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October 8, 2013

The Syrian tragedy

Reuel S. Amdur

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Last summer, Vladimir Putin has, it seems, let the air out of President Barack Obama's balloon. Obama was carefully attempting to craft support at home and abroad for a limited action against Bashir al-Assad, to punish him for unleashing chemical weapons on his own citizens. However, Putin proposed, and Assad agreed, that all Syrian chemical weapons would be put under international control.

The U.S. action was to be a sign that the civilized world—or at least Obama—could not and would not tolerate breaches of international law in use of chemical weapons. 

First we need to ask if chemical weapons were in fact used by the régime or by the free Syrian Army.  It is the régime that has stockpiles of such weapons, and al-Assad’s father has in fact used them in the past.

Next, would a punitive strike “teach Assad a lesson” so that he would hesitate to repeat the crime?  Probably not.  He is a cornered rat.  If his régime falls, there are few places to which he could escape.  Desperation would preempt any “lesson”.  And Obama has been open only to a strike, not an invasion.  The US has wearied of the costs of invasions because of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The wider issue is what will happen in Syria. 

Even if Obama takes punitive action, it is not likely to be decisive in the civil war.  In fact, the war is more than a civil war, with Sunni activists, some of them extremists, arriving to take part in efforts to unseat Assad, and Shi’ite Hezbollah forces from Lebanon coming to shore up the Assad régime.

In Syria, we have an authoritarian secular government, controlled by members of the minority Alawi sect, facing a rebellion by a predominantly Sunni resistance.  Because other minorities, Christian and Druze, for example, have identified with the government for fear of what might happen if the Sunni majority overcame Assad, they have largely sided with him.

The Assad régime is well known for its ruthless suppression of dissent and its extensive use of torture.  However, opposition forces have also tortured people.  It is hardly presumptive to suggest that a final victory of either side will result in excessive bloodshed and much suffering.  The mutual hatreds run deep and strong.

A rebel victory raises another issue: which rebels?  There are a number of very different rebel movements and militias, from al-Qaida and other extremist groups to moderate nationalist forces.  Would the moderates be able to take control? 

If one looks at what is happening in Egypt, with terrorism and mob action by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists attacking Shi’ites and Christians, we could expect much the same thing in Syria, only much worse.

At least equally troubling are the implications for the larger region. 

The Alawite religion is an offshoot from Shia Islam.  It is a sect whose doctrines are revealed only to Alawite males.  Shi’ite governments such as those in Iran and Iraq tend to identify with them (at least till the dust temporarily settles, at which time it may be the occasion for more “housecleaning”).  Hezbollah troops from Lebanon are in Syria to support Assad, and pro- and anti-Shi’ite terrorist acts threaten to tear Lebanon apart once again. Will things get even worse in Iraq than they are now?  Could the conflict between Shia and Sunna spill over to the Emirates?  With both Saudi Arabia and Iran supplying men and supplies to the two sides, could war break out between the two?

Let us end with a consideration of the moral ground that Obama wishes to claim for the United States. 

He argues that his proposal to punish Assad for gassing his own people is justified by international law against the use of gas in warfare.  But the Untied States and the rest of the world turned their backs when Bashir al-Assad’s father Hafez gassed a Syrian community controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.  It even supported the U.S. ally Saddam Hussein when he used poison gas in the Iran-Iraq War.  And the United States showed its deep commitment to international law when it refused to accept the judgment of the International Court of justice when Nicaragua won a case against the United States for mining its harbors and supporting the Contras.

Finding the “good guys” in all of this is an impossible task.  The same goes for hope.

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