Hands Off Syria: Learning a Harsh Lesson

It seems inconceivable that U.S. decision-makers would be considering military 300px-no_war_on_syria-svgintervention in Syria given our recent dismal record of accomplishment when it comes to meddling in Middle Eastern conflicts. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led not to the blossoming of democracy and free market economics, as neoconservatives hoped, but instead destabilized the country and led to nightmarish sectarian violence. The U.S. occupation fueled anti-Western sentiment and acted as a boon for jihadist recruitment. These, in turn, created the conditions for the ascendancy of Islamic State, its 2014 capture of Mosul and its spread into Syria. The U.S. had also helped make possible the ISIS expansion into Syria by training and supplying Syrian rebels, a CIA operation now regarded as a failure and a waste of billions of dollars. Yet, despite this string of calamities, the Beltway “foreign policy elite” is chomping at the bit for a more hawkish Syria strategy than President Barack Obama has been willing to give them. With a Hillary Clinton on November 8 almost assured, it seems very likely that those elites will get their druthers.

U.S. elections rarely concern themselves with issues, but this year in particular we have heard more about pneumonia, tax returns and e-mails than about policy positions. It was only during the debates that Clinton came out clearly in favor of a no-fly zone in Syria — not to bring down the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, but to prevent the Assad government from bombing civilians in rebel-held territory. The obvious problem with this is that Russia is actively assisting Assad, and Moscow would use surface-to-air missile systems so the bombings could continue. Assuming, however, that the bombings did end, how would that prevent the sieges leading to starvation in Homs? How would a n0-fly zone stop the car bombs and mortar shells in East Aleppo? These questions are becoming secondary and even tertiary to the insistence that the U.S. do something, anything, to combat the war crimes being committed by Assad’s forces with Russian support.

There is a compelling moral argument to stop those crimes. Who can see the images of the 320px-wounded_civilians_arrive_at_hospital_aleppodisplaced, traumatized people in Syria and not feel a visceral urge to stop the suffering? At the same time, however, very few advocates of escalation openly call for open war, especially a war between two global powers. The question therefore becomes, “How can we have 100% safe military intervention?” In other words, how can we have war without the casualties? It is an absurd premise, but it is the one upon which modern U.S. foreign policy typically rests. According to this dysfunctional thinking, unmanned drones and “smart” bombs translate to interventions that are more affordable domestically because there are “no boots on the ground.” Vietnam and Iraq became untenable for the U.S. government in part because of widely circulated images of U.S. soldiers wounded and dying in hostile environs characterized by insurgents striking from the shadows. Granted, U.S. bombings and drone strikes cause plenty of “collateral damage” but the deaths of innocent non-Americans are tolerated if they serve the “higher purpose” of U.S. foreign policy.

For example, it became imperative in 2011 for the West to intervene in the Libyan civil war to prevent the massacre of dissidents by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s loyalists. The NATO air campaign that followed helped bring down Qaddafi, but it also killed at least 72 civilians, one-third of them children. The Obama administration thought it had escaped the errors of Afghanistan and Iraq by not committing to “regime-change,”but by neglecting reconstruction entirely has led to Libya becoming a breeding ground for militias associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS. Five years after the NATO bombings, the U.S. is now bombing Libya again, this time in the hopes of dislocating the jihadist bases located there. Obama now considers the Libya intervention the “worst mistake” of his time in office.

His soon-to-be successor, Hillary Clinton, had been the swing vote that had green-lighted the 2011 intervention. In 2002, she had been one of the many U.S. senators to vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq war, although she now claims to regret it. Her stances on Libya and 320px-us_navy_110319-n-7293m-003_uss_barry_28ddg_5229_fires_tomahawk_cruise_missiles_in_support_of_operation_odyssey_dawnSyria suggest that her regret may have more to do with electoral calculus than the learning of any lessons about the high price of so-called “low-risk intervention.” Publicly, she blames the failure of Libya on the rebels themselves: “[Libya] is a perfect case where people who’ve never had that opportunity to run anything, manage anything, even participate in meaningful politics, understandably are not even sure what questions to ask.” The absence of strong institutions in Libya, however, was plain for anyone to foresee. Qaddafi’s political power was based on tribal networks and alliances, and without power centralized in his hands, a power vacuum formed that was filled by religious warlords. It was exactly what had happened in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was purged from government post-invasion: the U.S. policy of “de-Baathification” led to the undermining and collapse of state power, leading to unrest and violence.

There is every reason to believe that the same would happen in Syria, in the unlikely event that Assad could be forced from power. The Assad family has for decades laden the government with relatives and sycophants. Ironically, the individuals who could have posed any internal threat to Assad were killed in a July 2012 rebel attack. As in countless other regimes across the world, the government has been ordered to conform to a binary choice: the status quo or anarchy. In such situations, for a peaceful transition to occur, the change has to be supported by the leader as well as the most powerful institutions. In Syria today, Assad remains firmly in control, with Russian and Iranian support — and no shortage of external enemies to blame his problems on, from ISIS to the United States.

Even if Vladimir Putin is bluffing and Russia backs down rather than stand by Assad until 320px-al-nusra_front_members_in_maarrat_al-numanthe bitter end, it will take rebels storming Damascus, Aleppo and other key cities. Such a scenario would mean even more dead and displaced civilians, to say nothing of even more damage to the basic infrastructure. Who fills the void left by Assad? Most likely, it will either be ISIS or the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (otherwise known as the Al-Nusra Front, or al-Qaeda in the Levant). Instead of Bashar al-Assad, Syria will either be controlled by fanatics promoting worldwide jihad or “just” jihad in one region. The only way that the U.S. gets a government it favors is through hands-on reconstruction, and again, evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq shows how unsuccessful that can be.

It must be stressed that this deviling choice — between brutal autocrats and barbaric zealots — can also be credited, at least in part, to U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, the U.S. lent its support to corrupt authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders if they opposed communism and aided us in the obtaining of oil. In 1953, the CIA infamously saddam_rumsfeldmasterminded the coup that overthrew democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran. When the Iranian clergy revolted against the U.S.-supported monarchy in 1979, Washington aided Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the ensuing Iran-Iraq war. Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as a military dictator from 1971 to 2000, slowly gained U.S. trust for his reputation as a pragmatist. Assad supported the nationalist Baath Party in Syria not out of ideology, but its pan-Arabism provided him with a political platform that he would not otherwise have had as a member of a religious minority. After the 1973 Arab–Israeli War proved that the Soviet Union would not actually back its Arab allies against Israel, Syria joined the region-wide shift into the U.S. sphere of influence. In 1991, Syria even joined the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War against Iraq. When Hafez did and was succeeded by his son Bashar, there was speculation that he would keep Syria a bulwark against religious and political radicals while simultaneously reforming his regime to be more open and accountable. Of course, rather than share power, the Assad family has consolidated its own and destroyed the opposition.

That the U.S. supports a large number of dictators globally is hardly news. Yet not enough attention is paid to how we also support one of the strongholds of radical Islam, the 320px-flag_of_saudi_arabia-svgKingdom of Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud had come to power in 1932 by partnering with the local clergy, who preached Salafism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that promotes a fundamentalist religious lifestyle. After discovering rich oil fields in the country in 1937, the U.S. government struck a deal with the Saudi royals: the U.S. would enjoy privileged access to Saudi petroleum as long as it stayed out of Saudi affairs, including its religious practices. To this day, the U.S. government stands by Riyadh, even as it carries out terrible human rights abuses. We also support it even as it sponsors the exporting of Salafism around the world, where its literal and extreme interpretation of Islam has fostered the growth of al-Qaeda in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and other jihadists. (Qatar, another oil-rich Gulf autocracy, is also a key sponsor of al-Qaeda, Libyan jihadists, and most notably has provided an office for exiled Taliban leaders in the capital of Doha.)

There is no shortage of recent examples of blind U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. One was President Obama vetoing bipartisan legislation that made it possible for families who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001 attacks to sue the Saudi government for its complicity (Congress overturned the veto). Another was a “triple-tap” bombing by Saudi planes of a funeral in Yemen that killed 140 people using U.S. munitions. This was so egregious that a U.S. official said that Saudi Arabia did not have a “blank check” to commit war crimes. This was a slap on the wrist compared to the heavy-handed rhetoric the U.S. government uses against its enemies, but in the context of U.S.-Saudi relations, the incident stands out as a rare case of Washington daring to chastise Saudi Arabia.

The conflict in Yemen, widely ignored in the Western media, is worth noting because it also features an al-Qaeda affiliate — Ansar al-Sharia — fighting on the side of Saudi Arabia and its coalition (all U.S. allies) against the Houthi government. Yemen, by the way, is suffering a major humanitarian catastrophe, with a historic drought and water shortage, all exacerbated by a civil war. Interestingly, the U.S. and its “foreign policy elite” are not ringing any alarm bells to intervene in the Yemeni situation.

Perhaps because Saudi Arabia called dibs first.

The Truly Dangerous: Iran vs. the West

Earlier this week, a classmate and I discussed the recent posturing by both the United States and Iran, which has caused many observers to pontificate on the possibility of a war between the two countries. I argued that such a conflict was unlikely, as it was difficult to perceive how it would benefit anyone. My classmate, however, claimed that, if pushed far enough, the Iranian government could very well start a war, even if defeat was certain. The kernel of his assertion was that Iran’s leaders – specifically the hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard officers – would be open to going out “guns blazing” if pressure, internal and external, became so great that their continued rule became unviable. In other words, while Iranian elites may act rationally under normal conditions, the ideology of political Islam means that irrational, self-destructive behavior is a distinct and dangerous possibility under the right circumstances.

My sole objection to this line of thinking is that it ascribes hazard only to the Iranians and their “exotic” and “inscrutable” culture and beliefs. Just because it is hard to fathom why so many Iranians, past to present, support the authoritarian theocracy that dominates their lives and curbs their freedoms, this does not mean that Iranians, even the vehement ultra-conservatives, possess alien mentalities beyond Western ken. It is just that their values are different from ours, their historical experiences vastly dissimilar. Various world powers have besieged Iran since the end of the 17th century, and while it no longer contends with Ottoman encroachment or European colonialism, Iran continues to view its relation to the world with a siege mentality. Today, the country is rightfully wary of an unchallenged, militaristic and arrogant superpower that has invaded and occupied two Middle Eastern countries and seeks to promote its imperial grand strategy of permanent world hegemony. Closer to home, Iranians still remember the 1981 Israeli airstrike that took out a nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq, solely on the Israeli suspicion that it would be used for nuclear weapons. Regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was planning to pursue a nuclear arsenal or attack Israel in 1981, what is relevant is that Israel launched an attack based on mere mistrust rather than hard proof.

Military action based on suspicion and hunches has become the new normal. The 1981 Israeli airstrike on Osirak and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq both serve as sterling examples of preventive strikes – not pre-emptive ones, arising from an imminent threat, but ones designed to weaken an enemy, real or imagined, for the sake of regional or international interests. As the historian and activist Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor previously embodied preventive strikes in the American mindset, reinforcing the natural distaste for treacherous acts of unwarranted aggression. Now, preventive strikes receive praise rather than denunciation. During the 1980s, the U.S. actively supported the Contras in their insurgency against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, not because the country had become a “second Cuba,” but because it might eventually. The U.S., the wealthiest and strongest country in the world, felt compelled to intervene at the prospect of the Soviet Union, well on the decline, having not just one but two friends in all of the Americas. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, the U.S. could no longer claim its unprovoked intrusions were acts of self-defense, no matter how absurd claims like Nicaragua had been. Briefly, the U.S. and her allies promoted “humanitarian interventions” in conflict-ridden states, even though these police actions did little in the long-term to settle long-standing ethnic and religious cleavages and were geared more toward positive publicity for the continuance of NATO than truly ending genocide and civil wars. The U.S. struggled to convince either the world or its own population that it could be a global police officer, so much so that by 2000 George W. Bush actually ran as a non-interventionist skeptical of regime change. The September 11, 2001 attacks, however, provided an opportunity for the U.S. to initiate military operations as “defensive” measures. The “War on Terror” proved an even greater godsend than the Cold War, as “terror” – unlike the Soviet Union – would never fade away or surrender. Ironically, the various wars, bombing campaigns and drone attacks carried out under the “War on Terror” banner have produced far-reaching resentment against U.S. jingoism and bravado, gifting anti-Western terrorists with greater recruitment tools than they could have envisioned.

In contrast to the U.S., Israel can point to Arab invasions and acts of terrorism committed against it throughout its existence, in addition to the anti-Semitism that has plagued the Jewish people for time out of mind. Traditionally, foreign states have acknowledged Israeli appeals to its right to defend itself and provided it with exceptional leeway. Yet, in the last decade at least, that leeway has reached its breaking point. Israeli hawks have become so excessive in their fight for “national security” that they have blockaded Gaza and induced its people to tremendous suffering, and apparently fail to see how decisions – such as the 2010 lethal raid on a ship that tried to break the blockade and bring humanitarian supplies to the Gazans – might invite disgrace and condemnation. It has gotten to the point where some U.S. politicians, usually thoroughly faithful in their support for Israeli policies, have begun to question the Israeli inclination to shoot first and ask questions later. There has not been much disquiet in regards to Israeli concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, which is ironic, as the U.S. was notably silent about Israel’s own nuclear program dating to the late 1940s and has not, as in the case with Iran, demanded inspections and promises of peaceful purposes from the Israeli government. This is despite the fact that Israel has been ruthless in suppressing any knowledge of its nuclear weapons. When Israeli nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu blew the whistle on Israel’s stockpile to the British press in 1986, he was soon thereafter drugged by Israeli agents, sentenced in a secret trial and imprisoned for 18 years, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. One would think that Tel Aviv would have softened in such brutal treatment of a prisoner of conscience, but since his release in 2004, he has been re-jailed several times, usually for talking with foreign journalists and trying to leave the country that persecutes him.

The above facts alone may be enough to understand not only why Iran has been less than submissive to Western demands, but why so many regular Iranian citizens support the actions of the government. During the Arab Spring, Western observers were usually shocked when they saw counter-demonstrations by supporters of Mubarak, Qaddafi and Assad. That so-called “rogue states” would rush into the arms of the West were they freed from their despotic rulers remains a popular trope in the U.S., most dangerously within the minds of neo-conservative thinkers. For example, the media pays little attention to the fact that Iranian reformers, including Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, generally oppose Iran giving up its desires for nuclear technology. The popular desire in Iran to refuse dictates issued from abroad are perhaps only equaled by U.S. and Israeli rejection of abiding by international law and U.N. resolutions.

“Still,” my classmate might say, “at least Mousavi would not threaten to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and possibly cause World War III.” Wouldn’t he? What choice would he have? Rationality, it must be remembered, is defined as the proper exercise of reason and realizing what one’s reality is. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran employed the Basij, a volunteer militia comprised of young boys and old men, in human wave attacks, sending them in rows, unarmed, against Iraqi positions. Irrational on the face of it, such a tactic makes perfect sense when one side in a conflict suffers from a technological inferiority but a surplus in population. The Soviet Union used the tactic to great effect against Nazi Germany, after all. Similarly, suicide bombings – including those performed by members of Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran – are generally viewed as irrational, considering they inevitably result in casualties to your side as well as the enemy’s. Yet, when weighed against the alternative, there is no feasible way in which Hezbollah or any terrorist group can, at least on a consistent basis, fight a conventional war, guerilla or otherwise, against a highly advanced and sophisticated opponent. We should be careful to draw a distinction between suicidal tactics and a suicidal strategy.

On the face of it, threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and discussing how easy it would be to do so seems self-destructive. Yet Iran knows as well as anyone else that the U.S. Fifth Fleet would respond almost immediately to restore the flow of oil from the Gulf. It also knows that its own economy would suffer from a lack of petroleum exports. It admittedly would be a lose/lose situation, but it is also the only viable situation Iran can present in which the West loses at all. Otherwise, it has no reply to the West using sanctions and other economic warfare to get Iran to do what it wants. While the West reconsiders whether it wants to pay the cost of an oil crisis to prevent Iran’s uranium enrichment, Iran in the meantime improves relations with major players outside the West, such as Russia, China and Latin American countries, to work to keep its economy functioning in the wake of closed Western markets. It may not be orthodox foreign policy, but when the choice is between audacious brinksmanship and surrendering sovereignty and losing domestic support, can we really believe Mousavi would choose the latter course?

I will not argue that the Iranian leadership will always act in a sane fashion. A person can no more predict human behavior than count the stars in the sky. Certainly, there are ample precedents where regimes, faced with almost certain downfall, have opted to take as many others with them as they collapse. I will argue, however, that there is nothing about Tehran’s words or deeds that gives credence to fears that the saber-rattling has been anything but the usual posturing. In my opinion, the greatest menace to the continued existence of humanity appears not on distant horizons but within our own country. It is the United States, with its bellicose approach to world affairs and its dismissive attitude to international laws and conventions, that has most exercised the will and the means to scorn peace and make unjust war in recent history. If we want to oppose countries engaged in “irrational, self-destructive behavior,” then the battle begins at home.