Syria: Immodest Proposals and Naked Emperors


In philosophy circles, bullshit is a technical term denoting a claim which is presented as “fact” although its veracity has not been established. The truth value of bullshit is largely irrelevant to its propagators. Bullshit is disseminated in the service of particular ends, typically opaque to the audience. There is no better description for the Obama Administration’s case for intervention in Syria.

What follows is the most direct and systematic refutation of the Administration’s case for war in Syria—deconstructing their justifications one by one. In order to accommodate its comprehensive nature, the essay will be published as a series of three pieces.  God willing, this information can be a wrench in the gears of the war machine:  print this essay and send it as a letter to your Congressmen, disperse these links across your social networks, deploy these arguments in debates one-on-one.  Resist.

If you missed it, read Part One in this series‘Flooding the Zone’ with Bullshit on Syria.

Justification #3: A Strike on Syria is Needed to Preserve US Credibility

The notion that a strike on Syria would “preserve US credibility” is severely undermined by its illegality and further damaged by Secretary of State John Kerry’s disingenuous promise future attacks will be “unbelievably small.”

In truth, it is Barack Obama’s credibility tottering on a red line—not that of the United States. And he put himself on this precipice with reckless language throughout the Syrian crisis.

Ego and reputation are not acceptable reasons to go to war.

Regrettably, as a nation, we don’t have much credibility to lose when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. Since the end of the World Wars, the United States has been among the primary actors to deploy these weapons—and on a scale others could scarcely imagine.

Consider the use of chemical agents Agent Orange and napalm during Vietnam, which killed not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands. To this day, Vietnamese are still plagued by birth defects and other health epidemicslinked to these American chemical weapons.

Washington once approved and supported another secular Arab dictator using chemical weapons: Saddam Hussein, then shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld as a key point of stability in the Pentagon’s strategy, gassed Iran. The U.S. would later use depleted uranium shells and white phosphorous on Iraq during the Gulf Wars. The Pentagon only recently admitted to using these horrific chemical weapons,  which in terms of birth defects, cancer, and other long-term health outcomes were deadlier than the U.S. nuclear attacks on Japan.

And lest we forget, America’s top regional ally is an apartheid state  which exercises an unyielding disregard for international law. Israel, like Syria, is one of only a handful of nations which failed to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. The U.S. did not (re)act in the slightest when the Israel deployed chemical weapons in their 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

The international community, and in particular the Arab and Islamic worlds, are well-aware of these facts. After the euphoria of a post-Bush White House, the idea that our planet’s nations look to Washington for moral leadership in upholding humanitarian values is absurd.  Instead, as a result of decades of armed conflict, coups, invasions, and increasing drone strikes, there is widespread international skepticism of the U.S. and its intentions.  America’s credibility and standing around the world would be harmed much more by another unpopular, illegal, indefinite, and ill-fated campaign in the Middle East justified by sketchy intelligence on WMDs than by failing to follow through on words which should have never been spoken.

Do we really think people care more about consistency than hypocrisy?

Justification #4: The Strike on Syria Will Prevent Further Use and Proliferation of Chemical Weapons

On August 20, 2012, President Obama offered up the following fateful remark:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

While social media erupted in red line jokes and bad math, please think about these “other players on the ground.” Most likely he was talking about and to the rebels. What, exactly, did Obama’s words about veiled promise of a strike mean to them?

Part of the problem with “red line” talk is that it creates moral hazards, possibly incentivizing “false flag attacks” where chemical weapons are used by the rebels but blamed on the government in the hopes of spurring Western intervention. The regime has repeatedly accused the rebels of attempting this.  We have previously explored evidence suggesting the rebels may have been behind the chemical attacks in April and August.  If they were, United States’ response in both cases would be tantamount to having rewarded the opposition for committing crimes against humanity—encouraging more frequent and more severe future episodes.

Let us side-step this concern momentarily in favor of another:

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria are desperately trying to get their hands on al-Asad’s vast chemical weapons stockpiles. It is likely that if the government infrastructure is severely weakened as a result of U.S. strikes, these agents would fall into the hands of al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of the Libya invasion, much of Moammar Gaddhafi’s chemical weapons arsenal was seized by militants during and after the NATO campaign (significantly, this included the delivery systems for deploying chemical weapons through artillery rounds, which is how sarin was deployed in Damascus, according to the White House account, perhaps proving the al-Qaeda-linked rebels do have the means to carry out the attack after all).  And despite the grave mismanagement of Gaddhafi’s arsenal, according to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the challenge of securing Syria’s chemical weapons would be ”100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya.”

There is no way to secure Syria’s chemical weapons without “boots on the ground.”  In fact, according to Pentagon estimates, it would take more than 75,000 troops to neutralize these weapons. Such an operation would carry a high risk of allied casualties and mission-creep, would be extremely expensive, and would not enjoy a clear “exit strategy.”

Then there is the question of President al-Asad’s “red line.” He has been very clear from the beginning of the conflict that he would never use chemical weapons on his own people. However, he was also unambiguous in asserting that, in the event of direct foreign intervention, he would not hesitate to deploy them on invading and occupying forces.

Any way you slice it, U.S. intervention in Syria would make the proliferation and deployment of chemical weapons more, not less, likely.  Even the architect of the Obama Administration’s Syria war plan has stated that it was not designed for, and is not suitable for the objectives the White House has laid out. Which demands the question: is the U.S. primarily concerned with preventing the use or proliferation of chemical weapons?

On September 9th, Secretary Kerry said the U.S. strike could be canceled if al-Asad surrendered his chemical stockpiles within a week. The Russians and Syrians called the bluff: shortly after Kerry’s remarks, the regime agreed to relinquish its entire stockpile into international custody to be decommissioned, posthaste, potentially putting the Syrians ahead of America in chemical disarmament. Al-Asad further agreed to sign onto the Chemical Weapons Convention—something Benjamin Netanyahu won’t even joke about.

Considering that a military strike would dramatically increase the chances of chemical weapons being proliferated and deployed, why hasn’t the U.S. jumped at this deal? The United Nations did.

Instead, Secretary Kerry insisted his comment was “merely rhetorical” — a fancy way to say bullshit — and that he was not offering any serious policy proposal. Despite the option to achieve America’s supposed objective without violence, Kerry said he saw “no reason” to slow the war machine. Fortunately, the Senate disagreed and tabled the resolution on Syria. This forced the White House to take the proposal seriously: despite the President’s bluffs to the contrary, the War Powers Act does not negate the need for Congressional approval to start a war.

However, the Obama Administration’s bald determination to move forward with the attack despite the potential breakthrough speaks volumes about their intentions. Suddenly the emperor has no clothes.

Of course, it is likely that America will sabotage these disarmament negotiations in much the same way they continually interfere with a negotiated end to the broader crisis. And even if the agreement is successful, the Administration might rustle up another justification for war. After all, the U.S. deposed Gaddhafi even after he abandoned his nuclear program—in fact, sacrificing his nuclear arsenal likely made him an even more attractive target for regime change.

The plans to depose al-Asad have been in the works since 2004–they will not be abandoned so easily.

Sanity may prevail in this particular battle, but the war rages on. This is not the time to rest on one’s laurels, but to press one’s advantage. Perhaps the international community can leverage this moment into pushing America still further towards peace.

Justification #5: The Strike is Necessary to Push al-Asad to the Negotiating Table

Despite the ever-increasing financial, logistical, material and diplomatic assistance the U.S. and its allies have provided to sustain the rebellion over the last two years, the regime stands on the brink of a de facto victory.  It is thus reasonable to assume that had the U.S. not inserted itself into the crisis in Syria, it would have already been resolved.  Clearly, the big problem is al-Asad.

According to Secretary of State Kerry, the regime has refused to negotiate an end to the conflict because al-Asad assumes he can just “shoot his way out of this.” Military intervention is needed to “change Bashar’s calculus.”

Anyone who has followed President al-Asad’s rhetoric closely should know that he is much more willing to reach out to the opposition and to offer concessions when negotiating from a position of strength. As with any leader, when his back is to the wall, he is likely to dig in and become more rigid, more defiant, and more subversive. The US should know this by now, having just had their war plans deflated by al-Asad’s deft maneuvers. If certain international players wish for the Syrian President to resign, they would have been better offering guarantees and incentives rather than threats and coercion.

More importantly, it is simply false to claim that al-Asad has been unwilling to negotiate, or that his first instinct is to resort to force. While the security forces were brutally overzealous in attempting to maintain public order (a big factor in the protest movement’s initial growth), President al-Asad had initially hoped that he could reform his way out of the crisis—enacting >a number of significant measures which were met with wide popular support, including a new constitution which would have forced an end to his rule after one more presidential term. Since then, the government has dramatically reformed its security sector, subverting the loathed mukhabarat and prosecuting them if they step out of line or commit crimes against civilians.

As the crisis progressed, al-Asad has consistently endorsed, proposed, and complied with ceasefires. The primary reason these measures have failed is because the opposition’s “leadership” had no control over the disorganized militias. They can agree to ceasefires, but cannot get the rebel forces to comply; this remains the case.

Al-Asad has consistently been at the forefront of pushing for negotiations and dialogue, including recently calling on the BRICS nations to help end the bloodshed in Syria, because Western powers and their regional allies continue to exacerbate the violence. Looking at the casualties per month, there is a direct correlation between the rate of killings and the amount of arms, aid, and training being provided to the rebels.

The primary sticking point to negotiations remains the Syrian National Coalition’s insistence that al-Asad resign as a precondition to any settlement—a condition which is set in defiance of the Geneva Communique. While this insistence serves the geopolitical interests of the SNC’s patrons in the U.S. and the Gulf,  it does not reflect the will or interests of the Syrian people. Since the beginning of the protests, they have overwhelmingly and unambiguously sought a piecemeal, democratic, and then diplomatic solution to the crisis—not an armed revolution.

Why has the U.S. ignored these non-violent aspirations?

It is important to bear in mind that the armed opposition is not representative of the broader opposition movement. Among political forces, while Western media focuses primarily on the SNC, due primarily to their perceived friendliness to Western intentions, this group has never enjoyed legitimacy in Syria itself. They were and remain an expatriate movement stationed outside of Syria. In contrast, there are a number of indigenous civil opposition movements who have from the beginning rejected the armed struggle and continue to call for negotiations with the regime without preconditions. The most significant of these groups is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC).

In fact, despite the intransigence of the SNC, many of the armed militias have entering into direct negotiations with the regime and laying down their arms in exchange for amnesty and protection from the more malevolent rebel groups.

And even within the over-emphasized SNC, the issues of pressing for an advantage in negotiations through military means is a matter of contention. Shiekh Moaz al-Khatib (in)famously stated that there is no military solution to this conflict, calling upon the SNC to negotiate with the regime immediately, abandoning any preconditions. The fate of Syria, he argued, was far more important than the fate of one man.  Ultimately, the sheikh resigned in disgust from his post as president of the SNC, claiming that neither the opposition nor their international supporters were primarily concerned with saving Syria.

Rather than pushing anyone to the bargaining table, the U.S. strategy of “equalizing force” in Syria is likely to render a negotiated settlement impossible. It will do nothing to address the fact that the rebels have been hitherto unable to solidify into an interlocutor for the state capable of articulating a coherent vision or set of demands. It will do nothing to get the rebels to abandon their non-constructive precondition. Simultaneously, the strike will render the party that has been consistently eager to negotiate less willing and able to do so.

What the U.S. should be forcing peace by any diplomatic means necessary. That would be moral leadership. Working with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the EU, American freezing of arms, supplies, and training to the rebels would dramatically reduce civil strife in Syria just as diplomatic pressure keeps al-Asad at the negotiating table working through post-conflict reconciliation and, most likely, his early retirement.

Remember this as Samantha Power insists that the “White House has exhausted all non-military options” in Syria: the one thing they have never tried over the last two years is heeding the U.N.’s advice and working with the international community to de-escalate the conflict.  This does not seem to be on their agenda any time soon, either.

Musa al-Gharbi is a Research Fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). He has a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona. You can follow him on Twitter @Musa_alGharbi.

ST McNeil is an environmental convergence journalist. He is also a research assistant with the Institute of the Environment’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development grant, contributor and web editor of SISMEC, founder of Los Deportados multimedia hub, and a musician. You can follow him on Twitter @stmcneil. 

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