Syria: Just Say No

Syria Chemical Weapons Red LineNancy Reagan is perhaps most famous for her advice to drug addicts: “Just Say No!”

Barack Obama, apparently against his better judgment, is about to feed our nation’s addiction to addressing insoluble problems with bombs, with predictably perverse results. He ought to “just say no.”

It’s been characteristic of Obama that he avoids sweeping statements of principle. You can’t tell what his policy is only by listening to him: you have to watch him. And watching him deal with the civil war in Syria makes clear that he is deeply wary of getting sucked into it, in spite of pressure to do so from congressional hawks and even some of his civilian advisers. Yet he hasn’t articulated a policy against intervention, and he did make the famous statement that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” So now his credibility is on that red line; he is being backed into a corner where he will have to intervene, even though he knows it will come to no good.

He’s not going to be able to do anything through the UN (unlike Bush I in the Persian Gulf) because the Russians and the Chinese will veto any Security Council action. It will be more like Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, or that of Bush II in Iraq: a “coalition of the willing” in which the US does all the heavy lifting and takes on the principal blame when things go wrong—as they inevitably will.

This is a civil war, even though it is fed by international resources and has international implications. The Assad regime has never been our friend, but neither was it ever our implacable enemy. The Israelis, for example, learned to coexist with the Assads, father and son. And Assad’s enemies are not necessarily our friends: within the opposition, liberal reformers are more than matched by Sunni fundamentalists, including Al Qaeda, who would be far more inimical to US interests than Assad. There is no way to bring down Assad without the very high risk of a successor regime that is worse. Only by putting a substantial force on the ground, as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq, can we get a government we can live with, and only so long as we keep the troops there.

john peelerIt is Saudi Arabia that seems to be driving US policy at the moment. The Saudis, of course, are a reactionary Sunni dynasty that sees itself as competing with Shi’a Iran’s more revolutionary Islam for primacy in the Middle East. Assad is a client of Iran because his Alawite sect is a branch of Shi’a Islam. Hezbollah, the main Shi’s party in Lebanon, is also allied with Iran, and has been fighting in support of Assad in Syria. The Syrian opposition forces are almost all Sunni, like the Saudis. This is the snake pit we are stepping into. The Saudis will cheer if we don’t get bitten, but they won’t be in there with us.

You would think that Obama, having worked so hard to get us out of the snake pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, would know to stay out of this one. But precisely because he hasn’t clearly articulated a rationale for staying out, he’s being dragged in.

John Peeler

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on August 29, 2013
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.