On Syria

Bashar al assad

I “supported” (whatever that means, considering I have no power whatsoever) the intervention in Libya, so one might imagine I’m similarly in favor of doing something in Syria. But I’m not. There are a few reasons, but the most important of them is that Libya fit the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in a way Syria doesn’t; which is in turn another way of saying that intervening in Libya had the legitimacy of international law behind it, while doing the same in Syria currently does not. If not for Russia and its UNSC veto, perhaps the situation would be different, and I’d have to pull out my hair a bit more regarding what I thought “we” should do. Perhaps.

Anyway, beyond the more legalistic reasons, I wouldn’t support an intervention for most of the reasons cited by Peter Suderman here. This one in particular (emphasis mine):

5. There’s no endgame. Not in Syria, where there seems to be no plan beyond a limited initial strike. And not in the region or the world, where the U.S. would be all but committing itself to opposing, through military force, chemical weapons regimes across the world. The problem is that there’s no clearly stated long-term objective — perhaps because no obvious long-term objective is achievable. Given that strikes are unlikely to completely eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities or end Assad’s capacity to slaughter through more conventional means, it’s not clear what they would be for. Which means there would almost certainly be pressure to give them meaning by increasing America’s commitment to the conflict.

The answer to “what they would be for,” from those who promote intervention, seems disturbingly close to the so-called Ledeen Doctrine, which holds that the US should go to war with some far weaker power every 10 years or so just to make sure everyone in the world remembers it’s BMOC. It’s sociopathy, basically, albeit sociopathy draped in the garb of “hardbitten realism” that you see not infrequently among certain foreign policy types.

To be fair to sociopathic pundits, they’re hardly the only ones. Because as NSFW Corp’s the War Nerd (their best writer, for my money) explains, the international outrage over Assad’s use of chemical weapons is basically operating under the same logic as Ledeen’s. There are certain things that certain countries just aren’t allowed to do, and using chemical weapons is one of them (except when it isn’t). Or as the War Nerd puts it:

Why would the West get so upset, so suddenly, about this chemical attack on the same people who’ve been dying in big batches for more than two years? Well, you have to stand back and realize it’s the same bad old world it always was. You know all those fairy tales where the husband, the legitimate ruler of the house, tells his wife she can go anywhere in the palace except that one room? So she goes into the room and he finds out and her head ends up on the mantelpiece or attached to a silverfish. The point is to teach the boys and girls—especially the girls—listening around the fireside that the man is the boss, and he can make any ridiculous rule he wants.

That’s pretty much what happened here. You’ve got a minority-sect regime faced with a very real existential crisis, facing a much bigger sect and running out of troops. This minority sect is nothing but trouble, and friends with other troublemakers, Iran and Russia and Hezbollah, but the other sect, the Sunni, is a way more serious global threat. So you balance your irritation at the little sect against the guilty pleasure of seeing the other sect, the really threatening one, get “bloodied,” as Michael Rubin puts it. But you also draw a line around one room in the house of horrors, the “chemical” room, and tell your Alawite bitch she can’t go in there, or there’ll be Hell to pay. And you know she will, of course, just like the guy in the fairy tale knows that as soon as he’s out of the house his wife will start picking the lock on the forbidden room.

And at that point you storm back in like God’s vengeance in a John Kerry disguise (which admittedly is about the unlikeliest disguise God’s vengeance could ever take) and announce that the Alawites are expelled from Purgatory, down into plain old Hell. The point is so much simpler than anyone will face. It’s not about chemicals, or death tolls, or even Syria. It’s about reminding two factions in an enemy tribe that you’re still in charge, and you control their death rates even when they think it’s them killing each other.

Stopping an impending massacre of noncombatants is one thing, but starting a war because some pipsqueak didn’t know how to play by the rules? No thanks.

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9 thoughts on “On Syria

  1. The Obama administration has sped up the attack a new country every 10 years to one every year. In 2011 it was Libya, then it was Mali (granted the US only provided the transport for the French rather than bombed them ourselves), and now Syria. Next year it might be Yemen or Niger. I never brought the idea that “progressives” weren’t warmongers.

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  2. If not for Russia and its UNSC veto, perhaps the situation would be different, and I’d have to pull out my hair a bit more regarding what I thought “we” should do. Perhaps.

    So, the moral of this story is to always be in the good graces of at least one permanent member of the UNSC. Gaddafi’s mistake was break before make.

    I find it interesting that there’s a distinct possibility that the President may give the go order for a military strike on Syria and commemorate MLK, standing on the exact spot MLK stood – all within the same hour.

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    • So, the moral of this story is to always be in the good graces of at least one permanent member of the UNSC.

      Which is one of the reasons why I find this reason to support – or to decline support – on the basis of UN “legitimacy” to be so strange.

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  3. The answer to “what they would be for,” from those who promote intervention, seems disturbingly close to the so-called Ledeen Doctrine, which holds that the US should go to war with some far weaker power every 10 years or so just to make sure everyone in the world remembers it’s BMOC.

    If you put the most ridiculous and bizarre words in the mouths of people who disagree with you then of course you win the argument. Of course, Kerry woke up Monday and said, who can the US push around today – never mind the chemical weapons attacks last Wednesday and international humanitarian law – threw a dart at a map which landed on Syria. So let the cruise missile strikes begin.

    I’m fascinated by Suderman’s idea that the pattern of escalation of the use of chemical weapons (my words) means that we should not intervene at this point (his point number six).

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  4. What is Obama supposed to do now? He mouthed off about “red lines” some time ago and then ignored the proof that the Syrian regime used chem weapons. That only encouraged Assad to continue using them. Now Obama must do something or look like an even bigger buffoon than he already looks like.

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    • Libya fit the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in a way Syria doesn’t;

      Anyway, beyond the more legalistic reasons, I wouldn’t support an intervention for most of the reasons cited by Peter Suderman here. This one in particular … 5. There’s no endgame.

      So you’re distinguishing between Syria and Libya in two ways, but not explaining either of them? Is it your take that they’re self-evident?

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  5. Given that strikes are unlikely to completely eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities or end Assad’s capacity to slaughter through more conventional means, it’s not clear what they would be for.

    They would be for limiting his options on both aspects. If the chemical weapons cannot be eliminated entirely they can at least be curtailed; if the conventional means of slaughter are not eliminated they can be made less attractive (by threat of additional intervention). I can think if many military operations which did not entirely eliminate the attack power of an enemy but were still worth doing – the attack on bin Laden’s compound, for example. It seems unfair to skip over this fairly conventional justification and immediately assume that supporters of intervention are following the sociopathic Ledeen doctrine.

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  6. Responsibility to Protect?!

    There is no responsibility. There is no international law on point. There is only those who have the enought power choosing when and where to intervene and exercize it. Otherwise, some country might have already decided that American’s treatment of some minority group warranted a few cruise missles launched at Georgetown.

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