Saturday, November 29, 2014

Calling Off America’s Bombs

NEW YORK – As the US Congress considers whether to authorize American military intervention in Syria, its members should bear in mind a basic truth: While Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has repeatedly used extreme violence to retain power, the United States – and other governments in the Middle East and Europe – share responsibility for turning Syria into a killing field.

These governments, led by the US, have explicitly sought the violent overthrow of Assad. Without their involvement, Assad’s regime would most likely have remained repressive; with their involvement, Syria has become a site of mass death and destruction. More than 100,000 people have died, and many of the world’s cultural and archaeological treasures have been demolished.

Syria’s civil war has occurred in two phases. The first phase, roughly from January 2011 until March 2012, was largely an internal affair. When the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011, protests erupted in Syria as well. In addition to the usual grievances under a brutal regime, Syrians were reeling from a massive drought and soaring food prices.

The protests became a military rebellion when parts of the Syrian army broke with the regime and established the Free Syrian Army. Neighboring Turkey was probably the first outside country to support the rebellion on the ground, giving sanctuary to rebel forces along its border with Syria. Although the violence was escalating, the death toll was still in the thousands, not tens of thousands.

The second phase began when the US helped to organize a large group of countries to back the rebellion. At a meeting of foreign ministers in Istanbul on April 1, 2012, the US and other countries pledged active financial and logistical support for the Free Syrian Army. Most important, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared: “We think Assad must go.”

That open-ended statement, without any clear means to achieve the goal that it announced, has done much to fuel military escalation and the rising death toll in Syria, while pushing the US repeatedly to defend its “credibility” against a line in the sand that it should not have drawn.

Then and now, the US has claimed to speak in the interest of the Syrian people. This is very doubtful. The US views Syria mainly through the lens of Iran, seeking to depose Assad in order to deprive Iran’s leaders of an important ally in the region, one that borders Israel. The US-led effort in Syria is thus best understood as a proxy war with Iran – a cynical strategy that has contributed to the massive rise in violence.

The US government’s misguided move from potential mediator and problem solver to active backer of the Syrian insurrection was, predictably, a terrible mistake. It put the US in effective opposition to the United Nations peace initiative then being led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose approach was to call for a ceasefire followed by a negotiated political transition. The US preempted this process by backing the military rebellion and insisting on Assad’s immediate departure.

It is hard to understand this blunder. Even if the US ultimately sought to force Assad from office, its blunt action hardened Assad’s resistance, as well as that of his two allies in the UN Security Council, Russia and China. Aside from seeking to defend their own interests in the region, both countries understandably rejected the idea of US-led regime change in Syria. Russia argued that America’s insistence on Assad’s immediate departure was an impediment to peace. In this, Russia was right.

Indeed, Russia was playing a plausibly constructive role at the time, albeit one premised on Assad remaining in power for at least a transitional period, if not indefinitely. Russia sought a pragmatic approach that would protect its commercial interests in Syria and its naval base at the port of Tartus, while bringing an end to the bloodletting. The Russians openly backed Annan’s peace initiative. Yet, with the US and others financing the rebels, Russia (and Iran) supplied more – and more sophisticated – weapons to the regime.

Now, with the use of chemical weapons, probably by the Syrian government (and possibly by both sides), the US has again ratcheted up the stakes. Bypassing the UN once again, the US is declaring its intention to intervene directly by bombing Syria, ostensibly to deter the future use of chemical weapons.

America’s motivations are not entirely clear. Perhaps there is no underlying foreign-policy logic, but only carelessness. If there is a kind of logic, however weak, it seems to revolve around Iran and Israel, rather than Syria per se. There are many dictatorships in the world that the US does not try to overthrow. On the contrary, many of them are ostensibly America’s close allies. So why does the US continue to back a deadly rebellion in a civil war that is continuing to escalate dangerously, now to the point of chemical-weapons attacks?

To put it simply, President Barack Obama’s administration has inherited the neoconservative philosophy of regime change in the Middle East. The overriding idea is that the US and its close allies get to choose who governs in the region. Assad must go not because he is authoritarian, but because he is allied with Iran, which, from the perspective of the US, Israel, Turkey, and several Gulf countries, makes him a regional threat.

In fact, the US has probably been lured into serving these countries’ own narrower interests, whether it be Israel’s unconvincing vision of its own security or the Sunni countries’ opposition to Shia Iran. But, in the long term, US foreign policy divorced from international law cannot produce anything other than more war.

The US should reverse course. A direct US attack on Syria without UN backing is far more likely to inflame the region than it is to resolve the crisis there – a point well appreciated in the United Kingdom, where Parliament bucked the government by rejecting British participation in a military strike.

Instead, the US should provide evidence of the chemical attacks to the UN; call on the Security Council to condemn the perpetrators; and refer such violations to the International Criminal Court. Moreover, the Obama administration should try to work with Russia and China to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention. If the US fails in this, while acting diplomatically and transparently (without a unilateral attack), Russia and China would find themselves globally isolated on this important issue.

More broadly, the US should stop using countries like Syria as proxies against Iran. Withdrawal of US financial and logistical support for the rebellion, and calling on others to do the same, would not address Syria’s authoritarianism or resolve America’s issues with Iran, but it would stop or greatly reduce the large-scale killing and destruction in Syria itself.

It would also enable the UN peace process to resume, this time with the US and Russia working together to restrain violence, keep Al Qaeda at bay (a shared interest), and find a longer-term pragmatic solution to Syria’s deep domestic divisions. And the search for a US modus vivendi with Iran – where a new president suggests a change of course on foreign policy – could be revived.

It is time for the US to help stop the killing in Syria. That means abandoning the fantasy that it can or should determine who rules in the Middle East.

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    1. CommentedSamantha Fox

      Here's an article from an AP reporter who says Syrian rebels told him it was the rebels who released the dreaded chemicals. And, furthermore, that the Saudis were the ones who gave the rebels the gaseous goods in the first place:
      This is sectarian civil war.
      We've no business getting involved at all as it'll only make the vicious cycle even worse leading to more killing fields,
      Just like all other trouble spots (Afghanistan, Egypt, etc.) with many groups (Sunni, Shiite, Al-Queda, Christian, etc.etc.) all unable to live peacefully together, regardless which side you may want to support, the more you get involved, the worse it becomes with intensified violence/killing, regardless which side you may want to support, either one side or the other will blame you.
      The attitude of our leaders is clear: they don't care what the people think, they will be moving ahead with more spending on wars, continuing to worsen the deficit, in the end, only further weaken national finances.
      There're tons of domestic problems (unemployment, debt-ceiling, deficits, sequester, social problems.etc) that US must be focusing & we need all the limited resources to fix all these domestic problems.
      After the illegitimate war in Iraq, the American people are sick & tired of military action in these trouble spots.
      Many rebels are being radicalized by Al Qaeda and U.S. is being goaded into taking the moral high ground, and thereby doing someone else's dirty work
      Stay out of Syria, getting entangled in Syria is a BIG MISTAKE!

    2. CommentedStepan February

      The background is certainly helpful in assessing the situation. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of non-citizen deaths have never swayed any war planner one way or another. Nor shamed a politician.

      Messing up Syria is clearly in US national interests. Legitimacy would be a nice gift wrap, but Sam will take the gift anyway.

      The only thing that will delay or stop this is air and missile defense.

    3. CommentedMark Green

      1) Sachs is no more qualified than you or I to opine on this topic. Read his bio--his expertise is entirely in different areas.

      2) Whatever "responsibility the US and others may have for turning Syria into a killing field" is completely off-topic to this conversation.

      3) The man writes from the standpoint of pure fantasy. The US didn't try to overthrow Assad--Assad's people rose up after having seen the example of Arab Spring, and Assad reacted violently to try to put them back down. The US had absolutely no role in any of that.

      4) Sachs asserts that the US has had a policy goal of regime change, when that is flatly not the case and was explicitly refused as a goal by the President *yesterday*.

      5) Sachs suggests that the US has "used Syria as a proxy against Iran", when the US has had NO relationship with Syria for years, and Iran is Assad's closest ally after Russia.

      6) He also suggests that the "UN peace process" can be "restarted". The fact is that with Russia and China holding vetoes in the Security Council the UN is and will remain paralyzed. It is not even remotely possible that the UN can be a vehicle for resolving this conflict.

      7) Sachs refuses to address the actual issue, which is the use of chemical weapons. Hitting him is for that reason--not picking sides in the civil war, not trying to topple him. Just PUNISHING him for an egregious violation of an international proscription on usage of WMDs, by striking his facilities and, at best, his family and key supporters.

      Sachs simply doesn't not know what he is talking about. He can be--and should be--ignored.

        CommentedMurat ASLAN

        I agree with you and ı believe Sachs should not involve to politics!!!!

        He thinks there are many thinks to do but he does not know what happened at all!!!!

        Commentedm r

        Yes, yes and yes, but please replace US (the colony) with Israel (the masters) and the picture changes and fits perfectly.

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I fully agree with the writer.
      Continuing with previous, instinctive "knee-jerk" reactions will lead to the same result, destabilization, more bloodshed and humiliating retreat as it has been happening without exception in recent years.
      But most importantly in a globally interconnected and interdependent world there can be simply no unilateral action by even the "strongest" nation, or by a small group of nations as "allies".
      Such action in an integral system is destined to fail and cause more destruction by default.
      It is going to be a difficult process but all nations and individuals have to understand and learn that even the simplest problems can only be solved by "round table" discussions involving all those affected by the issue, starting from family level to global, international conflicts.
      Any other attempt loses credibility and destabilizes the interconnected and interdependent system.
      We still anchor ourselves in methods and tools that seemingly worked in a fragmented, isolated, polarized system with 2-3 powerful nations, when there existed developed or developing, friends and allies against enemies and foes.
      But such a world does not exist any longer.
      Individuals and nations will remain distinct and unique, but since they are all chained to each other in an integral system, like finding themselves on the same sinking ship in a heavy storm, they will have to learn to rise above the differences and start working together for a common purpose, goal, survival.

    5. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      The rise of unilateralism at the slightest hint of War and the waning of the same when Peace is about to return leaves a sobering thought about the agenda, hidden or otherwise. Overthrowing regimes, strengthening Opposition and escalating the conflicts in a region where there is not one but many countries who do not play ball, makes a striking case for self-righteousness, that which has left many scars; the world would be better off if less is focused in this region and political processes are left to function on their own, leaving the regions' people to decide their fate, whatever good or bad that it entails.

      Apart from prospects of business there are no other prospects, if at all, for those outside of the region.

    6. CommentedAyse Tezcan

      I don't believe there is an interest in finding any evidence about chemical attacks because that would risk of discovering the true origin of chemical weapons. The end is determined; only goal right now is to justify the means...

    7. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      Hi Jeffrey,

      Wonderful essay! I couldn't agree more...

      In fact, the only thing that I could possibly add to your fine piece is the words of Tony Benn, famous British statesman of the 20th century;

      "All war represents a failure of diplomacy." -- Tony Benn

      Instead of spending multi-trillions of dollars on war, why not spend a few billion on peace.

      Subsequent generations of North Americans, and people from other continents too, will thank us for it.

      As always, very best regards, JBS

    8. CommentedGunnar Eriksson

      Yes It has been hard to understand The Obama Administration's handling of many issues lately with international reach. I guess our problem is that we assumed that he would, finally, promote the interest of his country and maybe the world. It may have been our desire for such actions that tricked us.

    9. Commentedelham saeidinezhad

      Thanks Jeffery, I could not agree more. It reminds me of Benjamin Franklin quote :"There never was a good war or a bad peace."

    10. CommentedJohn Doe

      given his record, the mere fact that Sachs is against bombing is compelling argument for such, for he is always wrong

      attribute this editor who wrote headline as broken clock syndrome and move on