EdgeLeft: Syria

I don’t know what lies ahead for Syria – I only know what I think we, Americans concerned
for the people of Syria, need to do.

It is clear that the conflict in Syria has deep roots in the religious divisions in the Islamic world between the Shiite and the Sunni, and that these divisions account for the support for the regime from Iran and from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and support for the rebels from Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States and Turkey. It is also clear that events in Syria are of strategic interests to other countries which are not influenced by the religious factors.

Because of oil, and because Syria has ties to Russia, because it is hostile to Israel, and because of the colonial past, the conflict edges outward like a bloody wound, driving tens upon tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries.

Some observations on issues that Obama has raised. First, it is as outrageous for Obama to issue statements saying that Assad must leave power as it would be for Assad to call for Obama to go into exile. Syria is a sovereign state, it is a member of the United Nations, and under international law Obama has once again, as he did with Libya, violated the terms of international law.

Second, Obama has said that Syria has used poison gas and thus crossed “a red line”. On this, two points. First, there is very little solid evidence by reliable sources that poison gas has been used, and no certainty, if it was used, whether by one side or by both. If Obama wants to call this a “red line”, I would say it is much closer to a straw man, to a contemporary “Gulf of Tonkin” situation where the US is being pushed to act without solid evidence. Second, if we oppose the use of chemical weapons, then surely the US should be extremely careful in view of its own deeply flawed record. The used of depleted uranium in Iraq is, by most accounts, chemical war. The export by the US of tear gas for use by governments to suppress civil opposition, is a clear form of chemical war. Finally, the horrendous long term impact of Agent Orange used by the United States during the war in Indochina means that if there is any “red line”, the US has long since crossed it, that it has engaged in a systematic, deadly, widespread use of chemical weapons.

Finally, let those of us in the peace and social justice movement be unanimous in opposing the use of poison gas or chemical weapons by any side in the conflict in Syria or elsewhere, and as a show of good faith, let us make restitution to the Vietnamese and American victims of Agent Orange.

On the matter of US aid to the rebels, there are both constitutional and a strategic issues. I’m amazed that a country which is so in love with the Second Amendment has so little concern with the constitution as a whole. The right to take this nation into war does not rest with the President, but with Congress. Even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt had to come before Congress to ask for a declaration of war. The fact we have not held
the President to this, that we have waged long and bloody wars without such a declaration, does not mean such actions are constitutional. For God sake, let us insist Obama not take the United States into yet another war without Congress authorizing it. The strategic issue, and one which
deeply divides the US military, is that the most effective of the rebel forces in Syria are the most extreme in the Islamist movement. If we have any sense of history we should remember that the US arming of Afghan resistance to the Soviets resulted in those same weapons being turned against us. Whatever our views of the current government of Syria, are there any objective observers who think the leadership of the rebels would provide a better, more humane, more democratic government than that of Assad?

It would be helpful if Americans concerned with Syria (and the Middle East as a whole) looked back in time, and realized that before the US was a major world power, and before the State of Israel had come into existence, the British and French were dividing up the Middle East, creating artificial lines for states that had not even had an existence before, and that Britain and France are as involved as the US in the current situation. The assumption by some on the American Left that
the US is calling all the shots in this crisis overlooks both the history of the region, and the fact the US is not the single great power it was after World War II, but is now only one of the major players.

As the war expands, as it will if the US continues, through the CIA, to send in advisers and weapons, it will draw in other powers. Already, in response to the military aid flowing in from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Hezbollah has sent troops, Russia is sending serious new military aid, and Iran has expanded it military aid. Let the record be clear that the outside forces which first sent in military equipment were Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The role of Israel is much less clear to me than it seems to others. It isn’t a secret that Syria and Israel are enemies, with not a shred of love lost. But it is also true that Israel has had a quiet border with Syria for many years. It is not in the interests of Israel to put a violent Islamist government on that border. It is for this reason I found the Israeli air strikes on Damascus so
dangerous and unexpected. It is my guess that the military leadership in Israel is divided. I would assume there is strong opposition within the Israeli military to further such air strikes.

We tend, sometimes, to think Israel knows what it is doing (to which I’m tempted to ask why Israel should be any different from the rest of the world, where irrational decisions so often seem the rule rather than the exception). But history shows that Israel has made terrible military blunders. It’s invasion of Lebanon and the long occupation which followed, led to the creation o Hezbollah, the last thing in the interests of Israel. The more recent Israeli military attack on Hezbollah ended in an embarrassing military defeat for Israel. So I would not leap to the conclusion that Israel has a deep interest in ousting Assad. They may well prefer to deal with the devil they know.

What is certain – beyond any dispute – is that civilian casualties are terrible, and Syria is being pulled apart. There is absolutely no evidence that increasing military support to the rebels will end the killing. There is a consensus by objective observers that the only way out is a political solution, better sooner than later.

To those who feel the Syrian regime is so bad that we must support the rebels, I ask why we are gentle in judging Saudi Arabia, where beheading is common, women are not allowed to drive cars and where there is not a trace of a civil society or a free press?

May I suggest, with all possible urgency, as I circulate these thoughts to my contacts in other countries as well as here, that we contact our members of Congress to urge a complete and immediate end to military aid to the rebels, that we examine the role of the CIA and the need
to dissolve it so that we do not again find our foreign policy is not even in the hands of the State Department, and that we put Israel on notice that any further air strikes would involve UN sanctions against Israel. The only immediate hope is the US/Russian conference with the opposing parties – and the danger now is that the Syrian rebels might not even attend.

No to any military aid to the rebels. Yes to seeking immediate political solutions.

Edgeleft is an occasional column by David McReynolds

David McReynolds worked for the War Resisters League and stood as the Socialist Party’s candidate for the Presidency twice.

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