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The United States has concluded that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces, and President Obama has authorized direct U.S. military support to the rebels, the White House said Thursday.
There is a compelling humanitarian case for some type of measured military intervention in Syria. The brutality of the Assad regime as it clings to power has been well-documented. And the Syrian people are frustrated and angry about the U.S.' lack of military support.

That said, there is a strong argument against intervention, for multiple reasons, including the reasons set forth in this essay in the New York Review of Books by David Bromwich. Bromwich is not someone who I always agree with, but his essay, "Stay Out Of Syria!" is a must-read.

Bromwich argues that there are such disparate elements lined up against Assad, it's becoming increasingly impossible to differentiate between who is a potential friend and ally and those "groups" whose ultimate loyalties lie elsewhere.  And as horrific a regime as Assad's is (and there is no doubt about that), the consequences of our meddling in a complicated Middle Eastern sectarian civil war may be counterproductive or worse,  because the affiliations of the actors on the ground are so unclear and unpredictable.  In fact, up to this point this has been the Administration's position, and it seems that this new policy may be one borne out of political pressure rather than strategic considerations.


Syria has already largely disintegrated. The government and its Alawite and Christian supporters have secured the west, the Kurds are in the northeast, and the Islamist rebels are in the east (where the al-Nusra Front has already begun to enforce sharia law).
Some of the Syrian rebels have pledged their loyalty to Al Qaeda:
A Syrian rebel group's pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda's replacement for Osama bin Laden suggests that the terrorist group's influence is not waning and that it may take a greater role in the Western-backed fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The pledge of allegiance by Syrian Jabhat al Nusra Front chief Abou Mohamad al-Joulani to al-Qaeda leader Sheik Ayman al-Zawahri was coupled with an announcement by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, that it would work with al Nusra as well.

So isn't it possible that our heavy weapons could end up in this group's hands?  Here's the Administration's position:
The United States, which supports the overthrow of Assad, designated al Nusra a terrorist entity in December. The Obama administration has said it wants to support only those insurgent groups that are not terrorist organizations.
Well that's a relief.  Do they make each group fill out a questionnaire?

Bromwich's basic thesis is that there is a lot more going on here beyond the bare fact of Assad's repressive regime, and we would be wise to think twice before entangling ourselves in a civil war that presents in some aspects more complexities than Iraq:

But the untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going. A Financial Times article by Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith on May 17, “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” quoted persons close to the Qatari government who estimate that $3 billion has thus far been spent bankrolling the rebel groups.
And on the opposite side?
Against Qatar and Saudi Arabia stand the Shia powers including Iran and its ally Hezbollah, along with numbers of Iraqi Shiites whom the war of 2003 displaced. All these groups support the Alawites—related to Shia Islam. All of them except the Alawites are outsiders to Syria who for religious, cultural, and political reasons do not believe that they are outsiders. The US, by contrast, is seen throughout the region as a perfect outsider.
The takeaway here is that this conflict has implications that go well beyond Syria. We would be partaking in another proxy war.  In fact, as the New York Times reported yesterday, one of the primary motivators here appears to be the fact that Saudi Arabia and Jordan are piqued that we haven't joined their party:
[T]he president’s caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups.

Moreover, the United Arab Emirates declined to host a meeting of allied defense officials to discuss Syria, concerned that in the absence of strong American leadership the conference might degenerate into bickering and finger-pointing among various gulf nations with different views on the best ways to support the rebellion.

Bromwich also does a good job of shredding knee-jerk proponents of intervention such as the New York Times' Bill Keller and Senator John McCain.   His argument has some problems as well, such as over-emphasizing the ambiguity as to who has or has not used chemical weapons. I commend his piece here for everyone to read for themselves.

Still, this appears to be a fait accompli:

“The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Rhodes said U.S. intelligence had determined with “high certainty” that Syrian government forces have “used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”
As we know President Obama described the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces as a "red line" that could not be crossed.  

So depending on your point of view, given the evidence of chemical weapons usage, the Administration is either standing on principle, or, having painted itself into a corner, has now determined it must accede to the hawks clamoring for U.S. involvement.

History suggests that if the motive for military action is unclear, things don't usually end well. History also suggests that arming Middle Eastern factions with unclear loyalties will not end well.  The loudest voices calling for intervention are those of perennial GOP scolds like McCain as well as voices within the Democratic Party. But Syria is not "Kosovo" or "Bosnia," and the very fact that people like McCain and other clueless pols are advocating intervention should prompt consideration of any alternative course.  As former U.S.Defense Secretary Robert Gates unequivocally stated, military intervention in Syria would be a "mistake" whose outcome will be "unpredictable" and "messy."

The scope of the aid to be provided hasn't been disclosed:

Rhodes did not detail what he called the expanded military support, but it is expected initially to consist of light arms and ammunition. He said the shipments would be “responsive to the needs” expressed by the rebel command.
*  *  *
Obama has “not made any decision” to pursue a military option such as a no-fly zone and has ruled out the deployment of U.S. ground troops, Rhodes said.
And down the rabbit hole we go.


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Comment Preferences

  •  good diary. It's nice to read a reasoned (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dartagnan, angry marmot, Kevskos

    anti-interventionist piece rather than the knee-jerk 'Totalitarian State/MIC/Wag the Dog/Iraq II/Obama=Bush' nonsense from the usual suspects...

    That said, I think Obama should have provided far more leadership in terms of humanitarian (i.e. non-military) intervention at the very beginning of the conflict...

    Now we're just in no-way-out mode.

  •  I think America has made excellent progress (6+ / 0-)

    in hanging Americans out to dry.

    We have reached a level of Political rationalization that CAN support leaving people in other countries hanging out to dry as well.

    Unfortunately we'll have to hear about how we need to help those in harm's way as the MIC - sorry, they exist and fuck up everything in their path to capitalize on suffering and mayhem - use "human suffering" as an excuse to ramp up profits.

    Probably should have helped the Syrians MONTHS ago rather than allow it to fester - on one hand; on the other, why do WE have to fix everything?

    Oh...yeah.... MIC profiteering and Disaster Capitalism.

    If it wasn't for politics, we'd likely be accomplishing great things.

    •  I concur that it's a good brief (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dartagnan, jlms qkw, Tweedledee5

      Sometimes we forget how difficult it can be to take people of different religions, economic means, political persuasions, and special interests and weld them into a more perfect union but Syria has been around for a long time as a reasonably cohesive unit despite regular military coups since its independence in 1946 so what happened?

      Syria ethno linguistic map

      Syria is mostly Arab and Sunni but also has Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias as well. In our recent war in Iraq we were fighting against some of the groups we now are proposing to aid.

      Since the Suez crisis of 1956 Syria has been under the wing of Russians as a counter to our interests in Turkey. That more than anything else makes it difficult for us to take it on as within our sphere of influence. Nobody has as yet given us a big shiny badge that says Sheriff, and if we had that badge who would we expect would be backing our play internationally if perchance we should find it necessary to ally with al Quaeda in supporting the rebels who have the best chance of success.

      The Fighting

      The principle fighting occurs near areas where there are airbases along the Kurdish territory bordering the headwaters of the Tigris river on the border with Turkey and along the Orontes river on the borders with Lebanon and Israel in areas where people have been at war over watersheds since the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, but generally not in the areas where the majority of the population is Sunni. The rebel support for the Alawites seems to be resulting in fighting in and around Hama.

      Its conceivable that were the US to provide a no fly zone and or manage to work with Putin to reduce arms and money coming from Russia the Assad regime could have difficulty avoiding coups and internal dissension.

      Aside from the deaths of a couple of hundred thousand people by conventional weapons since 2011 the greater risk is the metastasis of well armed al Qaeda cells into places like Lebanon and the threat to Israel if Assad's chemical weapons fall into the hands of the rebels.

      I suppose I come down on the side of if this is gonna hurt lets get it over with.

      Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

      by rktect on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 06:14:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hezbollah may be the reason. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sturunner, Dartagnan

    The U.S. and its strongest allies in the middle east don't want Hezbollah in control of Syria.

    look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

    by FishOutofWater on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:06:04 AM PDT

    •  When the Qatari and Saudi (0+ / 0-)

      Emirs and Sheikhs got so heavily involved early on it was inevitable that Hezbollah would get sucked in. This is an existential threat to them.

      The time for strong resistance to outside interference was around a year and a half ago. But NATO and Israel thought they could extract something useful from this clusterfuck.

      Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit. --Edward R. Murrow

      by chuckvw on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 11:07:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Because we always do so well liberating Baathists (6+ / 0-)

    from each other

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:11:22 AM PDT

  •  I just heard McShame on NPR (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dartagnan, corvo, JoanMar, Kevskos, Tweedledee5

    going on about how we need to start this war NOW NOW NOW!
    Send heavy weapons and enforce a no-fly-zone, et cetera, the usual McShame bile.
    It's another situation from Hell, there is no good answer, whether we stand back or jump in, it's going to be ugly, people will die, we'll make enemies and end up with a situation that we can't see or even guess at from here.
    I don't see why we don't do this entirely by remote control, via Qatar and the Saudis. If we are involved at all it should be at at least one fold of remove: We arm the Arabs, they back the rebels. Effectively, we support the rebels but not directly or obviously.
    But better yet would be for us to negotiate a quarantine with Russia and China, two folds back, to let the events take their course without major powers interference.
    I know, that's a) not likely and b) probably a recipe for a long bloody mess, but all we can do by getting deep in is to make it a longer, bloodier mess.

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:18:18 AM PDT

  •  But this one really will be a cake walk (6+ / 0-)

    with Al Qaeda as our boots on the ground

    We're shocked by a naked nipple, but not by naked aggression.

    by Lepanto on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:19:09 AM PDT

  •  That Bromwich essay surprised me. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dartagnan, Tweedledee5

    Normally the NYRB publishes wall-to-wall "We must blow up lots of brown people to civilize them" essays.  

    Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

    by corvo on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:31:12 AM PDT

  •  Ah, the "case for war" again. (7+ / 0-)

    It's dejavu all over.

    He who would trade liberty for security deserves great customer service.

    by Publius2008 on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:42:19 AM PDT

    •  West Asia (0+ / 0-)

      is the war zone of this generation in American and global politics.  

      For comparison: the Atlantic/Pacific/Caribbean 1890s to 1915, Western Europe 1915-1945, East Asia 1945-1975, Eastern Europe 1960s to 1998.  West Asia, 1990 (Kuwait/1st WTC bombing)-present.

  •  I just hope that the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    president is not reacting to (senior president) Bill Clinton's public advice.
    That he will not allow that to influence him one way or the other. No military intervention!

    Maya Angelou: "Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest."

    by JoanMar on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:52:30 AM PDT

  •  Hope and Change 2008 (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    feels like such a long time ago

    We're shocked by a naked nipple, but not by naked aggression.

    by Lepanto on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:56:46 AM PDT

  •  Can't we bomb Assad directly? Surely we know (0+ / 0-)

    where he is....wouldn't that be the simplest way to change things there without taking sides with the various rebel groups?

    •  Perhaps the stupidest thing (0+ / 0-)

      I've read on the matter so far.

      Yeah, just take out Assad, so that the dozens of rebel groups, who are already duking it out with each other can ramp it up . . .

      Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

      by corvo on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 06:47:14 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That is what is going to happen regardless (0+ / 0-)

        the civil war WILL play out, unless hundreds of thousands of troops are sent to every street corner

        the only question is how long and how much WE get involved

        should we prop up Assad then?
        then what?

        •  You're welcome to be one of those (0+ / 0-)

          hundreds or thousands of troops, or at least be a brave patriot and bankroll them.

          Just leave me out.

          Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

          by corvo on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 09:30:56 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Samantha Powers does NOT support intervention (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    in Syria and she believes in humanitarian interventions but this is too ugly

  •  Good diary, Dartagnan. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The situation in Syria is incredibly complicated. The range of interests in play (from durable ideological interests to impermanent opportunistic alliances) make any sort of assessment of 1) how things are likely to develop and 2) what elements of the opposition(s) to assist a fool's errand.

    Fundamentally, the Administration has to articulate the end-goal of any assistance/intervention. Is the goal the immediate unqualified deposition of al-Assad? Or is the goal the creation of (at least the "threat" of creating) a military stalemate in order to to draw both the opposition(s) and the al-Assad regime to a negotiated and more gradual political settlement at Geneva II? I tend to think that the Administration's announcement is geared toward getting the numerous oppositions and the regime to the table at Geneva II, but who knows...

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

    by angry marmot on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 06:05:20 AM PDT

  •  Is it too soon to start anti-war protests? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dartagnan, corvo

    On one of the nightly MSNBC shows (sorry, can't remember if it was Hayes or Maddow), they showed a poll of the American people about people's thoughts on our Syria response; 11% approved of 'arming the rebels', and 13% approved of 'American forces in the area/boots on the ground'. It's pretty goddamn clear that other than the hardest of right wing/John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Americans are sick of war and don't want to get pulled into another endless mess - especially considering that there is NO organized, single 'rebel' group to be supported, and in fact many of the rebels are Al Queda affiliates, as John McWardrums accidentally found out when he made his illegal trip to meet with them (so he actually WANTS us to supply high-powered weapons to Islamic terrorists? They're our pals now??).

    No more of this crap. We need to stop it before it begins. Go yell at another cloud, Old Man McCain.

    It has to start somewhere. It has to start sometime. What better place than here, what better time than now? - Guerilla Radio, Rage Against The Machine.

    by Fordmandalay on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 06:26:44 AM PDT

    •  It's probably too late. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      There were massive protests before the Wuur Agin Eye Rackie Turr, not that they accomplished anything.

      Besides, it would just give the Administration more excuses to increase the "security surveillance" of domestic protesters.

      Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

      by corvo on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 06:48:51 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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