Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, 1973 and 2009. [I do not make it up and the photograph on the right of the recipient with the prize is not a fake.]
Whether or not the odious Syrian regime gassed its people in addition to its many outstanding crimes, a military “strike” against that regime is both bad policy and indefensible. Military action by the United States government or any other government must pass three basic tests even to be considered even debateable.
First, it must be legal. A vote by the US Congress in favor of military action against Syria does not make it legal. International law is quite clear. Military action by one government against another requires approval by the United Nations Security Council unless it is in self-defence. The proposed action is not in self defence. It has not and will not obtain approval by the UN Security Council. It would be a violation of international law. We should not support violations of international law by any government. QED.
You might believe that the Security Council is a sham because Russia and China selfishly block action against the venal Syrian regime. This is a nonsense argument reflecting either ignorance or duplicity. Between 1946 and 2007 (latest numbers I could find) the “Western democracies”, France, UK and USA, vetoed 138 Security Council Resolutions, while China and Russia (USSR until 1990) vetoed 129.
On the Middle East the US government is the run-away leader on vetoes, slapping down anything vaguely critical of the Israeli government. Security Council trashing implies that US vetoes are virtuous while Russian and Chinese ones are malignly motivated.
I might add that for better or worse (usually the latter) the Security Council has authorized use of force in the past, so it cannot be criticized for never approving military action. But not this time, perhaps because attacking Syria would not achieve its purpose.
Opposition to attacking Syria, demonstration in San Francisco.
[photograph by David Bacon]
Second, if legal, it should be militarily effective. Effectiveness in this case requires identifying targets, which if successfully struck, would have an impact on the military capacity or political power of the government under attack. This identification requires what is rather absurdly named military “intelligence”. I am told by people who know of such things that the “intelligence” on Syria, from the notorious NSA, CIA or any other of the agencies that do such things is not reliable when politics intervenes, as now is the case. [See the Real News column:
To put my point in the proverbial nutshell, the US military may be able to hit a dime on the Moon with a missile, but is guessing about what is under the dime. An attack on Syria fails the effectiveness test. What the bombs and missiles hit may be of no military or political importance (while killing innocent Syrians I might add).
Third, if legal and militarily effective, it should lead to the intended result. That stated result is the weakening and, it is hoped, collapse of the appalling Bashar al-Asaad dictatorship. Here I again rely on expert opinion. My colleagues at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London who specialize on the Middle East are close to unanimous. Military strikes short of invasion would have no substantial impact on the ability of the Syrian regime to sustain itself in power. The action planned by the Obama government would not achieve the intended purpose.
Illegal, ineffective and pointless, and likely to inflict substantial civilian casualties. Not much to recommend it. So why is the Obama government so intent on this dysfunctional action? Before trying to answer that question, I point out some important aspects of the context in which this militaristic approach is unfolding.
First, the Syria crisis demonstrates clearly the decline of US power in the Middle East (and globally, but that is for a separate column). Of all the “traditional” allies of the United States, only one, France, supports military action. Not even the always-on-board UK or the hardly-ever-objecting Canada supports this venture. In the former case, the parliament voted against action, which in itself indicates the decline of US influence.
At the recent G20 meeting in St Petersburg, Obama could not obtain anything close to majority approval for his military venture, much less governments to join the attack. And, of course, there is the opposition by the Pope for the “faith-based”, which certainly places me with a very strange bed-fellow (though it prompts no immediate urge to convert).
Second, there is the case of France to explain. In 2003 the right wing president Jacques Chirac strongly opposed the US invasion of Iraq (remember “freedom fries”?). In 2013 the Socialist president Francois Hollande eagerly jumps to Obama’s side, ready to dispatch his Mirages and Rafales over the Syrian skies.
Here a little economics helps (my putative area of expertise). The polluted mainstream media frequently refers to Syria as Russia’s “ally”, and rarely points out the erstwhile close relations between the French and Syrian governments. This cozy relationship arose from the major French economic interests in Syria, including the importance of Syria as a supplier of petroleum to France. I think that Hollande concluded that al-Asaad’s days were dwindling to a small number. Then, he decided to get in on the action to prevent complete loss of French economic interests in Syria to the United States.
Back to the central question: why is Obama so keen on attacking Syria? In my opinion it arises from the US alliance with Israel. The Israeli government is the only reliable US ally in the region (certainly not Saudi Arabia). The US may believe that Syria threatens that alliance by generating regional instability. In addition or alternatively, the US does not want its ally to strike first because that would provoke a regional war (which the US action itself might do).
A militarily powerful country becomes unstable and unpredictable as its global political power declines. Bluster and minor use of force no longer serve to intimidate and enforce submission. Major military adventures become a necessary but futile way to recapture lost imperial glory.
It may be that simple.
At the risk appearing haplessly naïve, I urge every US reader to email her or his Senators and Congressperson, urging them to vote against the resolution authorizing attack on Syria. I am lucky to vote in Vermont, where one of my Senators is Bernie Sanders and my representative is Peter Smith, both more than open to such urging.