Focal Points Blog

Syria: Helps to Know Whodunit Before Sentencing

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

With Syria, the United States has been judge, jury, and hopes to be the executioner. The trouble is that its idea of who the accused is remains ill-defined. The United States seeks to hold the Assad regime responsible, but, if it has any idea who ordered the attack – the president, top military command, or local commanders – it’s not letting us in on the secret. As is often the case, that hasn’t stopped us from rushing to judgment, declaring the administration and military guilty, and sentencing them.
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Attacking Syria to Undermine Iran

Iran President Hassan Rouhani. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As many have noted, launching missile strikes against Syria might once again harden the arteries that, since Hassan Rouhani was elected president, has been transporting fresh blood to Iran’s relationship with the West. Unfortunately, turning the relationship toxic again may be what the Washington and Israel wants.

At the Independent, Robert Fisk asks of the strikes, “But why now?” He attempts to answer his own question.

I think that Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless army might just be winning against the rebels whom we secretly arm. With the assistance of the Lebanese Hezbollah – Iran’s ally in Lebanon – the Damascus regime broke the rebels in Qusayr and may be in the process of breaking them north of Homs. Iran is ever more deeply involved in protecting the Syrian government. Thus a victory for Bashar is a victory for Iran. And Iranian victories cannot be tolerated by the West.
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What Happens if Syria Strikes Back?

Copy of a detail of “The Battle of Anghiari,” Leonardo da Vinci’s lost depiction of the futility of war. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Copy of a detail of “The Battle of Anghiari,” Leonardo da Vinci’s lost depiction of the futility of war. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

A few days ago, writing about the Obama decision to postpone a military strike against Syria, we speculated:

At the least, it buys time to build opposition to such a reckless course. At the most, it is the beginning of a change in direction. Too early to tell. we would hope the latter but fear the former.

Didn’t take long for the smoke to clear on that one.

Having lost a key ally as Great Britain announced it would not participate in a military strike, Obama saw his foreign base of support shrink to nearly naught. He made a tactically clever move: to shore up his domestic support to compensate for the loss. From the tenure of the discussion in the Senate yesterday, which we forced ourselves to watch (for a while anyway), it was pretty clear that the U.S. Senate will stand behind Obama and formally support military action. Although there are stipulations, limitations to Obama’s field of action (no troops on the ground, a sixty-day window for military strikes with the possibility of a further Congressional approval), war has a way of escalating from one set of conditions to another and those limitations might turn out to be “flexible,” as they were in the case of Libya where a no-fly zone transformed almost immediately into an “air attack zone.”
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Humanitarian Intervention: The Gift That Keeps on Giving to U.S. Imperialism

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Cross-posted from the Black Agenda Report.

With the announcement by the Obama administration that it intends to launch an attack on Syria in response to the chemical attack alleged to have been carried out by the Syrian government, the U.S. Administration has again assumed for itself the role of global “gendarme,” policing, punishing, and as its drone warfare program demonstrates, even executing the natives of the global village at will. In its single-minded dedication to this global role, the Obama administration has also freed itself from the constraints of international law as the President shamelessly declared that he was “comfortable” operating outside of the global legal frameworks that the U.S. itself helped craft.

How is it that the administration can announce to the world its intentions to circumvent, and by doing so, subvert international prohibitions on war? By wrapping itself in the false flag of humanitarian concerns for the suffering masses in Syria. President Obama, the corporate and financial elite’s most effective propaganda weapon since Ronald Reagan, explains to the world that it is only the plight of people in Syria that drives the U.S. decision to attack the country.
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Missile Strikes Might Only Enable the Assad Regime

CIA map of Syria. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

CIA map of Syria. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

At the Atlantic, James Fallows presents a useful overview of Syria by long-time foreign-policy analyst William Polk. One passage – which can be filed under Unforeseen Side Effects – jumped out at us.

Finally, if the missile attacks do succeed in “degrading” the Syrian government, [the Assad regime] may read the signs as indicating that fighting the war is acceptable so long as chemical weapons are not employed. They may regard it as a sort of license to go ahead in this wasting war.   Thus, the action will have accomplished little. 
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Atlantic Reporter Mark Bowden Tries to Portray U.S. as David to Middle-East’s Goliath

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The current issue of the Atlantic has a lengthy article on drone warfare, which starts off with a startling metaphor.  It’s David and Goliath.  David, vastly outgunned by the giant, pulls out his trusty slingshot and smooth stone, and, drone-like, takes down the enemy.  Thereupon, though there is an awkward carcass to dispatch first, the adoring multitudes anoint David king and he starts on his new assignment, with the familiar historical results.

Yes, drone-like.  The burden of the metaphor is that America’s introduction of drones into the wars of the Middle East (and soon into just about everything else, it appears) is technologically the same as, and not morally different from, David’s slingshot innovation.
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Victory for Syrian Rebels: Be Careful What You Wish For

Assad2

It’s unclear exactly how a rebel victory, the chances of which might improve in the event of missile strikes by the United States, would help the Syrian people. On August 26 at Syrian Comment, Joshua Landis provided three reasons why it wouldn’t. First:

The opposition is incapable of providing government services: Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. The government continues to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians with salaries & retirement benefits. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can get worse.
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Suspicions That Rebels Launched Chemical-weapons Attack Refuse to Die

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad once again denied, in so many words, that his regime was responsible for chemical-weapons attacks.  In an interview with Le Figaro, he said, “I’m not at all suggesting that the Syrian army does or does not possess such weapons.” Then he reiterated what he said in an earlier interview:

Let’s suppose that our army wishes to use WMD: is it really going to do so in an area where it is actually present and where soldiers have been wounded by these weapons, as the UN inspectors found during their visit to the hospital where they were being treated? Where is the logic in that?

However far-fetched, according to Washington group-think and what’s now conventional wisdom, a hotly disputed article by Dave Gavlak at Mint Press News based in Minneapolis suggests that’s in our best interest not to discard the-rebels-did-it scenario just yet. Gavlak writes:

… from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.

However implausible to most, the tale “many” tell is too plausible to ignore. In other words, it sounds too realistic and detailed to be the work of their imaginations. Based on the excerpt below, see what you think.
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The Real Reason Obama Drew Brakes on Syria Attack

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, President Obama surprised the nation and the world when he announced that he would seek the approval of Congress before launching cruise (presumably called that because they fly far and at a constant speed) missiles at Syria. At the New York Times, Mark Landler reports (emphasis added):

He had several reasons, he told [his staff], including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament. But the most compelling one may have been that acting alone would undercut him if in the next three years he needed Congressional authority for his next military confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps with Iran.

If he made the decision to strike Syria without Congress now, he said, would he get Congress when he really needed it?

“He can’t make these decisions divorced from the American public and from Congress,” said a senior aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. “Who knows what we’re going to face in the next three and a half years in the Middle East?”
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President Obama’s Bush Moment?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

President Obama has really put himself in a bind with this red line on Syria. As his call to action escalates following President Bashar al-Assad’s probable use of chemical weapons against thousands of his own people last week, it seems likely that the U.S. will make targeted strikes against the Syrian regime. The only question is who will join us.

This week, the President repeatedly referred to Syria’s breach of an international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, but his administration has yet to provide a sufficiently detailed justification and compelling outcome in support of intervention. For instance, in his speech to the American public on Friday, did Secretary of State John Kerry describe the graphic images of slaughter to garner support for a humanitarian intervention to protect civilians? Or did he speak to our worst fears to highlight the security risks to America and its allies to justify a preemptive strike in the name of self-defense? How will a strike against Assad, however narrow, serve the American interests Obama continues to incorporate into his rhetoric?

Since well before Assad’s use of chemical weapons, many experts have called for humanitarian intervention as a means to protect civilians. Some advocate a Clinton era NATO bombing campaign similar to the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which stopped Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from committing additional atrocity crimes against Kosovar Albanians. Yet, on Friday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO has no plans to act.

Even before this impasse with NATO, the administration has signaled that protecting America’s interests may justify intervention. In recent days, the President and Secretary of State Kerry have echoed these sentiments by noting that the situation in Syria matters to the security of America and its allies. This rhetoric sounds dangerously similar to the flawed Bush Doctrine, which condoned preemptive war as a means of self-defense.

This rationale would also explain why the President decided to draw a red line at chemical and biological weapons instead of calling for humanitarian intervention much earlier. After all, Syria’s civil war has raged on for over two years right under our watch, with some 100,000 deaths and 2 million refugees. One only need read the news over the past two years – such as Luke Mogelson’s heart-breaking and apocalyptic account in the New Yorker of a day in the life of Aleppo – to ascertain the sheer terror that Syrians have been living under since long before the chemical attacks.

Regrettably, Obama is implicitly drawing a boundary on acceptable instruments of mass atrocity crimes instead of calling for accountability for these crimes, which are also forbidden under international law, regardless of the method. The President could have sounded the clarion call well before the conscience-shocking events of last week based on the international community’s responsibility to protect (R2P), an emerging legal norm endorsed by the UN General Assembly. Though controversial due to its infancy, R2P has been a buzzword in international relations circles throughout Syria’s civil war.

The contours of the responsibility to protect are still developing in practice. As pointed out by legal scholars long before Assad resorted to chemical weapons, however, Obama had the opportunity last August when he announced the red line to present the case for intervention on a narrow basis to protect civilians. The President and the international community had a toolkit in R2P that could have been debated and presented to the public as a means to prevent the seemingly inevitable use of chemical weapons.

In fact, R2P helped justify NATO’s intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Granted, the intervention in Libya had support from the UN Security Council. Even in the absence of such support, the NATO bombing in Kosovo could have provided a basis – albeit one widely labeled as unlawful but legitimate – to circumvent a stalemate at the UN Security Council.

Instead, Obama kicked the can and tied his own hands. He may have been paralyzed by Bush’s debilitating legacy of intervention. Yet, by invoking America’s security interests and drawing a line at chemical and biological weapons – or weapons of mass destruction in the parlance of the Bush administration – President Obama set the United States on course for preemptive strikes in the name of national security.

In essence, his stance is not even about Syria’s civil war or widespread atrocity crimes. As the President told PBS on Wednesday, those weapons could get into the wrong hands — the implication being that Assad’s hands might be okay if they were contained. The perpetual irony is that jihadists and enemies of the United States who might be aided on the battlefield by our efforts may be some of the very hands that the administration fears. This, coupled with Obama’s increasingly unilateral stance, and his demand as early as August 2011 that Assad step down, smells like vintage Bush Doctrine.

And so, President Obama faces another quagmire — perhaps not an Iraq occupation style one, but entanglement in an increasingly sectarian and complicated hornet’s nest that, at the moment, has nothing to do with meddling by the United States. Regrettably, there might have been greater hopes for regional stability if the United States had rallied an international coalition much earlier to stop ongoing, widespread slaughter. Now the lid has blown, and it seems a little too late in the game for a face-saving measure. This is particularly true without the support of our greatest ally, Britain, and dwindling hopes for a NATO-led intervention.

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