Syria – I don’t know.

The US is clearly going to be taking some action against the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons. I’ve been following events very closely, but haven’t written about it (other than on Twitter, which is where the rough draft of history is written now, frankly) because I have neither time nor emotional bandwidth. I’ll just say a little bit here, but mostly, I wanted to provide some very, very useful (and easily understood) links.

Let me start by saying that there are genuinely no good options on the table. If the US had intervened early in the war, before it became a full-fledged civil conflict, maybe that could have slowed the carnage and led to something reasonable to replace the current regime. But that’s an enormous maybe, I’m not sure what that “intervention” could have or would have looked like, it would have been tremendously destabilizing to the rest of the region (which is likely why it never happened), and it would have cost the American people, as well. But mostly it didn’t happen, so we’ll never know.

So, having said that, I lean toward supporting military action, which I presume will mean damaging Assad’s capacity to carry out chemical weapons attacks in the future. I believe that doing nothing is the worst of several terrible options, because anything that strengthen’s Assad’s hand (which doing nothing would do) can only lead to greater brutality and the entrenchment of that brutality, not to mention strengthening the hands of other powers not known for their gentle natures: The hardliners in Iran (vs. the current Iranian President – you can read a little bit about divisions in Iran by clicking here), Hezbollah, Russia, etc.

I am painfully aware that such action will neither end the civil war nor unseat Assad, and that Syrian civilians may well die as a result. But a) Syrian civilians are already being mowed down daily as if in a threshing field, b) doing even this little bit of damage is also likely (in some way that we’ll never truly be able to measure) to save lives, and c) it’s possible that such activity could have a domino effect on Assad’s capacity to fight at all. On this last point, I’m genuinely just crossing my fingers, because adding chaos to chaos always produces new chaos — but we can never be sure ahead of time if it will be the chaos we want.

But aside from that, I also agree with Secretary of State Kerry that “it matters here if nothing is done.”

It matters because if we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.

I also believe, and I may never be able to prove it, that it matters in a grand, human sense that when people are being slaughtered, someone is willing to do something for them. There is so little we can do — I believe, in some very inchoate way, that it matters that we at the very least try to stand between the Syrian people and chemical weapons.

But mostly, I don’t know. All possible options are bad, all will have consequences we cannot foresee, all will lead to more death and more misery for someone. My only hope is that the limited assault that I believe the Administration is contemplating will ultimately mean that things will be less bad than they might have been. We will likely never know for sure. I am very glad I’m not the one having to make the decisions.

Now for those resources:

  1. Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask – Max Fisher in the Washington Post (the “nine questions” format is a recurrent thing he does, and they’re always excellent)
  2. The U.S. does have nonmilitary options in Syria. Here are four of them – also by Max Fisher. I believe that combining any of these with whatever the Administration has planned would be the better part of wisdom, particularly as concerns aid to the refugees and the countries taking them in. None will end the misery, but all stand a good chance of ameliorating the misery.
  3. The war after the war in Syria – by Joshua Foust, a former intelligence analyst at the Pentagon. Here he discusses who the rebels actually are, and the significance of some apparent splintering in the regime. The reality is that even if Assad disappeared tomorrow, the mayhem would still continue for quite some time.

Finally, a side-note on Iran: Several things have happened lately that look an awful lot to me like signs of a back channel between Tehran and Washington, including (but not limited to) the CIA admission that it was behind the 1953 coup that removed Iran’s only democratically elected leader from office and the CIA admission (coming less than a week after the earlier admission) that it helped Saddam Hussein attack Iran with chemical weapons in the 1980s. These are both things that were widely known, but have never been admitted before.

Bearing in mind all the struggles that the US and Iran have had surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an issue that the Obama White House seems to want to actually resolve, I believe that the Administration has been trying for some time to quitely improve Washington-Tehran communication — now, add to that the fact that the Iran-Syria relationship is vital to both countries (and to Hezbollah, which serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon), and I believe that whatever back channels we have with Iran have been working overtime this week. (Note also that the admission re: the CIA’s assistance to Iraq came after Assad attacked the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons — again, that piece I mentioned above re: divisions in Iran is useful here).

Look at that, this wasn’t short at all. It’s very hard to write short about all this stuff, even when your bottom line is “I don’t know.” At any rate, to quote my sister: More will be revealed.

It’ll be awful, but at some point, at least we’ll know what it is.


PS For running updates on what’s unfolding, James Miller is doing a great job on Twitter.

UPDATE If you want to watch President Obama’s brief comments on the situation, you can click here. “A lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it.”


  1. I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with you here. I get where you’re coming from, but I find the motives for military action here to be appalling, and I see no reason whatsoever to get involved. Kerry and Obama cannot abide standing by while Syrian forces use chemical weapons, except for when they did that time before, when the timing wasn’t right for a military response. Now that Congress isn’t in session and the Administration is bleeding support due to numerous causes, such as the NSA revelations, now it’s a swell time to rally ’round the flag. “Credibility” is a crappy argument, but the elites evidently buy it. Regular folks want no part of all this, but Washington doesn’t care. Sorry, but I’ve seen this movie too many times, and it doesn’t end well.

    The points you raise strike me as wishful thinking. The only dominoes likely to fall from this are likely to fall against the rebels. A limited US bombing campaign will if anything help solidify Assad’s hand by allowing him to unite regional actors against the hated US. We’ve only seen this many times before. I also wholly reject the notion that violence or bombing can make things better under any circumstances. Violence always begets more violence, until the losses are so great that sick exhaustion ends it. It certainly turned out that way in Libya, as nearby Mali was engulfed in violence after many of Gaddafi’s fighters headed there in the wake of US “success.”

    Finally, while the Syrian civil war is indeed awful and horrific, I cannot think of a single postwar “humanitarian” interventionist action that has made anything in any way better. Desert Storm maybe you could argue, but none other. Post-WWII military interventions have a terrible success rate, either because they’re trying to accomplish things that can’t be done, or because our political class is too stupid to get it right. Probably a little of both. But given that we’re stuck with our political class for now I’m not going to trust them to do what they’ve consistently failed to do for the past seventy years.

    • Ok. You know I respect you, and having read the above, you know I disagree with you. Believe me, I’ve considered all that you’ve said, but while I will take issue with “wishful thinking” as being a little too dismissive for my comfort level, I just don’t have it in me to argue.

    • Want2no

       /  September 9, 2013

      Didn’t Iraq use chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988?

  2. Reblogged this on Stephanie.

  3. JCP

     /  August 30, 2013

    Personally, I think the argument John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago makes in this piece on PBS Newshour is the right one.

  4. Darth Thulhu

     /  August 30, 2013

    I have to strenuously disagree, especially to the Obama Administration’s completely unconvincing lie about this “red line” concerning chemical weapons meaning anything to anyone in power anywhere. Other than the President’s ego and reputation for making unwise foreign policy statements about “red lines” during an election season, no one in power cares.

    Hafez Assad gassed village after village in the 80s. Likewise Saddam in Iraq. But of course he was “moderate” regarding Communism and Israel, so guess what? No one cared.

    Saddam Hussein went further, and gassed hundreds of thousands of Iranians during their little war. He even got the Reagan administration ambassador to the UN to lie and veto and dissemble for him about it, just like the US always does for Israel when they do something horrific and illegal. Guess what? No one cared.

    In Vietnam, the United States murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians who did not want us to be there, firebombing and napalming entire swaths of the country. Guess what? No one cared.

    There is nothing to the “red line” but lies and self-serving hypocrisy. The Obama Administration touts a “bright red line” that this country has never previously honored nor taken issue with, when the violation was done by an “ally”.

    No. One. Cares. They never did before, and they certainly do not now. Just like the lead-up to Iraq, I am not a fan of being cheerled into mass-murdering people based on a pack of complete lies.

    If the Obama Administration actually believes a single word of this thin and unconvincing gruel, it can ask Congress to come back from recess to debate a formal authorization of military action. Until it does so, I have no taste for even more imperial presidential warmongering.

    But since that would be an actual democratic act and a legitimate legal bridge too far, I won’t hold my breath. Instead, I expect us to unilaterally and illegally launch our 4th Middle Eastern military engagement of the 21st Century any day now.

    All of this is neither Hope nor Change.

    • darththulhu

       /  September 1, 2013

      To give the President due credit, he has now said he will wait for Congress to return and authorize this (though he still reserves the right, of course, to unilaterally and illegally attack even if authorization is voted down).

      The fact that he is letting Congress spend an entire extra week in recess, rather than summon them for an emergency session, makes crystal clear how much of an Urgent Emergency this is not … but he is at least taking the downvote in the House of Commons and the backing out of the UK seriously.

      I’d prefer it immeasurably if he did the needed work to get the Arab League or NATO or the UN to authorize something, of course. But in comparison to Libya and the Forever Drone War, it is a small improvement to actually seek Congressional approval before blowing up more Middle Eastern people.

  5. Ms. Hauser,

    I sympathize tremendously with your belief that it matters in a “grand, human sense that when people are being slaughtered, someone is willing to do something for them.” By attacking his own people with chemical weapons, Bashir Al-Assad has committed a tremendous evil – this cannot, and should not, be in dispute. In a perfect world, the United States – as the arbiter of freedom and justice we’ve always claimed to be – would be able to punish him for this act, with simple, righteous fury. It’d be wonderful to be the good guys.

    But you know, and I know, that this country does not deserve to claim the moral standing necessary to play such a role. We’ve ignored, and participated in, chemical attacks in the past. There is no honest “red line” here. And even if one puts that philosophical inconsistency aside, I do not think any political good can come out of the United States intervening in Syria. There’s no one, in particular, to aid, no objective to accomplish. Our actions will not bring the country closer to peace, and may in fact prolong the violence there.

    If the United Nations was able to come together to make some statement on Assad – thus carrying the weight of the world’s collective disapproval – then we, along with the other member countries, might stand on strong enough philosophical and political grounds to act. But Russia seems hell-bent on preventing this, and there’s seemingly nothing we can do about that.

    If the United States intervenes in Syria, all we will be doing is making an ultimately incoherent moral statement, because President Obama said the wrong thing in a speech. It’s frustrating, and tragic. The Syrian people are suffering and dying in the midst of a terrible war. But it is not our place to do something for them, at least not alone.

  6. How can you say you are following it closely? Have you even been in Syria? 😀

  7. JHarper2

     /  September 1, 2013

    Emily, I posted at Ani’s my confusion and worry about that an attack that is only a demonstration will only kill a few low level people in attempt to make those of us far away feel better. I think now that the only response that is justified is a co-ordinated attack on Assad himself. As it appears that he ordered this atrocity, it is against him that a response must be made. Find out where he is and by drone or bunker busters respond directly to Assad.

  8. How do we know whether this was the regime attacking – what an act of lunacy if it did – or a false flag attack to justify Western intervention. What about the “7 States we’re going to destabilize” story so the West can have their oil? And we know for a fact that the rebels have used gas as well, let alone beheading Government prisoners on video etc. But most of all, how can you argue that we can protect civilians by killing more of them? Bizarre concept.

    • Neocortex

       /  September 3, 2013

      Syria has little oil. It doesn’t help those of us who are against war with Syria to get facts like that wrong. It doesn’t help anyone at all to cite Infowars as a remotely credible source. They cry “false flag” at everything.

      • They do – then again, even the boy who cried wolf got it right once …

      • And although Syria has limited reserves of oil, it is a vital conduit for Iran exporting its oil. Hence why Iran is such a strong supporter of the Baa’thist regime even though it is a secular regime and Iran is a supposed theocracy. Any move by the neo-con establishment to control the mid-east oil supply, and specifically Iran’s (which America has already organised one coup in to take control of the oil fields, remember), would not be harmed by installing a compliant regime in Damascus. Sadly, the likely outcome of the West’s two year long fiddling while Syria burns is going to be the installation of a regime deeply suspicious of the West, and possibly completely hostile …

  9. I think I’m with you. Other points in addition:

    1 to the extent that Assad has to hide his forces in fear of an attack, their ability to fight is a bit degraded, which is good.

    2 as for interventions which may have done some good–I’m haunted by Rwanda and Srebrenica so I’m tempted to say that our interventions in the Balkans were worthwhile. However, history isn’t clear. The Boston 1776 site had posts where some historians refused to answer the question: was the American Revolution good?

    3 while war is always problematic, in many human affairs we’ll never know for sure what’s best. Sometimes one has to act against evil (my Calvinist ancestors popping out).

    • When Clinton was dragged kicking and screaming into intervening in Kosovo the West probably prevented another Bosnia style disaster. But there was a clear in and out strategy. Does such a strategy exist in the mid East? No.

  10. Neocortex

     /  September 3, 2013

    Yeah, I have to come down in disagreement with you here, Emily, though I do see what you are saying.

    I feel like a bad person for saying this, but I admit that I don’t really understand why chemical weapons are considered so much worse than, say, dropping bombs on populated areas (like we could end up doing in Syria!). Nukes are particularly bad because of the huge area they cover and because of the long-lasting effects on the area. Sarin is gruesome and terrible (and I agree with the idea of countries destroying their chemical weapon stockpiles), but so is carpet-bombing, and both kill without distinction between civilian and combatant. Why is the former considered a WMD but not the latter?

    On that note, are there any initiatives to distribute anti-sarin agents like atropine and pralidoxime to the Syrian population?

    Do we really think an intervention can be clean? Population density near urban centers in Syria is high. Bombs don’t kill only bad guys. If we blow up a chemical weapons facility, will that spread gas around the area?

    A number of other commenters have also made points that make sense to me, about, for instance, the poor recent history of military interventions, and the US’ past history on the issue making any dramatic statements about upholding international norms ring hollow.

  11. I agree that there are no good options in this tragedy. However I think that military action at this stage is a bad choice. I am worried about what “military action” actually means in reality. Is this about punishment for use of chemical weapons or about regime change or about something in between? No one in the US administration is prepared to say. If Kerry believes that the evidence they have on Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is so strong then take it to a court and try and get a conviction. I am open minded about what wen ton but feel if the “evidence” is displayed in the cold light of day it may not be so clear cut. I am not prepared to take the word of a politician on this.

    The other options to military action are not “doing nothing”. Engaging with Russia, painful though it may be, is an option that should be taken. Putin has hinted at some movement on his position – he may well be playing games but let’s explore this. Getting more aid into the millions of refugees is crucial. That can include educating a million displaced children. Yes it will cost as much as arming the Syria opposition but it will pay dividends in the long term – lets face it this is not going to be solved by a few cruise missiles. The civil war that has cost 100,000 lives is too deep rooted for this to be solved by clever politicians in a matter of moments.

    On the chemical weapons question if Kerry and others feel so strongly then get it agreed by the entire UN what sanctions are justified in the case of their use. It makes me cringe when politicians talk about WMD being banned since 1925. They fail to mention the use of the atomic bomb in 1945 or the use of napalm in the 1970s. Of course since we used them they are justified – I am not saying the use was unjustifed, just that I would consider them WMD and chemical weapons and they were used by the west after 1925.

  1. Syria – I don’t know. - This Week in Blackness
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