try to find all the excuses not to do the "hard work", to rise above inherent, instinctive hatred, rejection and start cooperating mutually.
        It will be difficult, it will be full of mini-explosions, arguments, we have no experience, precedent in such global cooperation "outside of self-interest for the sake of humanity in general.
        But we have no other option.
        In today's global, integral human system we are not making up the rules, there are rules we have to adapt to.