The US and Syria

The adage, Those who forget history tend to repeat it, is only partially correct. Even those who remember history tend to repeat it. The economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart demonstrated this curiosity in their highly regarded book, This Time is Different. After all, that is the key to why certain things seem to happen over and over again. We know what happened in the past, but insist that what is occurring now is just not the same. So, here it is: déjà vu all over again!
The parallels to the run-up to the US invasion in Iraq eleven years ago are distressingly similar. Bracket out the claims of weapons of mass destruction, the situation in Iraq was becoming more dire. Sanctions and the no-fly zone were increasing the suffering to the Iraqi people but having little effect on the Saddam Hussein government. Something had to change. Today, the situation in Syria – after two years of increasing sanctions – has become more volatile and intolerable. Again, something has to change.
While the WMDs turned out to be a mirage in 2003, a deadly chemical attack did indeed occur in August. I do not know for sure that Assad perpetrated this crime, but it appropriate to claim that the Syrian government, by virtue of being charged with the well-being of its population, must take responsibility over it. Assad issues denials (they may even be sincere), but is silent about what his government intends to do in order to assure that their own stockpiles are secure and untouched, or what steps might be taken to prevent another attack.
Finally, up to now, the dance has been nearly identical. The US is taking the lead in calling for action. (This France is the principally supporter while the UK demurs. I wonder if this is the case because Iraq used to be within the British sphere of influence, and Syria within France’s?) The White House has called for congressional authorization, and has also pursued the effort of creating an international consensus, including outreach to the Arab League and the United Nations. All the while, it reserves for itself the option of individual action.
Consider the time-line eleven years-ago. The Bush Administration began making noise about Iraq shortly after the attacks of 9/11. They began a concerted effort to confront Saddam in September 2002; received support of Congress in October, but did not begin an actual attack until March. Right now, it just September. Noise has been made, but there has been no movement of troops or ships.
Is this time different? One must hope so. The action in Iraq was poorly conceived and evenly more poorly executed. It was also clear – both at the time of the action and in retrospect – that a significant element in the Bush Administration’s overall strategy was to exhibit and maintain an overwhelming American military presence in the world. Saddam Hussein was not the object this strategy, but rather its excuse.
We must expect that the principal – the only real – objective in the case of Syria is that WMD’s – chemical, biological or nuclear – are not used. The current Administration has expressed no interest in exhibiting military might. The threat of the employment of force, we should trust, is a tactical measure that can only be successful if 1) it is credible, and 2) it is being utilized in the context of pressing certain key players – Russia and perhaps Iran – to join in a coalition laying responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria at Assad’s feet.
Must Assad go? Two years ago, the protests in Syria represented a popular uprising expressing their dissatisfaction with the government in power. Now, it is more a conventional civil war. Assad, it is evident, has always had support from diverse elements of Syrian society. Compare it with Qaddafi’s Libya. When the “Arab Spring” came to Libya, in relatively short, key personalities in the power elite began to defect, and the ruling structure crumbled. More than two years into the Syrian protests and precious few significant personalities have joined the opposition. I do not know whether Assad’s support within the country is positive (appreciation of his rule) or negative (fear of what the country would be like in case of the government’s downfall), but it is reasonably stable.
The current situation – even when the incident of a chemical attack is bracketed out – is horrendous: over two million have fled the country, and two million more have been internally displaced. It could get worse, and probably will. [Query: has the per capita fatality rate reached that of the American Civil War, which was fought with considerably less lethal weapons?] The war, however, cannot persist indefinitely. Most probably, when it does come to an end, both sides can fairly be declared the loser. And the nation, in a pattern already being played out in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, will continue to endure tension and occasional outbreaks of violence for years to come. We can only pray that over that miserable stretch of time, institutions will develop that permit some form of responsive and responsible government.
In the meantime, I believe the for the US and any allies, military engagement is not simply the last resort; it is the very last resort.

Paul Golomb
Sept. 9, 2013

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