There are so many disturbing aspects to Pres. Obama’s decision to start providing weapons to the Syrian opposition(s) that it is hard to know where to start in commenting thereon. Perhaps, with the completely unclear, unsubstantiated nature of the allegations Obama’s spokesperson made regarding the Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons? Obama’s administration hasn’t even bothered, as Pres G.W. Bush did back in February 2003, to make any public presentation of the ‘evidence’ on which it bases its allegations. Do the president and his team take us all for mindless morons who will follow wherever he leads, or do they think we somehow don’t deserve to see the ‘evidence’ that they claim to have? … Or, do they know that the ‘evidence’ they have is all so flimsy and inconclusive that, once exposed to the light of day, it would do nothing to validate the president’s decision to take a huge step up the escalation ladder regarding Syria?
… Alternatively, should I make the point– that Marc Lynch, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Juan Cole, and others have already made– that we have heard no public exposition of any kind at all from the President or any of his top-level advisers of what the sought-for strategic end-point is for this latest extremely troubling and escalatory step? How, Mr. Obama, can you assure Americans or anyone else that this latest American escalation will not end up leading us all into a quagmire in Syria of exactly the same kind that, seven years ago, you rightly saw as having been the case with the U.S. military action against Iraq?
… Well, other people have made all the above arguments– and many other good ones, too. I want to concentrate here on two other, little-discussed aspects of the Syrian situation: First, the real and mounting risk of genocide in Syria– one that is being advocated, and mobilized around, by numerous hardline factions within in the same ‘opposition’ constellation that Obama now supports. And second, the disutility/absurdity of the whole notion of a ‘safe haven/ no fly zone’ that is now reportedly being discussed and planned for.
Let’s start with the risk of genocide.
On the risk of genocide in Syria.
Both ‘sides’ in Syria have been guilty of committing great violence against the other side and against far too many of the ordinary citizens caught up in the cross-fire. But only one side contains people who are openly engaged in sectarian/religious hate-speech and on occasion actual genocidal actions against members of other targeted groups. These are the takfiris: the hard-line Sunni fundamentalists from Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and myriad other loosely allied groups in the opposition who openly call for the killing of Shiites simply because they are Shiites, as well as of Christians, Alawites, and other non-Sunnis.. and even of anyone in their own (Sunni) community who disagrees with their own hardline views of the world.
Takfir, for those readers not familiar with the notion, is the act of denouncing someone else as a non-believer or an apostate. And that denunciation in and of itself, in the takfiri worldview, not only allows but also frequently mandates that the person(s) thus denounced be killed. The term takfiri could be translated as “denouncer”, but that would be too soft a term. The takfiris now in action in broad swathes of Syria are genocidaires-in-waiting, like the genocidaires of Rwanda in the months leading up to April 1994. And like those genocidaires, these takfiris are disseminating their hate propaganda as widely and publicly as they can, trying to ramp up the level of fear and hatred in every way, including of course on the Internet.
Takfirism is a real and present danger wherever the black banners of these hate-filled extremists can be seen. It is what lies behind acts such as the blowing up of a Shiite mosque (and, reportedly, numerous other anti-Shiite actions) in the eastern Syrian village of Hatla last week. Takfirism was behind the shooting of the (Sunni) boy in Aleppo last week, on the mere grounds that he had “taken the name of the Prophet in vain.” Takfirism was behind the desecration of the Mar Elias church in Qusayr by some rebel bands, before the town was retaken by government forces ten days ago. Other examples abound.
I have heard many people here in the United States saying things, over the past few weeks, like “The Shiites and the Sunnis have been fighting each other for ever… Don’t blame America for everything that happens between them.” These kinds of arguments are either woefully ill-informed, or just plain dishonest. Yes, there have been many periods of tension between Shiites and Sunnis in the past (as well as tensions between Muslims and Christians in the Arab world), and these tensions seem to be a steep upswing right now. BUT the following facts also need to be borne in mind:
- On many occasions in recent years, our government has indeed taken actions that exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the region. Much of the policy pursued by the U.S. occupation administration in Iraq had the effect (intended or not) of essentializing and deepening the differences between the two groups, and turning politics inside Iraq and far beyond it sharply toward sectarianism and away from ‘national’ or more broadly humanistic forms of identification. Much of the policy pursued by the U.S. regarding Iran has been based even more intentionally on whipping up anti-Shiite fears and hatreds among the Sunni-dominated governments of the Arab side of the Gulf. The United States is not an innocent actor in these matters.
- Historically, Sunni-Shiite relations have frequently gone through periods when they are not very acute, or even considered by many Muslims to be very important. The number of Shiite-Sunni marriages in countries that contain both populations has often been fairly high. And even today, inside Syria, a large portion of the country’s Sunni citizens continue to side with the government and fight in the national army. If this was not the case, given the fact that Sunnis make up around 75% of the national population, there is no chance that the regime could have survived this long.
- The argument that ‘Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting for ever and we can’t do anything about it’ is one that, in the Syrian context, seems to put equal responsibility for sectarian hate-mobilization on both the government and the opposition side. But this is not the case. On the opposition side, there is a clear, visible, and significant portion of the opposition fighting forces that are mobilized and seek to mobilize others overwhelmingly on the basis of inter-sect hatred. On the government side there is no such mobilization (and also, no evidence of hate-based acts like desecrations or genocidal mass killings.)
My understanding of Obama’s Syria policy for the past two years is that the president has been blown about by competing winds– probably starting off with a baseline reluctance to get drawn into a repeat of the Iraq quagmire, but never quite figuring how to do so. This, against stubborn background aspects of Washington policymaking such as:
- Nearly thirty years of solid anti-Asad agitation (pere et fils), and the resulting tough anti-Syrian sanctions from Washington.
- The campaign that Hillary Clinton successfully waged, back in the summer 2011, to get Obama to declare that ‘Asad has to go’, and to make that– rather than the achievement of a negotiated settlement among Syrians— the top priority of U.S. policy towards Syria.
So now, it is Hillary’s husband who, using the crudest kinds of appeals to a version of Obama’s ‘manhood’, has pushed Obama over the precipice of promising direct U.S. military support for the Syria rebels. This is a position from which he will now find it hard to back down, even if he wants to. Make no mistake, this escalation of the climate of confrontation and tension in and regarding Syria has set in train consequences that are extremely hard to predict… but none of them will be good. Violence, as we all know (or surely, should know by now?), only begets more violence. And Obama’s decision to pour U.S. weapons into Syria is definitely an act of escalation and violence. Escalation, that is, over and above the previous policy of merely colluding with and quietly aiding Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan as those powers worked together to funnel weapons and foreign fighters into Syria.
By not standing up firmly against escalation, and by not committing himself fully and robustly to pursuit of a negotiated settlement, Obama has made himself almost a prisoner of the forces urging more violence. There are people in the Syrian opposition who have never wanted violence. There are others who got tempted by it a while back, but who now express a strong desire to see the conflict and its resulting destruction brought to an end. The voices and political strength of all these Syrians would have been bolstered if Obama had come out foursquare in favor of a negotiated settlement. As it is, his most recent decision has left them sidelined, and has given considerable new momentum to the men of violence– all of them, on both of the ‘sides’ in Syria.
On the anti-government side, I know that the stated policy of the CIA and its buddies in the Special Ops command has been to try to find non-extremist fighting forces in the Syrian opposition and try to strengthen them (in good part by promising them better capabilities, now including arms), thereby– or so the argument goes– reducing the power of the real takfiris. This is a fool’s game. Even after many months of the CIA and its buddies working in Turkey and Jordan to try to figure out the ever-shifting who’s who in the Syrian opposition, and to unify the allegedly non-extreme portions of the ‘Free Syrian Army’, it is clear that that effort has failed. The takfiris are stronger than ever. No-one in Washington (or in Incirlik or Amman) can be sure that arms funneled in to the Syrian opposition over the next few months won’t end up in takfiri hands.
Moreover, by succumbing to the first round of the FSA people’s blackmail (“You have to give us weapons, otherwise the takfiris will stay stronger than us!”), the stage has only been set for the next round of FSA blackmail, and the ones coming after that, too. No amount or types of weapons will ever be sufficient for these people’s demands. (And they have already been shown to have had their own supply, in some places, of CW agents like sarin. So what else can they possibly want?)
Indeed, what they most likely want is for the United States and NATO to enter the fighting directly and win their war for them, which is what the oppositionists in Libya back in 2011 achieved so brilliantly, and with such disastrous effects both for the people of Libya and for the safety and security of a broad swathe of Africa.
… Which is why we need to come, very soon, to a serious consideration of this whole business of a ‘no-fly zone’. But before I get to that, just a couple more points about the risk of genocide.
Firstly, we now know that there is a very present risk of genocide inside Syria, as has already been foreshadowed by the wide and systematic dissemination of hate-propaganda, and by the commission of numerous actual acts of hate-based violence that have stemmed from that propaganda (and that have, in turn, been actively glorified by many of those same propaganda organs.)
Secondly, we know that whenever widespread genocides have occurred in recent history, this has always happened in the midst of war and armed conflict. War and armed conflict provide the circumstances of massive social upheaval in which killing your neighbors just because of who they are, rather than because of anything they have done, can come to seem ‘normal’, or even admirable. In normal, peaceful countries, there may be individual hatemongers, or even broad networks of them. But the hatemongers cannot get a whole population caught up with their propaganda except in circumstances of continuing and destructive conflict.
Thus, if we want to prevent the eruption of a full-blown genocide in Syria, the best way to achieve this is by working 24 hours a day to de-escalate tensions, to conclude local ceasefires wherever and whenever possible, and to work with all parties for a negotiated, longterm peace.
Of Washington’s three experiences with the imposition of a no-fly zone, the two that occurred in the Middle East are the ones with which I’m most familiar. That is, the pair of NFZ’s that the George H.W. Bush administration imposed on Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, in early 1991, and the one that some NATO powers imposed on Libya in March 2011.
The Iraqi NFZ’s were established with a clear and somewhat persuasive purpose: To deny the Saddam regime the ability to use airpower against the two opposition movements that had arisen in the north and south of the country in the very last days of Desert Storm– in response, it needs to be noted, to the explicit call that Pres. Bush broadcast, to “the people and army of Iraq” that they should rise up and overthrow their president. Briefly, what happened was that in the north and south of the country, large-scale insurrections did almost immediately result. As soon as it was able, the Saddam regime moved in to crush them, which it did without mercy. But the armed forces of the same U.S. president who had called for the insurrection, which were poised on the southern borders of Iraq, never lifted a finger to help the besieged insurrectionists. They stayed south of the border because of decisions made in Washington (and also, at the advice of their hosts in Saudi Arabia.) The best that Washington felt it could do was try to deny to the Iraqi military the right to use airpower in their bloody putting-down of the insurrections. Washington claimed that Security Council resolution 688, which expressed grave concern about Saddam’s anti-insurrection moves, gave it a mandate to impose the no-fly zones. But anyway, back in 1991 the Soviet Union was in the throes of falling apart, and China was still much weaker than it is today; so no effective challenge was mounted to the US’s imposition of the NFZ’s.
The one in Northern Iraq was more far-reaching than the one in the south. In the south, the Iraqi air force was still allowed to use helicopters. In the north, both choppers and fixed-wing aircraft were prohibited. In both zones, maintaining the NFZ involved the US (and its ever-willing junior partner the UK) using a significant amount of offensive force against Iraqi air-defense installations. The wielding of the NFZ weapon against the Saddam regime went hand-in-hand, throughout the 1990s and right until 2003, with the imposition of ever-tougher economic sanctions against the country. The sanctions were tied to the allegations about Iraq’s development and possession of various forms of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; and they had a devastating effect on nearly all Iraqis– except for those within the northern NFZ, who were exempted from many portions of the sanctions and who were able to (re)build some fairly robust social institutions throughout the Kurdish-populated parts of the north.
In a sense, in Iraq, the imposition of NFZ’s in April 1991 was a fallback position from the other, more aggressive policy that some people urged, of sending the U.S. military marching from Saudi Arabia all the way to Baghdad and toppling the regime there and then. The NFZ applied in Northern Iraq probably did save lives. It is hard to say, of course, how many additional lives might have been saved if Pres. Bush had NOT issued that completely reckless earlier call on the people and army of Iraq to rise against their rulers.
The NFZ regime in Iraq did nothing to provide any longterm resolution of the country’s many remaining problems of grossly abusive governance. But along with the sanctions regime, the Iraqi NFZ’s froze in place a political situation of political dictatorship for another 12 years; and meanwhile, the sanctions killed an estimated 500,000 or more Iraq’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Not at all a humane situation.
The NFZ that a portion of NATO applied against Libya in March 2011 also had an ostensible ‘humanitarian’ goal: Namely, the ‘saving’ of the population of Benghazi which, Washington claimed, was in imminent danger of being massacred. As I wrote on this blog at the time, there were alternative mechanisms being actively explored at the time, primarily by the African Union, to negotiate a de-escalation of the tensions around Benghazi; and an African Union delegation was just on its way to Benghazi to launch this negotiation just as NATO announced its decision; and it turned back.
(I wish that now, just two years later and in light of all the terrible violence and social/political breakdown into which Libya has fallen since then, some officials in Washington might wish they had given the African Union delegation a bit more time to do its work? But actually, I don’t think that any American officials from Obama on down have yet shown any sign that they’ve learned anything useful from the tragic experience of Libya.)
In Libya, as we know, the U.S. and its allies took hold of the original, limited Security Council resolution (1973) calling for “all necessary means” to be used to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas from attack by the Qaddafi regime and pushed their implementation of it way beyond its original wording and intent, to undertake airborne military actions in support of the opposition as the opposition gathered around Tripoli and overthrew the regime. (This was seen as yet another great victory for, and vindication of, airpower. Of course, since the only people with boots on the ground were the ill-disciplined, internally competing Libyan militias, they are the forces that have been controlling the country ever since.)
The leaderships in China and Russia both felt they had been seriously misled by the western powers when they agreed to the terms of resolution 1973. They are not about to repeat that mistake. (And they are also both much more significant players on the world scene today than they were back in 1991.) The chances that these two governments would sign off on any kind of NFZ resolution regarding Syria are zero. If the United States and the dwindling number of governments that remain in its so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ group of countries want to establish an NFZ inside Syria, absent any enabling resolution from the Security Council, this will be– and will be treated as– an act of war. And if, as the recent reports in the WSJ had it, the plan is for the NFZ to be established just north of Syria’s southern border with Jordan, then evidently the military power of neighboring Israel will be a factor in the situation…
And then, what would be the strategic goal or end-game of any US-backed NFZ in Syria– whether in the north or the south? Would it, as in Libya, be simply a hasty way-station or act of political legerdemain on the way to supporting the rebels in a campaign to capture Damascus? Or would the creation of an NFZ be intended as a less overtly ‘strategic’ move, but one that would create a kind of buffer zone within Syria in which the opposition forces could– along with their families, rest and regroup?
If it’s the latter, then the external forces protecting that ‘safe haven’ with their airpower would have some hard questions to answer. primarily, these two:
- What kind of opposition forces would be protected within the havens (see ‘takfiris‘, above)?
- How, by acting solely from the air, would the U.S. or its allies police the haven and ensure that takfiris or other men of violence would not terrorize the population inside the haven and/or continue their campaign to topple the regime in Damascus (and then, perhaps, continue on to ‘liberate’ Golan, and then Palestine)?
The idea of creating safe havens inside Syria in which the much-abused remnants of the country’s civilian population can be ‘protected’ by the actions of well-meaning foreigners may sound very appealing. The political realities of any such project are horrendous. Let’s hope that just as much thought is being put into the complex politics of any such move before it is undertaken, as is reportedly being put into doing the logistical planning for it.