Small World: The struggle for Syria

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

(Secretary Kerry gave the U.S. reasons for accusing the Syrian regime of gassing “its own people.” He offered no evidence that could be investigated and analyzed. Echoes of Colin Powell at the U.N. before the Iraq invasion.)

Perhaps by the time you read these words the United States will have attacked Syria for having crossed a “red line” (devised by President Obama) against the use of poison gas to kill rebels fighting the Damascus regime.

There is no doubt, our government informs us, that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the gas attack. For months, the Obama Administration has held off becoming directly engaged against the regime — even when chemical weapons were reported to have been used. The criticism of Obama’s hesitancy by advocates of military engagement has been intense — despite polls showing that 60% of Americans don’t want to become involved in Syria’s civil war. Only 9% approve — e.g., Senators McCain and Graham plus the same Neo-Cons who urged the war on Iraq.

The threatened U.S. attack raises important questions that have not been answered by the administration:

The first question is what do we think we can achieve by aiding the rebels? What if they win? Who will inherit power in Syria? Al Qaeda-like forces, now at the forefront of the rebel effort, will certainly have a loud voice. Can we expect these extremist Sunni winners to offer a loving embrace to the minorities — Alawites, Christians, Shia and some Sunni Moslem who have stayed loyal to their protector, President Assad? If there is a bloodbath, will we be in part responsible? And what of Syria-Israel — Assad has kept that front quiet; will a radical successor regime be like-minded?

We should note that before Assad became an enemy, he was a cooperating, if silent, partner with us in fighting Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda, it now happens, is joined to the anti-regime rebels and, thus, we would be helping, not hurting, our former enemy.

Second, isn’t there a degree of arrogance in our deciding what kind of government Syria ought to have? The list of countries is long which we have messed up and left in worse shape when we tried to reform them according to our ideas. We could go back to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, but the most glaring examples are more recent: Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Third, when we take military action, we will inevitably bring death to innocent civilians. We hardly give a thought to these people whose lives are ruined in the pursuit of our ideals for them. Do we really care? What will be our responsibility if Syria’s civil war reaches other nations in the region?

Fourth, aren’t we expending treasure and energy in futile foreign pursuits when we should be patching up our own country? Isn’t it time we reined in the military-industrial complex, which Eisenhower warned against?

Fifth, I strongly endorse a conference bringing together all parties to the conflict to work out a political solution (probably to include Assad’s exit). Will an American attack advance that project?

Enough questions. We should get one thing straight: This fighting is not about Syria where the world has tolerated a brutal regime for decades. It is about Shia Iran and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia group. Opposed to both are the staunch Sunni states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar (plus frontline Turkey and Jordan) and Israel. The concern among these rebel supporters is that Assad seems to be prevailing. Something had to be done to reverse the battlefield results or Iran would be the winner. Perhaps the anti-Assad bunch faked the gas attack. Worth chewing over.

The present action seems, in effect, a replay of an old movie from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. President Reagan declared that Iran must not be a winner. Obedient to his wishes in 1988, Foreign Policy reports, U.S. intelligence agencies provided information about Iranian troop preparations for an offensive to Saddam Hussein, knowing full well that he would attack them with chemical weapons. The war soon came to an end and Iran was not the winner.

Is President Obama playing Reagan to block an Iranian/Syrian success and, hopefully, avoid domestic criticism of his continued caution as a pro-Iranian wimp?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer. 

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