The Syrian Dilemma: Chemical Weapons and U.S. Action
In a recent report for the National Journal titled “Obama Appears at a Loss to Define the Way Forward in Syria,” author Major Garrett criticized the president for his seeming indecisiveness on whether to provide military aid to Syrian rebels standing against Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal regime. Comparing the president to Gen. Edmund Allenby in the film “Lawrence of Arabia,” Garrett claims that Obama’s position of non-intervention in Syria is woefully inadequate, and that more immediate action is needed in the region:
In essence, the Allenby policy has been U.S. policy in Syria. Humanitarian assistance is not nothing. But if you talk to reporters like my CBS colleague Clarissa Ward, they will say it feels like nothing. For rebels and dissidents starving for weapons and civilians wailing and dying under the onslaught of unchecked Syrian air power, they see Obama’s policy as the equivalent of Allenby’s. And they live with it and die with it every day.
Garrett does a reasonably credible job of supporting his claims of Obama’s lack of surefootedness thus far, citing the political complexities of the region and the low level of domestic support for more direct intervention in the conflict, as well as the lack of desire on behalf of the administration to “lionize unreliable or disorganized dissident forces” fighting against Assad. Any misstep in the region could likely lead to drastic consequences, and it would seem that the President’s course of action has been the wise one thus far. But given recent reports regarding the possible use of chemical weapons in the conflict, as well as reports of recent Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets, the beat of the war drum has quickened its cadence once again, prompting the administration to enter into negotiations around providing lethal weaponry to the rebels and people like Garrett to clamor for Obama’s rhetorical “red line” to coalesce into something more tangible.
It should seem obvious to all that the last thing our nation needs is a repeat of the Iraq war in Syria, and it’s plainly evident that the President does not wish to repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration. Unsubstantiated claims surrounding chemical weapons are classic dog whistles for the war hawks on Capitol Hill, and while Obama is not turning a deaf ear to them, his skepticism is more than apparent. “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” stated the President at a recent press conference. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a situation where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”
So what of these ‘facts’? What do we actually know about the supposed use of chemical weapons in Syria, either by the rebels or by the Syrian government? Unsurprisingly, very little. Conflicting reports from various intelligence sources present ‘evidence’ that is all highly circumspect, ranging from indications of definite usage of chemical weapons to a mere potential to use them. Sound familiar? It should. This was the same sort of ‘intelligence’ that we received during the build up to the Iraq war. Far be it from us to learn from our mistakes though, as all of this conflicting information has failed to stop people like Dianne Feinstein — chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the supposed ‘authority’ in all of this — from announcing that “it is clear that red lines have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use.”
Half-cocked assertions from unreliable sources aren’t stopping the war hawks from champing at the bit to get in there and do some damage to Assad, for little other apparent reason than to remind Iran and Hezbollah — who have played only a minor role in the Syrian conflict — exactly who’s in charge in the Middle East: us and Israel. Seeing as how Israel is our biggest ally in the region, and they’ve taken it upon themselves to begin regularly attacking Assad’s forces, then we’re involved, whether we like it or not. So now we’ve got to ply the populace with the appropriate nationalist rhetoric and trumped-up claims of atrocities to get everyone on board. Consider the following:
The most compelling ‘evidence’ of chemical weapons usage thus far stems from the arrival of three Syrian child refugees to the Lebanese city of Tripoli with deep burns, but no apparent wounds from bullets or shrapnel. It’s been suggested that the wounds are consistent with those received from chemical weapons attacks, but could just as likely be caused from the use of phosphorous shells by the Syrian government’s forces. Phosphorous shells can inflict deep burns of the kind described on the refugees, and also have the potential to cause birth defects. They are not to be used against civilians, only military forces, but it’s quite possible — even plausible — that Assad’s forces have access to phosphorous shells, and are indeed using them against the civilian populace. However, it’s not in America’s best interest to mention this fact, as U.S. military forces used those same munitions against civilians as well as militants in Fallujah during the Iraq war, where there has been a dramatic increase in birth defects.
All of the paranoia centers around a tried and true cliché, the fact that Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile might “fall into the wrong hands,” namely Islamist extremists — Garrett’s “unreliable or disorganized dissident forces” — fighting on the side of the rebels. Unreliable? Yes. Disorganized? Hardly. According to a December 2012 McClatchy report, ”Jabhat al Nusra (one of the most prominent of the rebel forces), which U.S. officials believe has links to al Qaida, has become essential to the frontline operations of the rebels fighting to topple Assad, … are organized in battalion-sized groups that are often armed with heavy weaponry,” and have racked up a great deal of impressive victories, particularly in Syria’s northern and eastern regions.
While the rebels appear to collectively be losing ground since this report was released, it’s doubtful that the fervor of al-Nusra has diminished at all, so issuing lethal weaponry to the rebels might very well prove to be problematic down the road. Claiming that al-Nusra’s weapons are the ‘wrong hands’ implies that Assad’s are the ‘right hands.’ This is the same thing we said about Saddam Hussein until he deployed them against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Of course, we can’t really draw that comparison publicly since several of the components of Saddam’s chemical weapons were manufactured in New Jersey, and sent to Baghdad by the U.S.
Through all of this, the propaganda war rages on, driven by people like Major Garrett and his ilk. The most dangerous lie of all is the lie of omission, and the story I’ve told here is certainly not the one that is appearing across mainstream media outlets across the country. It’s easy to make the president’s Syrian strategy look like ‘Allenby-minus’ by employing flowery language and colorful rhetoric, oversimplifying what is one of the most complicated, delicate, and violent situations in Middle Eastern politics today. When the enemy of your enemy is not your friend, it’s all too easy to get caught between a rock and a hard place.
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