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David Swanson and Danny Postel debate whether the dire humanitarian situation in Syria justifies limited military intervention

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Over 140,000 people have died in Syria. That’s according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More than 2.4 million refugees have fled the country and 6 million remain internally displaced since protests erupted against Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. The UN passed a resolution demanding Syrian authorities stop restricting access for delivery of humanitarian aid. As options appear limited for resolving the humanitarian crisis, does military intervention have a role in helping Syrians?

Now joining us to debate this is two guests.

We’re joined by Danny Postel. He’s an associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, coeditor with Nader Hashemi of The Syria Dilemma: A Collection of Contending Perspectives.

We’re also joined by David Swanson. He’s an author, an activist, of many books including War Is a Lie. He also hosts the weekly syndicated talk show host Talk Nation Radio and works as a campaign coordinator for the online activist organization

Thank you both for joining us.



NOOR: So, Danny, let’s start with you. You coauthored this piece with Nader Hashemi talking about why military intervention is justified in Syria. Lay out your argument.

POSTEL: Well, let’s be clear that the piece you’re talking about, which was an op-ed that Nader Hashemi and I coauthored in The New York Times about two weeks ago, we don’t call in this article for a large-scale military intervention to topple the Assad regime or to resolve the Syrian conflict as a whole. It’s a very limited, very specific, highly circumscribed proposal that we make for an intervention that would be designed simply and exclusively to get humanitarian aid–specifically, food and medicine–into these besieged areas of Syria, which, according to the UN Food Programme, approximately 800,000 Syrian civilians are currently trapped in these besieged areas around the country. They can’t get out. Humanitarian aid can’t get into them. These areas are besieged mostly by Assad’s forces, in some cases by rebel militias. And people are starving to death; many thousands have already starved to death, and as many as 800,000 are now on the brink of starvation, according to the UN. People are eating cats, donkeys, dogs, leaves, weeds. They’re starving.

And so the question is: what can be done about it? At the Geneva II peace talks in Switzerland, there was some discussion of allowing humanitarian aid workers into one particular part of Syria. And this broke down. There was an agreement, and when the humanitarian convoys, the UN convoys went in, the convoys were shot up. And so the argument we make in the New York Times op-ed is that this crisis, this–what the activists call these surrender-or-starve sieges, these starvation sieges that threaten to kill thousands more Syrians, this is unacceptable, and it can’t be left to the warring factions to agree about a plan of action, because that has completely failed so far.

And so the question we ask in the piece is: what then? What happens when a negotiated solution to this crisis cannot be worked out? And so we propose that there are higher principles involved, that a UN Security Council resolution should be passed that would enforce the end to these sieges and the delivery of food and medicine into these areas of Syria.

Now, we also say that that probably won’t happen, because Russia has blocked similar measures in the past that didn’t even call for force. It’s very unlikely that Russia would vote for a measure that would involve the use of force.

And so then we say there should be a multinational force that should threaten to intervene, specifically, again, for this one purpose, not to overthrow the regime, not to arm the rebels, not to end the Syrian conflict as a whole, but specifically and exclusively to get food and medicine to starving Syrian civilians in these besieged areas.

That’s the piece that Nader and I wrote.

Some of the criticisms of that piece, including one that David Swanson just wrote, simply misses the target. He argues that we’re calling for a full-scale intervention. And this is not at all what we’re calling for. He also argues that we’re arguing for U.S. intervention. Literally nowhere in the article do we call–.

NOOR: So, Danny, let’s get David–he’s on right now, so let’s get him to respond. Can you please respond, David?

SWANSON: Well, there’s a great habit of proposing small-scale wars and limited wars that will be over very quickly and very little ability to control such initiatives once begun. So Libya, as a recent example, was supposed to be a very quick operation to rescue people who were supposedly in danger. A UN resolution to that effect immediately, predictably, illegally, and disastrously turned into a large-scale bombing of a nation to overthrow a government, which was quite openly the goal of many of the advocates of the intervention to begin with.

Here we have a quite similar situation in Syria, where the sort of intervention that Danny wants is also advocated by people who quite openly want to overthrow the government of Syria because it’s aligned with Iran, whose government they also want to overthrow.

And so we have this notion that it’s going too far to oppose wars when you also oppose small wars and limited wars and wars that we intend to remain small, even though we probably won’t be able to control that. And I don’t think that that’s right. I think war is something that we have to oppose across the board, and not just because it can’t be controlled, but because even the limited operation would be a horror of murder, of killing.

So here we hear from Mr. Postel, we want a limited intervention. But we have absolutely no description of what that means, what kind of troops, guns, vehicles, helicopters, planes, how many people would die in the effort to save other people from starving. If you’re going to make a moral calculation and go outside the rule of law to do it–If the UN won’t go along, we’ll go around the UN–and establish that damaging precedent for the future, and if you’re going to use violence where the record is that violence does not lead to resolution, it leads to ongoing vengeance and conflict, then you have to give the full picture–what are the downsides and the upsides in this calculation that you’re making–if you’re going to persuade people to go along with it, because this is not something that we have a record of success with.

In that op-ed in The New York Times, there is a reference to what is typical of humanitarian intervention, which would suggest there have been a dozen of them. I would love to hear a list of a half-dozen, because I haven’t seen such a thing done before.

NOOR: So, Danny, let’s get your response. There was a number of points made there. David, he alluded to the fact that U.S. regional allies in the area, including Saudi Arabia, are committed to regime change in Syria. Can you respond?

POSTEL: Yeah. Well, David just asked a very pointed question about other interventions. I agree with David that most military interventions are disastrous and motivated by nefarious agendas. We agree on that. I’ve been an antiwar activist almost my entire life.

However, there are exceptions to the rule. David in one of his pieces says that there are no exceptions that he can think of. I will name four.

The intervention in Bosnia in 1995. It was imperfect. Arguably, it should have happened sooner. Too many Bosnians died. But the Bosnian intervention clearly did end mass atrocities. It ended a quasi-genocidal conflict. Bosnia is not a perfect place today, but people are not murdering one another the way they were for several years in the 1990s. Most observers agree and most Bosnians agree that the Bosnian intervention was a success.

Kosovo, 1999. The Kosovo intervention clearly stopped mass atrocities by the Serb death squads in Kosovo. Many opponents of that intervention argued at the time that it created a worse humanitarian disaster, it deepened the crisis. That was true for a very, very brief period. When the bombing began, Kosovar Albanian refugees fled across the border to Albania. They left their homes. A few weeks later, they were back in Kosovo, they reclaimed their homes, and Kosovo became a much more peaceful place. The Serb death squads had been driven out, and all Kosovar Albanians supported that intervention, unanimously across the board.

Richard Falk, one of the contributors to our book, who has been one of the leading advocates of peace and human rights for the last half-century, Richard Falk opposed the Kosovo intervention at the time, like most people on the left, like most progressives and antiwar activists. But then he actually went to Kosovo with the International Independent Commission of inquiry for Kosovo, and he interviewed dozens of Kosovar Albanians who had fled across the border, and they said, yes, that was disruptive for a few weeks, but when we came back, we lived in peace for the first time in recent memory.

I think it’s very clear that the Kosovo intervention, although imperfect in many ways, was a humanitarian success.

NOOR: Well, so let me just stop you right there and let’s just get David to respond to those two examples, and we’ll come back to you, Danny.

SWANSON: I disagree on the two examples, except for the point that the bombing led to increased rather than decreased atrocities. I disagree on the idea that humanity benefited on the whole or benefits on the whole from this practice.

And I think that one of the factors that you have to consider, as well as medium- and long-term results, is what you are doing for the war industry, which the Earth dumps $2 trillion into every year. For some $30 billion, we could put a huge dent in starvation around the globe, not just in Syria. And when you support four wars out of a dozen, when you support certain wars but not others, you are giving your support to what has become the only tool that U.S. foreign policy uses, and that is war. And that costs us, in human needs, incredible amounts. I mean, it’s impossible to imagine what could be done with $2 trillion a year, about $1 trillion of it from the United States, if put to good humanitarian use.

If we were investing in nonviolent activist trainers in civil life in Syria, if we were investing in nonviolent efforts to bring real humanitarian aid into Syria, rather than fueling that violence with guns, rather than sending in CIA trainers, imagine the good that would be done for such less cost.

There are dozens of ceasefires in Syria, and those ceasefires are threatened by threats of increased violence from both sides. And what the people want on the ground there is for the ceasefires to be allowed to continue and expand and for there to be a general ceasefire so that food can be obtained. The idea that increased violence is going to allow food to get through when just the opposite is what’s going on on the ground in Syria is to fuel a cycle of violence that is going to make everything worse, and to fuel it on behalf of parties in this war that will not be satisfied unless Assad is overthrown and will not be satisfied–.

POSTEL: How is my proposal fueling the sides of the party? The intervention that we call for is very specifically a nonpartisan intervention. It’s not for the rebels. It’s not for Assad’s forces. We say very explicitly in the piece that any armed [inaud.] who stand in the way of the delivery of humanitarian aid should be met with coercive force. That means Assad’s forces or rebel militias, al-Qaeda actors, anyone. It’s not about one side or the other. This is not–.

SWANSON: What kind of weapons would you use?

POSTEL: What’s that?

SWANSON: What kind of weapons would you like to see used?

POSTEL: Look, David, I’m not a military tactician. These questions–.

SWANSON: I didn’t say you were.

POSTEL: Well, these are the sorts of questions that can be worked out at the level of tactical planning with the kinds of people who [crosstalk]

SWANSON: The kinds of people who will advocate bombing urban areas and call it a no-fly zone [crosstalk]

POSTEL: No, actually, the starvation sieges are not in urban areas.

NOOR: So let me just jump in, let me just jump in for a second. Danny, what about the argument that intervening is only going to create more violence? Can you respond to that?

POSTEL: Well, I think this is just simply a red herring. Let’s look specifically at what’s happening in Syria right now. These starvation sieges are responsible for approximately 800,000–according to the UN Food Programme, at least 800,000 people are currently stuck in these besieged areas, on the brink of starvation. So the kind of operation that we’re talking about, that Nader Hashemi and I propose, is designed very specifically to get food and medicine into those besieged areas. What we’re saying is these humanitarian convoys need to get through to deliver food and medicine to starving civilians–these are civilians, unarmed noncombatants in the Syrian Civil War.

So if the threat of force were announced very clearly and unambiguously, the issue would then be which armed actors are going to stand in the way of food and medicine getting into these besieged areas. Do you believe, David, that the Assad regime’s forces or any other armed actors have a right to stand in the way, to shoot down convoys that are delivering medicine to starving civilians? Or do you think that there are higher principles involved? And how would you suggest that food and medicine get into those areas, David?

SWANSON: I think there are higher principles involved that should be applied across the board evenly. And that means that no party in Syria has the right to shoot or kill anyone, be it with chemical weapons or bullets, be it with starvation or bullets or bombs. And that applies as well to those attempting, well-intentioned or otherwise, but so misguidedly, to use violence to bring in food. I would–.

POSTEL: So how would you suggest that food get in?

SWANSON: I would suggest that the ceasefires that exist be strengthened by commitments to stop arming both sides, by commitments not to escalate the war with greater violence from greater outside parties, with the risk of fueling a conflict between nuclear powers in the United States and Russia. I would suggest that instead of sending in guns and CIA trainers, we be sending in additional aid workers and doctors and food and nonviolent organizers. And when I talk to U.S. government aid workers on the ground in Syria, they tell me the exact same thing. If you talk to the Red Crescent, they tell you the exact same thing. It is not aid workers asking for violence, it is war advocates from centers funded by war profiteers asking for violence. And so it may be well intended, but it is not what people need on the ground, it’s not what they’re demanding. And if you do it in the name of [crosstalk]

POSTEL: [crosstalk] on the ground, David, is food and medicine, and it’s not getting in to them. The negotiations thus far have failed to get the food and medicine in to them, and you’re not acknowledging that. Doctors–you certainly need doctors.

SWANSON: Yes, negotiations have failed thus far and violence has failed thus far. The question is which is more likely to succeed if we escalated. And I say diplomacy is more likely to succeed. Nonviolent intervention is more likely to succeed. And the American people understand this. And so your proposal–.

POSTEL: I’m not talking about the United States doing anything, so you can drop that part of your argument, David. I’ve never argued for the United States to intervene in Syria. I’m talking about an international intervention. If I had my way, the United States would have nothing to do with it.

SWANSON: [inaud.] without the United States’ support, because the United States will not support it, not the people of the United States, not their representatives in Congress.

NOOR: So, Danny, on that point, if it’s not the United States, who is it going to be?

POSTEL: Well, the only countries thus far that have expressed strong interest in this sort of an intervention are France, Australia, Jordan, and Luxembourg. The United Kingdom has an ambiguous–there’s a big debate in British politics about this. But I think the most likely forces are France and Australia at this point.

NOOR: Okay. And I’ll get David’s response, but I also wanted to bring up the question of international law. Doesn’t international law, the UN Charter, say that the threat of force is illegal in international law?

SWANSON: It does. The UN Charter and the Kellogg-Briand Pact and other laws make what Danny is proposing a clear-cut illegality. And so while we have Secretary of State Kerry denouncing illegal actions by Russia in the Ukraine, we have refugees from an illegal action in Iraq by the United States now turned into refugees anew in Syria and advocates of war in the United States (albeit advocates only of certain wars) pushing for a new illegal action by France and Australia in Syria.

Now, this is not going to assist efforts to put the rule of law in place in international affairs going forward. It is going to weaken them dramatically, to the point where no one can tell Russia, don’t put your troops in the Ukraine, because everybody’s putting their troops in everywhere else and claiming that they’re doing so for humanitarian reasons.

POSTEL: David, your position [crosstalk]

NOOR: Let me just follow up with you for a second. Danny, if I can just–David, if I could just follow up for a second, Danny raised the point that Russia will likely block any action within the UN. If the UN can’t sign off on anything, what can be done?

SWANSON: What can be done? Disarming can be done. The United States can stop sending in guns, stop sending in the CIA, stop working with Saudi Arabia to do the same, pressure Saudi Arabia, over which it holds great measures, great levers of power. Saudi Arabia gets no more weapons itself if Saudi Arabia keeps sending weapons into the conflict in Syria. Pressure Russia and all parties on the other side to meet those measures with their own disarmament of the Syrian government. Work for a generalized ceasefire. Work to send in aid. Show as much concern for sending aid to the people who can be reached as using the blockage of aid to certain parties as an excuse for a war, and show universally that you care about struggling people everywhere.

If Assad can’t stay because of what an evil government he has, which of course he does, why is it okay for the king of Bahrain to stay? Why is it okay for Saudi Arabia’s government and Egypt’s and Israel’s? The United States needs to start applying its concern for human rights universally, not just where it’s an excuse for a new, escalated war.

NOOR: And, Danny, we’re almost out of time, but what’s your response?

POSTEL: Well, I absolutely agree about Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. These are horrible governments. The Bahraini government, backed by the Saudis and the United States, has suppressed its democratic uprising.

But this is a false comparison. The fact is that in Syria today we have the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the planet. You have the worst refugee crisis since 1994 in Rwanda. You have a colossal, mass set of massacres, industrial-scale killing. You have crimes against humanity, war crimes, 150,000 people dead. This is a false comparison to Bahrain, horrible though that crackdown is–and I support the Bahraini democracy movement against the repressive monarchy that crushes it.

But what we’re really talking about here is what is to be done. David has all sorts of reasons about how the proposal Nader Hashemi and I made would escalate the war in Syria, but his proposal would actually just simply allow the status quo to continue. Sure, we should support a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution, but that’s not happening, and there are reasons it’s not happening for three years now. And David has not come to terms with that. What do we do in the meantime? How many people have to starve on the ground, civilians [crosstalk]

NOOR: Danny, we started with you. We’re almost out of time. Let me just give David the last word.

SWANSON: The status quo is outside parties fueling the violence with ever more weapons and no external pressure on the rebels in Syria to get them to agree to a ceasefire and a peace settlement in which Assad is not immediately ejected. And so there is need to alter the status quo. But more weapons, more and more and more weapons, is to continue the status quo. To actually seriously–.

POSTEL: [inaud.] of my argument, and David knows it.

NOOR: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we will come back to this debate. We certainly will.

I want to thank you both for joining us, David Swanson, Danny Postel.

SWANSON: Thank you.

POSTEL: Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. His books include Reading "Legitimation Crisis" in Tehran, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran's Future and The Syria Dilemma, which was named one of the best books of 2013 by The Progressive magazine. He blogs for Truthout, Critical Inquiry and the Huffington Post.

David Swanson's books include: War Is A Lie (2010), When the World Outlawed War (2011), and The Military Industrial Complex at 50 (2012).  He is the host of  Talk Nation Radio. He has been a journalist, activist, organizer, educator, and agitator.  Swanson helped plan the nonviolent occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in 2011.  Swanson holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. He blogs at and and works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization Swanson also works on the communications committee of Veterans For Peace, of which he is an associate (non-veteran) member. Swanson is Secretary of Peace in the Green Shadow Cabinet.