Friday, June 14, 2013

Making War on Syria

By Reginald Johnson

In a sickening reminder of what happened during the lead-up to the Iraq War, reporters and members of Congress are failing to ask the tough questions about why the U.S. is getting involved in the Syrian conflict.

The administration of President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the U.S. is planning on sending military weapons to the opposition forces fighting a bloody civil war against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

The administration claims that it has determined that Syria used chemical weapons against the “rebel” forces, and crossed a “red line” which the U.S. finds unacceptable.

“The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, as reported in The Washington Post. Rhodes said U.S. intelligence had determined with “high certainty” that Syrian government forces have “used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”

Intelligence agencies estimate that 100 to 150 people have died as a result of chemical weapons use, he said.

Soon after the administration announcement, members of Congress from both political parties rushed to show support for the decision to send arms, and even push for bolder action.

”The U.S. should move swiftly to shift the balance on the ground in Syria by considering grounding the Syrian air force with stand-off weapons and protecting a safe zone in northern Syria with Patriot missiles in Turkey,” said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa. as quoted in the Post.

Media coverage has been soft, with reporters steering away from asking uncomfortable questions of the administration about links between the rebels and al-Qaeda and the illegality of sending arms to opposition forces.

So the bandwagon has started rolling towards another war for the U.S.  First we’re sending military aid, then possibly impose a no-fly zone, and then who knows? Boots on the ground? The thought of another war in the Middle East involving American forces is mind numbing, after the utter disaster of Iraq. And a war in Syria could quickly get much larger, involving Iran and Russia on one side and America, Britain, France and Israel on the other side. Scary.

We better start asking questions and demand good answers, before this gets out of hand.

Question Number 1: Just who is the opposition in Syria and why should we side with them? Are they simply “freedom-loving rebels” (as Ronald Reagan once called the drug-running contra fighters in Nicaragua) who just want the Syrian people to be free of the dictator Assad? Or are they something else, not so glorious?

The truth is that the opposition forces today are dominated by two groups --- a faction called al-Nusra which is openly affiliated with al-Qaeda, and Islamic-Sunni extremists. In the beginning of the Syrian revolt, there were genuine independence fighters, trying to free the country of the despotic Assad. But those people are no longer in the forefront of the opposition. Al Nusra and the Sunni extremists are.

Al-Qaeda is supposedly our sworn enemy. They caused 911, according to the official account. Why would we send arms to a coalition that includes an al-Qaeda affiliated group, as well as other Islamic fundamentalists?

Moreover, UN investigators on a commission of inquiry have said that while it appears chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict, it’s not clear by whom. It may be that both sides have used sarin gas. In fact, one member of the UN commission of inquiry on Syria said in May, prior to the full commission report, she believed the rebels had used sarin gas.

I’d like to know why it is that American intelligence can be so categorical in saying that the government used poison gas, while a UN team has said it’s an open question? It brings to mind former CIA Director George Tenet’s famous line about whether there was enough evidence to prove there were WMDs in Iraq --- “it’s a slam dunk.” Of course WMDs were ultimately never found, but we had already gone to war anyway.

Speaking of the UN, this brings up Question Number 2. Doesn’t the UN Charter, a treaty which the U.S. signed and is bound by, prohibit one country from making war on another country, unless it is acting in self-defense or have Security Council authorization? The answer is, yes, it does. We will be breaking international law by sending military aid to a group trying to overthrow a foreign government. It won’t make it any more legal if the aid is filtered through allies like Turkey, or done in conjunction with NATO allies like Britain and France (former colonial powers in the Middle East). We will be war criminals.

If the U.S. is so concerned about the oppression of the Assad regime over the Syrian people, and the government’s use of chemical weapons, then America should take its case to the United Nations. The U.S. should lay out the crimes of the Assad regime, and argue for collective action to remove him. Even if one assumes Russia would veto any UN move, couldn’t we make a very powerful case? Wouldn’t we at least shame the Assad regime, and possibly trigger some changes?

But making that case would rest on proving Assad’s crimes, his use of chemical weapons and atrocities committed by his military. There’s a lot of evidence of all that, but there’s also evidence of war crimes by the opposition, so the picture gets complicated. It becomes a situation of ‘a plague on both houses.’

Finally, reporters need to ask, is the U.S. intervening because it is really worried about Iran? Are we trying to install a friendly regime in Damascus, to take away a key ally of Iran and ultimately topple the Iranian regime as well? And why are we so worried about Iran? Is it really because of their alleged nuclear bomb-making program (there’s no verification of such a program yet) or is it because, like Iraq, Iran holds such a large supply of oil?

I’m hoping that reporters and members of Congress will start asking some pointed questions about what’s going on with the Syria policy. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not holding my breath.

And that’s a shame, because after Iraq and Afghanistan, we don’t need more loss of blood and treasure.