I’m now convinced that bombing Syria is the wrong thing to do

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I’ve spent the better part of the past week being a soft No on intervening in Syria. My instinct was that the action would lack enough of the international imprimatur I think all humanitarian interventions should require (not even NATO will be on-board) and that if the bombings were more than symbolic they would lead to disproportionately bad consequences, and if they were symbolic — well, that’s a terrible reason to ultimately kill people.

My opposition was soft, however, because I find, in the abstract, the goal of maintaing or establishing international norms to be a legitimate one. Hard to believe in human rights and think otherwise, really. And I do think there’s something uniquely horrific about chemical weapons, which tend be designed to kill as many people as possible rather than to kill as many of the enemy’s soldiers as possible. This might strike you as a petty distinction, but to me it’s essential to the attempt to civilize (and ultimately end) the practice of war.

Nevertheless, I was still a no. And after reading this long (long!) post from James Fallows, I’m even more sure that a bombing campaign would, in the best-case scenario, be a mistake.

Do read it all, but here’s a taste:

Many times I’ve mentioned the foreign-policy assessments of William R. Polk, at right, who first wrote for the Atlantic (about Iraq) during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, back in 1958, and served on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff during the Kennedy years. He now has sent in a detailed analysis about Syria.

Polk wrote this just before President Obama switched from his go-it-alone policy and decided to seek Congressional approval for a Syrian strike. It remains relevant for the choices Congress, the public, and the president have to make. It is very long, but it is systematically laid out as a series of 13 questions, with answers….

12: What Would Be the Probable Consequences of an Attack?

…it is likely that the victims of the attacks or their allies would attempt to strike back. Many observers believe that the Syrian government would be prepared to “absorb” a modest level of attack that stopped after a short period. However, if the attacks were massive and continued, it might be impossible for that government or its close allies, the Iranian and Iraqi governments and the Hizbulllah partisans in Lebanon, to keep quiet. Thus, both American installations, of which there are scores within missile or aircraft range, might be hit. Israel also might be targeted and if it were, it would surely respond. So the consequences of a spreading, destabilizing war throughout the Middle East and perhaps into South Asia (where Pakistan is furious over American drone attacks) would be a clear and present danger.

Even if this scenario were not played out, it would be almost certain that affected groups or their allies would seek to carry the war back to America in the form of terrorist attacks.

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16 thoughts on “I’m now convinced that bombing Syria is the wrong thing to do

  1. I read that piece a little earlier this evening, and in it he also notes that the evidence implicating Assad is pretty thin, if it exists it all. As he pointed out, and some of my chat mates noticed, the attack doesn’t even make tactical or strategic sense.

    If you were going to use chemical weapons strategically on civilians, you’d use them in mass on a strong rebel area. In this attack, the government escorted the UN inspectors to the site, hardly ten miles from downtown Damascus. If the government can just go there anyway, why would they attack it with chemical weapons?

    Tactically, such attacks are used against enemy hard points so your waiting infantry forces can storm the position, or against massed enemy forces, against which you’d have infantry ready to mop up or counter attack. From the reports, instead of having an immediate massed armor or infantry assault on the target area, the government instead spent the next hours in confusion trying to find out what the heck happened.

    If the government conducted an attack just to send a message, why would they conduct it in an area where they didn’t completely control the population? I’m sure there are countless, isolated rebel positions where they could’ve guaranteed that the enemy wouldn’t be posting pictures and videos of the aftermath on Facebook and Youtube, and that all information flowing out would be purely through the government’s hands.

    I don’t really buy into the idea that the rebels are responsible, even though that makes more strategic sense, but it certainly doesn’t have the hallmarks of a coordinated, well-planned operation, nor does it make any sense at all for Assad to have done it, as other countries are pointing out.

    So before we even get to the question of how we should respond if Assad did do it, we need to establish that he did, in fact, order the attack.

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    • This whole thing is a cluster… fornication. Now I’m seeing a report that the “attack” was actually an accident due to mis-handling of chemical weapons by the rebels who got them from the Saudis. Does S.A. even have chemical weapons? Would we know if we did?

      Anyway, I have no idea how much credibility to give this story but the basic idea makes about as much sense as anything. As you point out, George, the manner of the alleged attack makes neither strategic or military sense. And this isn’t a left/right thing by any means. Alan Grayson of Florida is saying the exact same thing as are many of the lefty news sites.

      By the way, George, I feel it’s only right and fair to complement you on your foreign policy analysis. When you write about stuff going on in other countries your comments are first rate.

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      • First, let me make this clear: I am opposed to military intervention in the Syrian civil war.

        That said, it’s important to remember that both sides are waging fairly large-scale internet public relations campaigns against each other (not always organized: it’s often just supporters of one side or the other posting videos, stories, even comments, pretty much everywhere). The amount of misinformation is staggering. For virtually any bad thing that’s happened in Syria in the last couple years, you can find someone claiming that: Israel did it, the U.S. did it (perhaps with Israel), the FSA did it, foreign elements fighting with the FSA did it (from S.A., Lebanon, Al Qaeda, wherever or whoever), the SAA did it, pro-Assad militia did it, and there are probably others I’m forgetting. If you’re getting information from Examiner.com, there’s a good chance it’s bullshit. Not your fault, just the nature of the beast when it comes to dirty wars like this in the information age when everyone has a cell phone and an internet connection (some of the videos I’ve seen are actually really well done, often with movie-style intros, complete with music and computer graphics, that last longer than the actual “content”).

        It’s important to keep in mind that the reason the UN chemical weapons inspectors were there is that there were already more than a dozen reports of chemical weapon use credible enough to send in a UN team, most (if not all) of which are not attributable to the SAA. We know that the SAA has chemical weapons, and chemical weapons units, and that they have deployed those units into conflict areas (there is no doubt about this). This particular attack has gotten so much attention because it was in an area (just outside of Damascus) with a large Western aide group presence, near where the UN inspectors already were, in a well populated area so that it produced large casualty figures, and because there’s been a lot of amateur video evidence, unlike previous attacks. Of course, all of that makes this attack seem unusually stupid, particularly since the regime knew where the UN inspectors were, and knew that there was a large aide presence, which is to me the main reason to doubt this particular instance. But even doubting this one, I think we can be fairly certain that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in this war.

        That said, getting involved in the war militarily is still a bad idea. Putting aside the issues with how effective any intervention short of a prolonged and dangerous air campaign would be, there is no “good” or even “not quite as bad” side to back in this conflict. While I find the use of chemical weapons extremely troubling, I find it even more troubling here not because of chemical weapons themselves (they are really, really bad, especially when used in areas with civilians), but because they represent just how brutal this war is, and suggest that it is only getting more brutal. Neither side has acquitted themselves well, and I have no doubt whatsoever that if the FSA had chemical weapons, they would use them. If we take sides in this war, then regardless of which side we take, we will be siding with people who are doing horrible things to those who side against them.

        I hope this horrible war ends soon, but I don’t think it can possibly end well, and I don’t know that we want to be a part of whatever the post-war Syria is going to look like for some time to come. That is, unless we can get a large UN peace-keeping force on the ground, which seems unlikely at the moment given the diplomatic issues involved.

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      • Of course, all of that makes this attack seem unusually stupid

        Only by one set of calculus. I mean, before the Iraq war Saddam playing pussyfoot with the inspectors seemed unusually stupid unless he actually had something to hide.

        Turns out he did, he just wasn’t hiding weapons from us, he was hiding the lack of them from Iran.

        So Assad deciding to use chemical weapons, or not, has to be calculated only off of assumptions about what Assad is thinking.

        With one set of assumptions, this seems particularly stupid.

        With another set of assumptions, it seem completely irrelevant what weapons inspectors think. Hell, you can even invite them in.

        My guess?

        Assad saw what happened to Qaddafi and Saddam and figured two out of three was bad odds, and Mubarak wasn’t looking so great at the time, either.

        So the end game is win or die.

        There’s a certain political calculus that can lead you to think the U.S. will stay out of it; indeed… if you think the U.S. is going to get into it, you probably figure you’re already in the “die” column so you just discount it as a possibility.

        You know Russia and China aren’t going to turn rat, so you’ve got the Security Council in check.

        So entirely conceivable that you’re back to “convince the people that you’re more monstrous and implacable as an enemy than you are as the leader.”

        This doesn’t strike me as “stupid” so much as it does “risky”. But then, I would have absconded with a bunch of cash a decade ago, myself.

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      • This report has turned up before and I don’t believe it, Rod. This is one freelancer with zero corroboration. Which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Just that nobody else, absolutely nobody is saying it, from any other angle. Mint Press Reporter Yahya Ababneh appears out of nowhere, a freelancer, the article first appears under a more reputable author byline, then Ababneh turns up as the author, repeating without attribution, with some kunya names attached, nobody can verify any of this.

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      • Bashar Assad is not the world’s most competent dictator. He seems fairly inept. I could see him deciding that the use of chemical weaspons would be an appropriate show of force in order to demonstrate his seriousness in remaining in power and botching it very badly in execution.

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      • The Arabic press, not exactly a yardstick for reliability, is saying these gas attacks are the work of Bashar’s brother Maher al-Assad. Maher al-Assad is a monster. Even his father knew it and passed him over in favour of his brother Bashar.

        Bashar’s not completely in control of Syria. Like every other tyrant of his type, he’s dependent on his legions.

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      • Worse than the Arab press is the amateur, “volunteer” Arabic press. The AP got burned by lots of Palestinian and Lebanese photoshop jobs. I enjoyed the ones that kept showing the same unscathed teddy bear in pictures of rubble, where the editor was clicking “insert, insert, insert”. Cloning extra columns of smoke has became normal, whether to show bombings or multiple rocket launches. The Palestinians raised fake film making to a profession, with ambulances loading up a victim, dropping him off a block away, then coming back to load him up again. I especially loved that antic of Arab “outrage boy” who were everywhere, like a minor celebrity. And when it comes to interviews, you can find people who will say just about anything you want, even explaining how the Mossad is training sharks to eat tourists.

        Hopefully Western journalists are mostly past the point where they’d fall for anything, and now work harder to get an honest interview instead of a rehearsed street presentation or spontaneous PR blurb for some clan, which often start out with “my cousin was with….” And of course the cousin always dies in the story.

        However, in this case it does seem like someone was trying to frame Assad and doing a pretty poor job of it, picking a target with easy access for Western journalists, rebels to film it, and no local Syran government presence on hand to interfere. The story about an oopsie while handling weapons doesn’t hold water, because nobody makes dozens and dozens of simultaneous oopsies, and those expended chemical rocket casings didn’t just plant themselves.

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    • Excellent points – the UN one being the most important, since the others can be explained away by ‘combat screw-ups’.

      And by now, when the UN says one thing, and the US government says another, I’ll generally trust the UN to be closer to the truth.

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  2. Patrick: “Only by one set of calculus. I mean, before the Iraq war Saddam playing pussyfoot with the inspectors seemed unusually stupid unless he actually had something to hide.”

    Except that he wasn’t. Hans Blix’ report at the time boiled down to:
    1) We haven’t found any evidence.
    2) We’ve had no obstruction of practical importance.
    3) Given a few more weeks, we can verify compliance.

    Bush, Cheney and the other warmongers simply didn’t want that to happen, so they declared ‘foul’ and started the war.

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    • Well, we were listening in on his generals, and they all thought he had WMD, just under someone else’s command. Too maintain his ruse against the Iranians, and considering that Iranians could place agents a whole lot easier than we could, he had to fool a lot of his own officers to fool the Iranians. Fooling his officers fooled his army, and fooling his army also fooled his own rebellious people.

      His officers were so in the dark that during the invasion one of his generals crashed into one of our armored columns in Baghdad on his way to work in the morning, got out, and started arguing that we couldn’t be there because we were a hundred or more miles to the south, which he knew because he was a general in the Iraqi army privy to their latest intelligence. Later may of his generals expressed consternation that it was all lies. Everything they’d been told was all lies. Baghdad Bob became the face of the regime. “Americans are dying in the trenches and we are beating them with shovels!”

      That’s who we were listening to, and why we were convinced that our invasion would face powerful opposition, air defenses, and frequent gas attacks, requiring thrusts, feints, pincer movements, and lots of close air support – instead of just driving up the highway, taking over the Baghdad airport, and checking the coke machines for any loose change.

      That’s also why the US administration didn’t even bother leaving themselves any wiggle room about not finding WMD. Of course Saddam had it, up to his ears. Enough to load it on scud missiles and hit Tehran, Riyadh, or Tel Aviv with sarin gas. Duh. We thought he was trying to fool Hans Blix. Turns out he was trying to fool everyone but Hans Blix.

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  3. Bombing Syria will breed more resentment against the US in the Arab world. “Enforcing norms” of use of chemical weapons against a dictator who has fought a 2 year civil war to stay in power is like enforcing a No Whizzing In The Woods policy for young boys away at camp. Going to war to boost your manhood is always a waste – unless you’re Dick Cheney in which case it’s the ultimate proof of your power.

    And frankly – and I am VERY LOATHE to write this – if we do start shooting after Congress says No, Congress needs to deal with that swiftly through it’s power of the purse.

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    • I cannot believe Obama would be insane enough to push forward with an attack if Congress votes it down. He’s always been hyper cautious and it’s blatantly obvious he’s none too entheusiastic about this mess to begin with. The idea of him flat out defying a congressional “No War” vote in the teeth of unambigous opposition from the general population and with no cover from allies or international organizations is utterly outside of his behavior pattern for his entire administration.

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  4. So bombing Libya to save those poor folks was good but bombing Syria to save it’s folks from being gassed is bad? Muammar Gaddafi didn’t gas his people did he? Sorry you seem to be inconsistent.

    Let’s be honest, the only reason we are in this pickle is b/c Obama made threats and now has to back them up or look like a an even bigger fool than he is. At least one Dem, Rep Norton, will vote to use force to save him the embarrassment not b/ it is a good idea.

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2013/09/03/democratic-congresswoman-only-reason-i-d-vote-syrian-attack-loyalty-o#ixzz2dqYiIC6J

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