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


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Peeler’s analysis is pretty good, but does have one notable error and two notable omissions:

    (1) I see no evidence that the great mass of ordinary Americans – as versus the self-serving political oligarchy – has an ‘addiction to solving insoluble problems with bombs’.
    (2) At stake in the USA response or non-response in Syria is the credibility of Obama’s USA and administration in dealing NOT only with Assad but with his external supporters – Iran’s Khamenei and Russia’s Putin – and the former’s drive for Iranian nukes. The prime problem here is that the Khamenei regime is not merely a proud nationalist tyranny, but the world’s prime state sponsor of terror and of jihad to impose crushing Islamic supremacy wherever possible.
    Of course possible intervention in Syria wouldn’t really be much of an issue if Obama had convinced Khamenei that red lines against his nuke and missile buildup would be enforced, with military action if need be. However, on the contrary, Obama’s folk have made sure to look passive, to indulge Khamenei’s election-stealing and human-rights’ abuses, and overall to give Khamenei the opposite impression – that the half-hearted sanctions are in place just to keep USA politicians happy, and that lots of Iran nukes will be OK as long as they are brought on line after Obama himself leaves the scene.
    (3) No one argues that another national regime in Syria to replace Assad’s would be much better – but that is NOT the only scenario. You see, thanks to the civil war, Syria is now already split at least three ways. Maybe helping to keep it that way – so that no one set of bad guys has control of the whole countery – would be the least bad and most sustainable and relatively tranquil solution. Sure, Western political oligarchs are addicted to a philosophy which favors big nations over small regions – and so they sent thousands of our young people to die for ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, because they found it intolerable that Afghanistan was essentially a federation of tribal regions (whose leaders were denigrated by being called ‘warlords’) rather than a strong centralized state. But in reality Syria may have a better chance for long-term relative peace as a loose federation of regions – including Alawites (Assad’s folk) in the Northwest, Kurds in the Northeast, primarily Sunni in the Center, Druze in the South – and maybe more. The very idea of a unitary Syrian state is an artifact of French and British post-WW1 mentalities and arrangements for dealing with what used to be the Ottoman Empire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *