Stay Out of Syria!
Source Dave Anderson
Date 13/05/31/11:11
Stay Out of Syria!
David Bromwich

AFTER THE TROUBLING revelations of the May 8 Senate hearing on
Benghazi, much remains unclear about the attack that killed four
Americans last September. Were the killers aiming to prove the
incompetence of American power? Or was the assault directed more
specifically against CIA operations? How did the White House, the
State Department, and the CIA all agree to say so early and wrongly
that the attack could have been the spontaneous action of a crowd
infuriated by an anti-Muslim video? Why did the administration delete
from its talking points the mention of five similar attacks in Libya,
and the fact that al-Qaeda-linked forces were known to be active in
the vicinity?

One thing is clear. The Benghazi killings were an indirect but
predictable consequence of the NATO intervention that overthrew
Muammar Qaddafi. Disorder was a necessary condition of the attack. The
“light footprint” ofNATO was never going to be sufficient to contain
the forces the war released. With the death of Qaddafi and the
instability of NATO’s interim arrangements, his troops and weapons
moved southward in Africa; and the evacuation of US State Department
workers in Mali in January and the attack on international workers in
Algeria are now widely understood to have been another fruit of the
NATOaction in Libya. For Americans, of course, Libya is almost
forgotten, but for North Africa and the watching Arab world, it
remains a vivid and disturbing memory: seven months of air attacks,
with thousands of sorties, 7,700 bombs dropped or missiles launched,
and uncounted civilian casualties.

The deepening violence of the Syrian civil war is also in some measure
a consequence of Libya: Qaddafi’s disbanded army and unguarded weapons
moved southward in Africa, but they also moved eastward to Asia. The
state terror of the most “surgical” air war leaves in its wake many
thousands of stateless terrorists. As Nancy Youssef pointed out in a
penetrating survey on March 14 in the McClatchy newspapers (“Middle
East in Turmoil 10 Years After Iraq Invasion”): “The most effective
anti-Assad rebel military faction [in Syria], the Nusra Front,” is
itself “a branch of al Qaida in Iraq, the same radical Islamist group
that the US fought in that country and that the current Iraqi
government also is battling.”

The recent past is still with us, if we take the time to look. This is
the background against which one must assess the judgment of those
persons—well placed in the media and the foreign policy elite—who have
lately urged another violent intervention by the US in Arab lands.
Three days before the Benghazi hearings, on May 5, Bill Keller
published a double-length Op-Ed inThe New York Times. His column was
entitled “Syria Is Not Iraq,” and its moral was adequately conveyed in
Keller’s final words: “Getting Syria right starts with getting over

Let us pause to remember Iraq before we follow Keller’s invitation to
get over it. Almost 4,500 Americans died in Iraq, and 32,000 came home
wounded. Of the numbers of Iraqi dead that would be living had the
Americans not bombed, invaded, and occupied their country, reliable
estimates are harder to come by, but in 2008 The New England Journal
of Medicine estimated a total of 151,000 violent deaths by June 2006;
and the seven years that followed have added many thousands more.

At the time of the Iraq invasion, Keller was an Op-Ed columnist and
senior writer at the Times. In 2002–2003, when his newspaper’s slanted
coverage of Iraq played a significant part in leading the country into
war, Keller believed the Timesstories based on forged or dubious
evidence circulated by the Bush administration, and threw his
considerable journalistic energy into support of the war. Looking
back, in his May 5 Op-Ed, he speaks euphemistically of “our ill-fated
adventure in Iraq”; his own part in it he calls “a humbling error of
judgment” that for a time “left me gun-shy.”

But Syria is not Iraq, he says, and he now recommends the deployment
of American military might against Syria. Keller’s pressing fear is
that by inaction, the US may surrender its role as international
leader: “Prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the
father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged
tragedy.” By means of violent intervention, he believes, the tragedy
can be made smaller; and he deplores the reticence of President Obama
as the evasion of “a president looking for excuses to stand pat.”

There follow, in Keller’s piece, a series of elaborate distinctions
intended to show that Syria presents a more soluble problem than Iraq.
“In Iraq our invasion unleashed a sectarian war” whereas “in Syria,
[sectarian war] is already well under way.” We ought to intervene,
then, because things are already bad. The underlying assumption is
that American action could not make things worse. “This time,” Keller
continues, “we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead.” We did
have allies, and much the same allies, in Libya, but in the thirteen
hundred words of this column the word “Libya” does not occur.

The evident self-assurance of Keller’s advice on Syria was dismaying
in itself; but it also confirmed a tendency that emerged in a series
of recent Timesarticles. These news articles by several hands all bore
headlines of a consistent tendency, implying that American military
intervention had now become the natural upshot of events in Syria.

On April 26, for example, a story by Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt was
entitled “White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms.” The factual
substance of the article was ambiguous, and its headline might more
accurately have read: “Chemical Weapons Used in Syria. US Uncertain of
Source.” Again, on May 7 the headline delivered a judgment: “White
House Sticks to Cautious Path on Syria.” This would not, in most
papers at most times, have qualified as a front-page story at all.
That there has been no change of policy is hardly news unless a great
many sensible persons are expecting a change. The headline implied
that the common sense of the well-informed now favors armed
intervention; yet the paper had carried the day before, in a corner of
page 9, a Reuters dispatch of some significance. This was a report of
a statement by a qualified investigator, Carla Del Ponte of the UN
commission of inquiry on Syria, who flatly contradicted the rumors of
the use of sarin by the Assad government: “This was use on the part of
the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.” UN
officials commented that there was “no conclusive proof” about the use
of chemical weapons. Astonishingly the Reuters story was neither
analyzed nor incorporated in the lead Times story of the day’s events.

In April and May, it must be said, the Times has been an extreme case.
On May 7, when the Times played down the public contradiction of its
own reports, a Wall Street Journal story by Naftali Bendavid confirmed
the skeptical judgment about Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons
by testimony from a second non-American source. The secretary-general
of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was said to acknowledge indications
that chemical weapons may have been used but without any “confirmed,
consolidated information as to who might have used [them].” On May 6,
The Guardian reported that the UK defense secretary Philip Hammond
“admitted that Western intelligence services would probably have to
wait for a further chemical attack before gathering enough information
to trace it back to the government.” A week later, on May 12, Robert
Gates on Face the Nation offered a judgment of the wisdom of American
intervention in Arab lands: “I thought it was a mistake in Libya,”
said Gates. “And I think it is a mistake in Syria.” That verdict came
with a certain authority from the person who, as defense secretary
under Bush and Obama, spent much of 2007 keeping America out of war
with Iran and much of Obama’s first term withdrawing American soldiers
from Iraq.

Meanwhile, within Congress, the voices that led the march to war in
2003 have been clamoring against any hesitation by Obama to take
military action. About John McCain, it is no satire but simple truth
to say that he cannot have enough wars. On May 8, McCain published in
Time a characteristic editorial, “Syria: Intervention Is in Our
Interest,” which contained a list of practical suggestions. Since the
column supplies answers without having asked questions, it may serve
economy to list in brackets the questions that naturally occur to a
mind less confident and rash:

"We could train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces, as
recommended last year by President Obama’s national-security
team.[“Vetted” by whom and with what expertise?] We could strike
Assad’s aircraft and Scud-missile launchers. [Inside Russian-built air
defenses stronger than those in Libya?] We could destroy artillery and
drive Assad’s forces from their posts. [All without ground forces?]"

Yet much of the recent pressure for another American intervention is
coming from liberals. Senator Carl Levin, for one, cosigned with
McCain a letter to the president on March 21 which urged—among other
“limited military options”—the launching of “precision airstrikes”
against the Syrian air force, as well as “more robust assistance” to
opposition fighters believed to be unconnected with al-Qaeda. One of
the tricks of persuasion of the liberal section of the war party, from
Iraq through Libya to Syria, has been to aestheticize war. The Iraqi
advisers of the Bush administration—Ahmed Chalabi, Kanan Makiya, and
others—frequently said that American forces occupying Iraq would be
“greeted with sweets and flowers.” The optimism of Bill Keller departs
from that pattern to some degree, and offers elevating comparisons to
dance and music: “All of this [program of military intervention] must
be carefully choreographed and accompanied by a symphony of

A less sanguine prognosis was suggested by Dexter Filkins in the May
13 New Yorker. Looking for reasons to intervene—though, by the end of
the article, he does not seem to have found them—Filkins interviewed
Fouad Ajami, but quotes him without remarking that Ajami was, as
indeed he remains, an enthusiastic endorser of the war in Iraq. The
same article quotes Anne-Marie Slaughter without mentioning her close
association with Hillary Clinton and the strong position she took in
pressing Obama to execute “regime change” in Libya. Slaughter treated
Filkins to the inverted aestheticism typical of much war propaganda
when she imagined a result of a Syrian chemical attack: “Syrian
civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the
thousands while the United States stands by.” That fantasy of the
future was challenged within days by the assessments from Del Ponte,
Rasmussen, and Hammond.

The Obama administration has been strangely tentative in justifying
its choice not to arm Syrian rebels: a policy that would need little
defense if the president could bring himself to speak it plainly. On
the use of sarin, the White House statement told of an ambiguous
“chain of custody” of the prohibited chemicals: a phrase that
clarifies nothing for most readers. It would have been straighter and
wiser to say: “Things are in such chaos in Syria that we can’t be sure
whether the government or the rebels used sarin.” Filkins himself
reflects the same tentativeness: he is drawn to the idea (dimly in the
background) that there should be a military solution, and if so the US
should be equipped to supply it. His article—and there have been
others like it—exhibits a plenitude of military speculations but is
void of political analysis. To judge by what he writes, Filkins did
not consult Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Pape, or any other well-known
authorities whose previous warnings have proved accurate. In fact,
Brzezinski recently issued a sharp admonition in Time:

"The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of
tiddly-winks intervention from around the edges of the conflict—no-fly
zones, bombing Damascus and so forth—would simply make the situation
worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically
beneficial for the US. On the contrary, they would produce a more
complex, undefined slide into the worst-case scenario."

Filkins’s article closes by quoting a government official who gets
away with saying unchallenged that Iraq was “a crisis…that was

Contained at what cost, and for how long? The day of the Boston
Marathon bombings saw seventy-five killed in Iraq, and 356 wounded:
just one story, which few Americans will have read, out of dozens
about the aftermath of the American occupation. Our rehearsals of our
own good intentions, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now in
Syria, have swollen to the shape of a rationalized addiction. What
then should the US do? Nothing, until we can do something good. But
the situation could not be less promising. At present, the main
support of Syrian opposition forces comes from Saudis and Qataris. The
US has offered help at two removes, but lacks the intelligence to
perform much more without strengthening al-Qaeda as we did in Libya.
Luis Lema, in a recent editorial in Le Temps of Geneva, rightly
remarked that the war is becoming “not only less and less ‘legible,’
but more and more unpredictable.”

And each day adds a new reminder of the futility of allegedly
pragmatic solutions. A Times report on May 15 by Anne Barnard and
Hania Mourtada (“An Atrocity in Syria, with No Victim Too Small”) told
of the sectarian “cleansing” by pro-government forces of Sunni
enclaves, in the village of Bayda and the city of Baniyas, both
located in a mainly Alawite and Christian province. Three hundred
twenty-two corpses have been identified, many of them horribly
mutilated. As a pledge of retaliation, a rebel commander filmed
himself “cutting out an organ of a dead pro-government fighter, biting
it and promising the same fate to Alawites.” It is a saccharine
optimism that says the country has begun to fall apart and a more
“proactive” US could hold it together.

Syria has already largely disintegrated. The government and its
Alawite and Christian supporters have secured the west, the Kurds are
in the northeast, and the Islamist rebels are in the east (where the
al-Nusra Front has already begun to enforce sharia law). The grossness
of the chatter about intervention is suggested by a recent debate
between American advisers on Syria and the “moderate” rebel forces
they are best satisfied with. The question in dispute, as Phil Sands
revealed in a May 9 report in The National (“America’s Hidden Agenda
in Syria’s War”), turned on whether the moderates should go into
combat first against the Assad loyalists, or against the al-Nusra
Front whom they will eventually have to kill.

But the untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities
on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial
motive and muscle that keeps it going. A Financial Times article by
Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith on May 17, “How Qatar Seized
Control of the Syrian Revolution,” quoted persons close to the Qatari
government who estimate that $3 billion has thus far been spent
bankrolling the rebel groups. Sources inside Syria had guessed only a
third of that. But the money must keep coming, since Qatar is buying
up the loyalty of networks of rebel forces as an investment in the
divided Syria of the future. This is calculated for geopolitical and
economic influence, without clear religious or ideological motivation:
the rulers of Qatar have no apparent common ground with the Islamist
sects they are subsidizing. Nor does their involvement bode a peaceful
future order: the flow of money, according to Khalaf and
Fielding-Smith, “has already created many enemies inside Syria, and
not just among pro-regime supporters.”

Against Qatar and Saudi Arabia stand the Shia powers including Iran
and its ally Hezbollah, along with numbers of Iraqi Shiites whom the
war of 2003 displaced. All these groups support the Alawites—related
to Shia Islam. All of them except the Alawites are outsiders to Syria
who for religious, cultural, and political reasons do not believe that
they are outsiders. The US, by contrast, is seen throughout the region
as a perfect outsider. The violence has now taken almost 80,000 lives,
yet it remains a reasonable fear that disorders sprung from another
American war could lead to still more ferocious bloodlettings. Our
ally Turkey, which has supported Syrian rebels, is troubled by the
prospect of separationist energy driving the Kurds of Syria to form a
state of their own; and the International Crisis Group report on
Syria’s Kurds (issued on January 22) contains an entire section
uneasily entitled: “From Arab Uprising to Kurdish Opportunity.”

Americans for a long time have tended to think (when we think of other
countries at all) that the more new nations spring up, the better.
This goes with our relaxed communitarianism but bears little relation
to realities elsewhere. Our latest siege of optimism, which followed
the collapse of the Soviet empire, has now been given a fair trial
over a quarter of a century. It has not always worked out well. Not in
the Balkans, not in the former Soviet republics, and not, it seems, in
the Middle East.

The high-pressure bid for intervention in Syria may have come to a
temporary halt. (The quickness of its start and stop recalls those
weeks of March and April 2007 that witnessed an equally sudden press
for war with Iran.) On May 7, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov announced their plan for an international conference on
Syria, possibly as early as the end of May. And barring the extreme
possibilities—a White House panicked from other causes and desperate
to prove its potency; another Israeli bombing of Syria that succeeds
in dragging the US in—it might require a breakdown of negotiations to
prompt Barack Obama to follow the militarized advice he is getting now
from sources that do not include the US military.

An article on the Kerry–Lavrov meeting by Peter Beaumont in the May 5
Observerof London made clear, as no American publication yet has done,
the extent of the damage to the US from the miscarriage of NATO
actions in Libya. The powers outside NATO whom we must rely on—Brazil,
Russia, India, China, South Africa—eventually realized that in Libya
the three leading powers, France, Britain, and the US, were all bent
on regime change rather than merely the enforcement of a no-fly zone.
Those countries, as Beaumont pointed out, felt betrayed and they will
be understandably harder to move on Syria.

The difficulty of uniting so distrustful a group will be matched, in
any negotiations on Syria, by the disunity of the Arab League. They
are divided between Shiite and Sunni loyalties and often further
divided within. But theirs is the region that will bear the burden of
the nearly one and a half million Syrians who are now refugees, most
of them in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Iranian involvement, qualified
observers have said, will be necessary for a lasting peace agreement,
given the role of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran in the
hostilities; and by keeping Iran in the outer darkness, Obama’s lack
of imagination may have served his cause as poorly as his insistence
on saying again and again that “Assad must go.” A good result of
negotiations would be a transitional governing body that offers Assad
a slow exit, but the obstacles to such an outcome are formidable.

The refugees of the Iraq war were the great unspoken disaster of the
bombing, invasion, and armed occupation of Iraq, during the first five
years of our nine-year stay. Two and a half million fled that country,
out of a population of 27 million. Thus far the US has admitted as
immigrants 64,000: a little under 3 percent. The vast majority of
those displaced lives have become the unasked responsibility of
Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab nations. And the scale of the
crisis of the refugees from Syria is only beginning to be recognized.
Of the nearly one and a half million refugees scattered by the civil
war into foreign lands, 500,000 are in Jordan alone, more than half of
them under the age of eighteen.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote about the
millions of stateless and rightless persons cast up by the early wars
of the twentieth century and the imperialist manufacture of new
nations before and after World War I. A whole generation of the
displaced were brought into the world so lacking in hope, so without
access to elementary rights that, for them, to live within the law
presented no advantage over crime and for that matter terrorism. “The
calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Arendt wrote, “but that they
no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that
they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them.”
The disasters of the twentieth century, as she judged them, had proved
that a globalized order might “produce barbarians from its own midst
by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all
appearances, are the conditions of savages.” An end no happier, if we
do not take care, awaits us down the road of the “carefully
choreographed” violence and the “symphony of diplomacy” conducted by
the last of the great powers.

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