Vail Daily column: The thin red line
September 10, 2013
On Aug. 8, some 1,200 Syrians, including more than 400 children, were evidently murdered by their government, with poisonous Sarin gas. People immediately started asking what the U.S. should do, given that poison gas is a weapon of mass destruction, that the international rule of law is threatened by its use, and that President Obama made an off-the-cuff remark a year ago about how using poison gas would be a “red line.”
Obama has decided to use force to enforce his “red line” and punish the Assad regime. This is surprising in a president elected to remove the U.S. from conflicts and set an extremely high bar for getting involved in future military entanglements. So what is the situation that Obama has analyzed in coming to his decision?
The civil war in Syria has been ongoing for over two years with the “mafia like” Allawite Assad regime, and its Syrian Shia supporters, on the one hand, and the disparate rebel Sunni groups and their various backers in other communities, such as the Syrian Kurds, on the other.
Each side has its supporters and detractors in the wider international community supplying weapons, supplies, fighters, money and intelligence to their Syrian surrogates. Then, there are the millions of refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. This latest gas attack is appalling, but is minor in comparison the war itself.
Putin seems to be the one person involved in this whole crisis who has a clear strategic goal and a firm grasp of how to go about achieving it. He is firm in his support of Assad, because there is a major Russian Naval base at Tartus in the Allawite region of Syria, and Putin’s goal is to have a regime in Syria that will allow the Russian base to remain. With Assad in power that is assured. What is the U.S. strategic thinking in all this?
Assad is only surviving with Putin’s backing, and with Shia Muslim Iran and Iraq support. It is ironic that all those trillions of dollars, training and weapons that we poured into Iraq to replace the “Assad hating” Sunni Saddam just a few years ago have come back to bite us.
Don’t we ever learn? Assad is clearly a tyrant who runs his country like a mafia boss and needs to go, but when you factor in the less-than-angelic behavior of the various opposition rebel groups in Syria (see http://www.pressherald.com/news/Obama-presses-lawmakers-for-force-against-Syria.html), then things are no longer the simplistic, easy to understand, good vs. bad that the American public likes to hear and swallow. With the Sunni gulf Arab states pouring cash and weapons into support for the rebels and al-Qaida in the mix with some of the rebel groups, things look even murkier.
So, Obama is trying to analyze this ungodly mess and decide what to do. He has the benefit of “classified briefings” and you probably do not, but I sort of feel we do not need a classified briefing to see how stupid it is to get involved.
Ask yourself, why did Assad kill those people with gas and why doesn’t he make more such attacks? The answer is almost certainly that he is desperate, and feels he has nothing else to lose. Bombing him is only going to make him more desperate and more likely to do the same again. It could be that he does not have full control of his troops. Bombing is unlikely to change that. It might also be because Putin, or the Iranians, or Hezbollah asked him to because they want the U.S. to get dragged in and thus be weakened further.
In the last four years, the U.S. has become stronger as it has pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Getting involved in Syria will not only weaken Obama, but it will also weaken the U.S. militarily, diplomatically and economically.
The U.S. will be stronger if it keeps its powder dry and stays out of the fray, using diplomacy and economic pressure to undermine Assad. We should be assailing China, Russia, Iran and Iraq and painting them as supporters of a madman and irresponsible. Bombing Syria will make the U.S. the pariah.
Sen. Collins of Maine asks what Obama will do if Assad uses chemical weapons again. Obama should also explain what he would do if one of the rebel groups decided to use chemical weapons, a circumstance that is quite possible.
Obama says he is asking Congress to debate Syria because there is no immediate threat to the U.S. That is laudable, but he should also ask whether taking military action could result in an immediate threat, and put Americans at risk and whether American loss of life resulting from his surgical strike is worth it. Protecting the American people is not just looking at the here and now but thinking strategically and having a plan for dealing with what comes next. Didn’t we learn anything from Iraq?
I can’t help but think back to the children killed at Newtown, and wonder why Obama is spending so much time revenging child killings in Syria, while at the same time we have really done nothing to prevent another Newtown. I also am staggered at the silence of Chris Christie and other possible 2016 candidates. Have they no opinion on bombing Syria, and what would they do if they were president? The silence is deafening.
I have written to my representative, and to my two senators, asking them to vote against any military involvement in Syria. I would ask you to do the same:
Sen. Mark Udall: http://www.markudall.senate.gov/?p=contact_us
Sen. Michael Bennet: http://www.bennet.senate.gov/contact/
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis: https://polis.house.gov/forms/writeyourrep/default.aspx
Nick Fickling is retired from the British military and lives in the Vail Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.