Game Changers and Red Lines in Syria

I appreciate the good comments readers have made on my thoughts about the Syrian crisis. Here are further reflections on the latest developments:

If the disclosure on Sunday by Carla Del Ponte of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria is confirmed that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons, this is a real game changer. It blows a big hole in the Obama administration’s story about the Assad regime crossing the President’s faux red line. It shows how little the government really knows about what’s going on in this complex and bloody civil war. It should make us extremely cautious about becoming involved militarily and reluctant about providing military support for the Syrian rebels.

Speaking of red lines, what about the apparent Israeli air strike against Syrian military facilities early Sunday morning? Several powerful explosions destroyed critical military installations near the presidential palace in Damascus, killing a number of elite Syrian troops. Israel has not confirmed the strikes, but the scale and precision of the attacks were unmistakably of Israeli origin. Sunday’s attack followed another apparent Israeli strike on Friday near the Damascus airport. U.S. officials say that Israel is acting to prevent the transfer of missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Israeli attacks against Syria are a blatant violation of international law. They increase the risk of the conflict spreading further in the region and should make us even more hesitant about becoming involved militarily. As the New York Times reports today, however, they seem to be stoking debate in Washington about ratcheting up military pressure on the Assad regime. Republican Senator John McCain has reiterated his call for a no-fly zone in Syria. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said over the weekend that the United States will probably soon begin providing arms for the rebels.

Arming the Syrian rebels would increase the intensity of a war that has already taken more than 70,000 lives. Providing weapons to the rebels means giving military support to insurgent forces that include substantial Al Qaida-related factions. If the jihadist groups in Syria are indeed the toughest fighters, as reports suggest, they are likely to gain control of any weapons we send. The U.S. would end up arming Al Qaida.

Red Lines in Syria

If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and crossed the red line President Obama warned against, urgent international action is needed. This does not mean the United States should take military action. Instead Washington should work through the United Nations to confirm the evidence and if necessary mobilize diplomatic action against those responsible.

The first task is to get UN inspectors into Syria to verify if chemical weapons have been used, and by whom. The UN Secretary General has assembled a team of experts, but the Assad regime so far has refused the demand for unrestricted access and has denied them entry. The U.S. should support efforts to negotiate terms of reference for the inspection team so that it can enter the country and begin collecting evidence.

It is important to acknowledge that the information available so far is very uneven and limited. No soil samples are available from a physical site. Most of the evidence reportedly comes from tissue and blood samples that have been transmitted by multiple handlers. The ‘chain of custody’ of the detected elements and the identities of those responsible remain unclear.

It is not clear who may have used chemical weapons. Initially the Assad regime claimed that the rebels were responsible for the injuries and deaths that were reported last month. The rebels claim the government is responsible. The amounts of sarin and other toxic agents reportedly used were quite small. Some analysts have suggested that the use of chemical weapons shells may have been inadvertent. These and other questions need to be clarified before any action can be taken.

If the evidence shows that the Syrian government has indeed used these weapons, the Obama administration should work with key allies and members of Security Council to apply pressure on the Assad regime. The goal should be to take diplomatic steps that could lead to the adoption of targeted Security Council sanctions directed at those responsible for the command and control of chemical weapons systems. Hopefully Russia and China could be persuaded to support such measures. This would be a major diplomatic setback for Assad and would isolate and weaken his regime. None of this will be possible without firm evidence of actual chemical weapons use by government forces.

No justification exists for even considering military action. Crossing that dangerous red line would have severe negative consequences. It could involve U.S. forces in another Middle East conflict and perhaps drag us into the deadly Syrian civil war, worsening an already grave security crisis in the region. Bombing strikes would not be sufficient to neutralize Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and they could cause explosions that would release the very deadly toxins we seek to contain. The use of force would squander any opportunity to win Russian and Chinese support for UN action and would hand the Assad regime a lifeline of continued diplomatic support.

Multilateral action through the UN offers the best path for determining if the regime has used chemical weapons and if so for mobilizing international pressure against those responsible.

The Folly of the Iraq War, Redux

Iraq is back in the news. American officials are distressed that the Baghdad government is not being cooperative in serving U.S. interests in the region. They also worry about spillover effects from the war in Syria. Some of the rebels battling the Syrian government are taking refuge and recruiting supporters in Iraq’s Anbar province, giving new life to the Al Qaida-related militancy in the area that first arose in response to the U.S. occupation.

The Iraqi government is allowing Iran to supply weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. This is a violation of UN sanctions that require states to cooperate in preventing Iranian arms exports. Planes and trucks with Iranian weapons are reportedly traversing Iraq on a daily basis.

The main beneficiary of the U.S. war in Iraq has been Iran. Tehran now has a strong ally next door rather than the feared enemy it once had in Saddam Hussein. Iraq is helping Iran prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria. The Baghdad regime is receiving billions of dollars of American-made weapons free of charge, but it is not willing to provide the quid pro quo of supporting U.S. policy in the region.

All of this raises again the question of why the U.S. went to war in Iraq and what was accomplished. The Iraqi state has conducted relatively open elections, which is an improvement over the tyranny of Saddam, but it is still repressive and can hardly be considered democratic. Ethnic political divisions exacerbated by the U.S.-led invasion are preventing cooperation among Iraqi political factions. A low-grade Sunni insurgency continues to challenge the pro-Iranian Shia-dominated state.  The Sunni vice president has been indicted for murder and has fled the country.

Was it for this that more than 4,000 Americans died and tens of thousands were maimed? That tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed? Is this why we drained hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury? Let those who would seek to justify the war try to answer these questions.

Arms Merchant to the World

The United States has surpassed all records in global arms sales, a whopping $66.3 billion in armaments sold last year. Most of the weapons went to Persian Gulf nations, although India also bought more than $4 billion in military equipment. U.S. arms sales in 2011 were triple the previous year’s level and the highest annual total ever recorded.

The U.S. is once again the world’s number-one arms proliferator, accounting for 75 percent of global arms sales. Word of this dubious distinction comes as our leaders claim to support and have been working at the United Nations to negotiate a global Arms Trade Treaty.  The report makes a mockery of the UN negotiations and our government’s presumed commitment to control the arms trade.

The U.S. government is promoting arms sales to nations in the Gulf as a way of increasing the military force arrayed against Iran. Many of the countries receiving these weapons, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic, are undemocratic dictatorships with abysmal human rights records. Providing more arms to these repressive regimes in the volatile Middle East and Gulf region increases the risk of war and violent repression.  It fuels the arms race in the region and gives encouragement to those who are calling for military action against Tehran.

Building and selling arms reinforces the illusion that military force is the solution to the difficult political dilemmas that plague the Middle East and other regions. Relying on weapons perpetuates the dangerous and often counterproductive tendency of political leaders to rely on military force rather than diplomatic solutions to address political problems.

Encouraging other nations to spend more on arms undermines economic development. Studies by investigators at the World Bank and other agencies have found that high military spending retards economic growth in developing countries.

President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned against the military industrial complex in his 1961 farewell speech. He declared: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final analysis, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed…”

The latest arms trade report shows that the military industrial complex is alive and well, still feeding at the public trough and diverting resources from the needy, pouring tens of billions into the production of high tech weaponry while many millions of people struggle to make ends meet.  The consequences for global peace and human rights are grim.