In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, then the President of Syria, ordered the complete destruction of parts of the city of Hama. Hama was the fourth largest town in Syria, but was also home to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against Assad’s government. According to the estimate of Robert Fisk, a journalist who was there and who wrote Pity the Nation, the best book on the massacre, 20,000 people were killed–but Assad’s brother bragged that they’d killed 36,000, and the actual number may have been higher still. Torture and mass executions continued after the initial attacks. Muslim Brotherhood neighborhoods were literally leveled, the rubble bulldozed into massive parking lots. And it’s possible that hydrogen cyanide may have been used by government forces.
The New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman coined the phrase ‘Hama rules‘ to describe Middle-east dictators’ responses to popular uprisings. After Hama, such uprisings mostly didn’t happen. . . because the various Middle Eastern dictators–Assad, Hussein, Gaddafi, Mubarek–could always go Hama on their own people. And Assad knew he could get away with atrocities, because the international response was so muted, so tepid.
In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, and his Presidency was assumed by his son, Bashar al-Assad. Bashar, like his father, is a Baathist–member of a secular, socialist trans-regional political party. Saddam Hussein was also Baathist. Bashar’s trained as a doctor, an opthalmologist. He looks quite a bit like Ed Norton, the actor; that’ll be who plays him in the movie. Throughout most of his life, Bashar doesn’t seem to have been much interested in politics–his brother Bassel was the heir apparent. But Bassel died in 1994, thrusting Bashar into the Presidency. His initial actions as President suggested that he seriously intended to reform Syrian society, open things up, allow for dissent. But since the Arab Spring in 2010, he’s followed in his father’s footsteps, cracking down on dissidents, and ferociously conducting war against the forces allied against him.
In the current Syrian civil war, the United States has armed some of the rebels against Assad, and offered refugee relief. But Assad is known to possess chemical and biological weapons, and last year, President Obama warned against their use. It now appears that Assad may have used chemical weapons in an attack on the western Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh. This attack, if it happened, was probably conducted by the elite Syrian 4th Armored Division led by Bashar’s brother, Maher. After initially resisting UN entreaties, Bashar has now allowed a UN inspection team access to the site, where they are conducting tests to determine if a chemical attack did take place.
Right now, there’s tremendous pressure on President Obama to order US retaliation, or at least some kind of armed response. Obviously, if Bashar Assad is using chemical weapons to murder his own people, that’s contemptible, and a human rights nightmare. The President has made it clear that Assad should step down, but we have almost no leverage to force him to. And Assad’s opponents in the civil war are the Muslim Brotherhood–hardly US allies. You might think we should back the more secular side in that war. But in this case, that’s Assad.
In the build up to the Iraq war, as President Bush was making the case for the clear and present danger Saddam Hussein presented due to his ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ a UN inspection team, under the direction of Hans Blix, went to Iraq and looked for WMD. Before they could complete their report (which would have undercut the Bush administration’s case for war), the invasion began. Blix has been in the headlines again, arguing that any US or international intervention in Syria should wait until the UN inspectors have done their jobs, and insisting, as he did before, that the US is not the world’s policeman. Hard to argue with that.
So, a few thoughts:
First, does the United States have any compelling national interest in this struggle, except for the need to provide humanitarian aid? The Syrian civil war is devastating; it’s awful. But how can we meaningfully intervene? On what side? And if we do what’s been discussed, send in some cruise missiles, what good is that likely to do? Even if missiles destroy a stockpile of chemical weapons, how can we be sure they won’t just scatter chemical weapons all over the place? Doesn’t any intervention increase the possibility of an escalating US involvement? And how is this our fight anyway?
Second, there’s a compelling Constitutional question to address here. Rachel Maddow’s show last night did a nice job of exploring some of those questions. Congressman Scott Rigell (R-Va) was on Maddow (yes, a Republican on Rachel Maddow); he’s author of a letter to President Obama, urging the President to convene Congress to talk about Syria. Rigell’s letter has bi-partisan support, as it should; Article 1, Sec. 8 makes clear that Congress, not the President, is who gets to declare war. It’s true that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, can use the armed forces in an emergency–an invasion or something. But that’s hardly the case with Syria. If the United States is seriously going to go to war with Syria, a robust Congressional debate needs to happen, and Congress needs to authorize any such incursion.
Third, there’s the international community, which is divided on Syria too. I understand that a lot of Very Serious People in Washington think Bashar Assad has crossed a line by using chemical weapons, and that we need swiftly to retaliate. But we don’t know for certain that chemical weapons were used. The UN inspectors, guys who are very very good at their jobs, need to have the time to finish doing them. A UN Security Council resolution ordering military action if Assad does not step down–well, that would be lovely. It ain’t gonna happen. We might cobble together some kind of anti-Assad coalition. Turkey has said they’d join it. But the Russians support Assad–they’re always going to support a secular-minded socialist guy in a fight against Muslim extremists–and will veto any such vote in the Security Council.
There is, of course, a long history in Syria, which the Muslim world remembers and Americans do not remember, of various US interventions and CIA coups over there. We tried to topple one Syrian President in 1957, but failed. We’ve closed our embassies and then re-opened them. We never had the faintest notion how to deal with Assad.
And this whole horrible mess could turn into a larger religious war, and could spill over to other countries. Syria is a Sunni-majority nation. But Assad is Shiite and so is most of his army. He’s supported by the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, and Iran has sent officers, troops and weapons. Al Qaida is Sunni, however, and supports the rebels, as do the Saudis. The Syrian civil war has already started spreading to Lebanon.
In other words, this is a complete mess, with no good answers. Syria, right now, is why Presidents go gray so quickly. But there’s not much we can do that won’t make things first. I hope we stay out of it entirely. Most likely, though, we’ll get a destroyer to launch a few cruise missiles, rattle the rubble a bit and probably kill a few more civilians. Watching the Sunday talk shows was dispiriting, with all their talk of ‘red lines’ and ‘a meaningful response’ that doesn’t involve ‘boots on the ground.’ Most Americans, though, do not want to see our soldiers involved in another meaningless slog, another war without clear objectives and without any compelling national interest. We have no dog in this fight. Leave it be.