Syria thread

A thread on the mooted intervention in Syria.

Commenters may want a Syria thread.

I have no peculiar insight to share with you, only the commonplaces.

Obama´s arguments for intervention:
P1. The use of poison gas is a war crime; against civilians, an odious one. It should be punished if possible.
P2. He, Obama, personally laid down a red line on the subject. Failure to follow through weakens the standing and credibility of the US.
P3. An intervention limited to bombing is likely to greatly reduce the Syrian government´s capacity and willingness to use chemical weapons again in the civil war.

Arguments against:
A1. A unilateral armed intervention, however limited, without the sanction of the UNSC, is itself a violation of international law. There is no prospect of an UNSC resolution authorising force, given Russian and Chinese opposition. You can´t uphold international law by means that violate it. (UNSC sanction isn´t needed for self-defence, but nobody is claiming that this applies.)
A2. The intervention has no prospect of ending the conflict through bringing about a negotiated peace, or the victory of either side.
A3. The slippery slope: given the very limited effect of the bombing envisaged, it will create strong pressures for further and more decisive involvement. This would have unpredictable outcomes, many of the possibilities being very bad.
A4. Precedents: the recent history of US armed involvements in the region does not support optimism about the effects of another one.
A5. Credibility does not require you to make good on all your threats, which makes bluffing unusable. It´s unlikely, after Iraq 1 and 2, Afgahanistan, Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Kosovo and Libya that foreign rulers will suddenly stop worrying about threats from the US government, especially on matters where its national interests are more clearly at stake.

Am I leaving anything vital out?

FWIW, I give a lot of weight to A2. The interventions in Kosovo and Libya were also illegal by the same standard, but they had the merit of being decisive. The standard criteria for just war include a good chance of winning; you should not shed blood for symbols.

In the Libyan case, it´s actually a good thing that Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy lied about their objectives of the bombing: their real aim was to overthrow Gaddafi by backing his opponents (a far more united and credible bunch than the Syrian rebels), and their means were sufficient to achieve this. Libya is still a mess, though probably an improvement on Gafafi´s creepy police state.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

76 thoughts on “Syria thread”

  1. i’ve made my feelings known in the comments to a previous post. i still think the complexities of the situation are best summarized by the following–

    http://ecfr.eu/content/entry/commentary_eight_things_to_consider_before_intervening_in_syria

    http://www.levin.senate.gov/download/?id=f3dce1d1-a4ba-4ad1-a8d2-c47d943b1db6

    http://democrats.foreignaffairs.house.gov/113/Letter_for_Rep_Engel_19_Aug_13.pdf

    beyond the links i have nothing to add at this time.

  2. The arguments in favor of intervention will not tip the balance if the counterweight is the blood of innocents killed by our intervention. This is becoming the Second War of Jenkin’s Ear. A “superpower” using military force to prove that “we meant what we said and we said what we meant” is a nation either in its adolescence or its dotage.

      1. War of Jenkins’s Ear
        La batalla de Cartagena de Indias”

        The History of Royal Navy, the British Army and the US Marine Corps (which enlisted Cpt. Lawrence Washington, brother of the first president of the USA George Washington), fighting against the Spanish forces at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, in 1740-1741.

        More information at: http://www.labatalladecartagenadeindias.com

    1. This seems overly simplistic and entirely since it does not take into account what is likely to be the grisly fate of hundreds of thousands of Assad’s political opponents, including many children and noncombatants will be killed in ways to horrible even too contemplate. This isn’t idle speculation about the future. The Assad Family has a well-earned reputation for unsurpassed sadism. Thomas Friedman (credit where credit is due) coined the term “Hama Rules” to describe the massive and inhumane use of force used by dictators like Hafez al-Assad to suppress all dissent and keep power for themselves.

      Like father, like son. Bashar al-Assad, too, lives by the Hama Rules. He has used forbidden chemical weapons against the civilian population. He has dropped napalm on schoolchildren. The point, it seem to me is that we can through the use of air power (targeting regime figures directly and also in conjunction with the opposition) we can should be able to kill Bashar al-Assad and enough of his family and retainers to drive the survivors from power and into exile in Russia or we can watch their bloody vengeance with a detached air of moral smugness. For myself, I think the only real question is the extent to which we are all our bother’s keepers.

      If the proposal is to kill as many high ranking regime figures as possible with very little risk to ourselves in order to prevent the certain horrors which would attend an Assad victory, then I believe that is the moral choice. Otherwise, I think we should just acknowledge that Obama spoke in haste and a military action with the avowed aim of not hurting the enemy only makes us look silly. But I don’t think we should overlook the consequences of an Assad victory as they will clearly be among the consequences of a decision not to intervene.

      1. Your last paragraph hits the heart of the issue IMHO. Using military action as a punishment seems useless and foolish.The only use of military is to change the political reality. Bombing some strategic sites is hardly likely to accomplish that in any decisive way.

      2. If the United States attempts to kill a dictator outside the structure of UN sanction and fails, would the dictator be justified in attempting to kill key US political figures in retaliation?

        1. Of course. Why else would world leaders agree to forbid assassination as an instrument of foreign policy?

          (I’m in total agreement with Mitch — decapitation is the only tactic consistent with the Administration’s stated goals.)

        2. I don’t think that many hawks realize that the rule requiring UN Security Council approval is the only thing that keeps an attack against the United States in retaliation for our repeated violations of the UN Convention Against Torture from being legal.

          1. As a practical matter, this is why I’ve moved somewhat into the “there’s no such thing as international law” camp. Obviously, Security Council approval isn’t deterring anyone desiring and capable of attacking this country from doing so if they so desired, whether to enforce international law or for other, more nefarious reasons. It is simply our military might that has allowed the United States to flout the prohibitions against torture, aggressive war, mistreatment of captives and so forth. The operative American principle seems to be that we are the ultimate power, can do whatever we please and because we our an inherently just and wise people, what we do is therefore right.

            Having said that, the question of the moment is how would you apply these general principles to Syria? Either to vindicate other, perhaps equally important principles of international law or to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that I am predicting if Assad retains power?

          2. I don’t think international law is operative at all here unless we are willing to abide by a security council decision.

            As a matter of humanitarianism, chemical weapons just aren’t much worse than ordinary weapons. So that’s not a good basis to intervene either.

      3. “This seems overly simplistic and entirely since it does not take into account what is likely to be the grisly fate of hundreds of thousands of Assad’s political opponents, including many children and noncombatants will be killed in ways to horrible even too contemplate. This isn’t idle speculation about the future. The Assad Family has a well-earned reputation for unsurpassed sadism. Thomas Friedman (credit where credit is due) coined the term “Hama Rules” to describe the massive and inhumane use of force used by dictators like Hafez al-Assad to suppress all dissent and keep power for themselves. ”

        Pretty much whoever wins, there’ll be a slaughter.

        1. Yes, I think that is highly likely. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the main opposition group (which is somewhat secularist) is at least somewhat open to being reasoned with in ways that the Assad family is not. On balance, then, if we are going to act, the least bad option is still to kill Assad and drive his family and retainers into exile in Russia and then try our best to limit the humanitarian catastrophe that the fall of the House of Assad will likely presage.

      4. “This seems overly simplistic and entirely since it does not take into account what is likely to be the grisly fate of hundreds of thousands of Assad’s political opponents, including many children and noncombatants will be killed in ways to horrible even too contemplate. This isn’t idle speculation about the future. ”

        This war has and will lead to a very large number of grisly fates; the people opposing the government have very good reason to hate those who support it, and there’s massive ethnic/religious hostility.

    2. You know, if Spain did cut off the ear of one of our merchantmen and was seizing our cargo on the high seas, I could see that as a good argument for war. We shall not be in vassalage to the perfidious Spaniard!

    3. Arguing about “the blood of innocents” is, a foolish strategy today, and it’s only going to look more foolish every year; it’s a great big flag saying “I know the answer I want, but don’t have a good argument for it”.

      “Strategic” bombing in the WW2 was a travesty, again in Vietnam. But It’s no longer 1967. Bombing (by the US, when it wants to) HAS become more or less precision, and pretending that it has not is just a waste of every one’s time. We are no longer talking about millions, even thousands dead from stray bombs, we are now talking about unlucky individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time. A reasonable analysis of the situation takes into account the likely good that such bombing can do (ie the number of military targets available, and the number of lives removing them will spare), along with the likelihood that many of the top Syrian people can be taken out as individuals, and that applying pressure in this way makes Assad want to simply leave the country and retire somewhere (the Idi Amin solution).
      The military targets are especially significant. Yes, there is gong to be a civil war here no matter what happens. But if that war is reduced to people in pickup trucks firing rifles at each other, rather than involving planes and tanks, that’s a substantial improvement for everyone.

      I have no strong feelings about US intervention either way. I could give you a case for why and how the US SHOULD have intervened a week ago, and the arguments it should have made, but the US rhetoric since then has been so stupid and counterproductive that I suspect whatever is done now will be seen as pure continuation of Iraq by the outside world.
      However, I DO have strong feelings about the quality of arguments used in these sorts of debates. And arguing against this sort of intervention on the grounds of the likely death of huge numbers of innocents is a losing proposition. Drones, UAVs, cruise missiles, strikes guided in by on the ground special forces, etc etc. It’s all going to get ever more accurate as time goes forward. People who care that these things are used responsibly (and about how they make the rest of the world feel about the US) need to develop arguments based on whether or not it would be a good idea for the missile to destroy the thing/kill the person it is targeting, on the assumption that the missile will WORK, rather than continually harping back to the days when bombing was, indeed, massively imprecise.

      1. I’m not making an argument in favor of strategic bombing. I am arguing in favor of killing a small number of people, namely, Assad and as many members of his regime as possible, in order to prevent him from taking the reprisals against his political opponents and their families that we know are inevitable under the Hama Rules. If the deed could be accomplished by bribing his bodyguards to turn their machine guns on a meeting of Assad and his war cabinet, I would consider it money well spent and far preferable to the use of missiles, which are obviously a highly indiscriminate means of killing.

        I understand that you have a visceral dislike of emotional arguments based on the “blood of innocents,” but you offer nothing to suggest that there is any alternative short of killing him and driving his family and regime in exile that will be sufficient to prevent the horrific reprisals that under considered imperative under the “Hama Rules”. If Assad survives this conflict, it is all but certain that perhaps hundreds of thousands of his political opponents will die horribly. And, yes, many of them will be innocents.

        If you understand the “Hama Rules,” you will understand that you are faced with a binary choice: If Assad lives and retains power, a very large number of other people will die, horribly. If you have countervailing factors, either moral or practical, I think we should debate them. But I don’t think you’ve address the specific point I’m making.

        1. I was replying to the head comment of this thread, not to your comment, sorry.
          When the thread gets as long and deep as this one, it’s not clear that one’s replying in the right place.

      2. ““Strategic” bombing in the WW2 was a travesty, again in Vietnam. But It’s no longer 1967. Bombing (by the US, when it wants to) HAS become more or less precision, and pretending that it has not is just a waste of every one’s time. We are no longer talking about millions, even thousands dead from stray bombs, we are now talking about unlucky individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time. ”

        We keep hearing that, and later finding out that it’s not true.

  3. As a resident of a non-super-power, I wish people would give more weight to A1. I recall a NYT forum just before the US invaded Iraq, with pros and cons, but not one person of the distinguished multitude mentioned international law. How does one gain respect as the ‘world’s [non-elected] policeman’ if one does not obey the law?

    And A6 (maybe a variant of A2) – there is no stage 2 after the first punitive strike – which has been advertised as not intending to influence the conflict or the power balance, beyond stopping chemical weapons. Killing children, or anybody, with non-chemical weapons (such as napalm…) remains OK, or at least not cause for intervention.

    But what can one reasonably aim for? There is no good answer. Meanwhile the strike will change the situation in the rest of the region – Iran may attack somewhere, Hezbollah ditto – so one won’t be able to just go home, or it will be an obvious defeat to do so. (Think of Somalia.)

    So: the As have it, in my view beyond all shadow of doubt.

  4. A6. Intervention will aid (to one degree or another) the anti-government forces in the Syrian civil war*. These forces are highly penetrated by radically anti-Western elements including actual, formal cooperators with al-Qaida. These forces have already committed gruesome atrocities against Syria’s Christian religious minority that differ from the chemical weapons attacks against civilians in Syria (alleged to have been instigated by the Assad regime) not in intent but only in scale – entirely owing to the limited resources of the Syrian opposition. If the Assad government falls whatever chemical weapons that the regime possesses will likely fall into the hands of these forces, and there is every reason to believe that they will be used to commit acts of genocide against said Christian minority. The staggering depletion of the Christian population in post-Saddam Iraq and the ongoing violence against Christian communities in Egypt further suggest that systematic violence against (and possibly extermination of) the Christian community in Syria (which dates from the 1st century A.D.) is likely. It is further extremely unlikely that any U.S. regime would be politically able to intervene to prevent such genocide because in effectively waging war against a faction that the U.S. just propped up by waging war against its enemy would be an open admission of a massive strategic blunder without unimaginable humanitarian consequences.

    A7. Intervention in Syria would escalate tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Given the current already-high level of tensions between the two countries, the vulnerability of the Russian polity to aggressively anti-Western nationalistic sentiment, the general volatility of Russia’s current head of state and the two countries’ deep ties in the highly unpredictable Middle East, any escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia increases the chances (however slight) of war breaking out between them. As a thought experiment, assume that the chances of such a conflict in the next 10 years is currently 1%. Say a U.S. military action in Syria raises that to 3%. Still a very low number. But multiply the 2% delta in the probabilities by the likely human impact of such a conflict. Not exactly a reasonable expected-value price to pay for saving face.

    A8. That Nobel Peace Prize committee might find it socially awkward at their fall round of cocktail parties when the subject comes up of one of their former recipients authorizing hundreds of cruise missile strikes against a sovereign nation that had not attacked or otherwise threatened the interests of the nation he leads.

    *It is of course possible that the aid thereby provided to the Syrian opposition will not be enough to tip the scales in the civil war and thus will not increase the likelihood of virulently anti-Western and anti-Christian forces gaining power in Syria. Perhaps perhaps perhaps. But the ONLY plausible explanation as to why Assad would have authorized the use of chemical weapons – knowing the U.N. inspectors were in place in the country and that the U.S. President had established a clear “red line” on the issue – is that the Syrian opposition is in fact closer to prevailing than consensus opinion in the West would suggest.

    1. Practically, the more important minority in Syria are the Alawites, who (a) run the Baath régime (b) have no coreligionists outside to support them. Their desperation may well be driven by a reasonable fear of genocide at the hands of the Sunni Muslim majority. If outside powers are going to get involved, they should find some way of giving solid guarantees of safety (not power) to the Alawites as well as the Christians.

      1. “If outside powers are going to get involved, they should find some way of giving solid guarantees of safety (not power) to the Alawites as well as the Christians.”

        No. That would require either (1) Letting them settle somewhere else, (2) Putting a sh*tload of ‘boots on the ground’ to police the matter, with lenient rules of engagement, in a large number of villages (and roads between), or (3) massive and highly punitive/deterrent punishment by air (e.g., if there’s a massacre in Christian village A, surrounding Sunni villages are napalmed).

    2. But the ONLY plausible explanation as to why Assad would have authorized the use of chemical weapons – knowing the U.N. inspectors were in place in the country and that the U.S. President had established a clear “red line” on the issue – is that the Syrian opposition is in fact closer to prevailing than consensus opinion in the West would suggest.

      Assuming that Assad is a rational actor in all ways really is not a safe assumption. I think that there is potentially a very large gap between what you think is plausible and what he thinks is plausible.

      1. We already have an answer to that, if the German intelligence service can be believed:
        http://www.theguardian.com/world/on-the-middle-east/2013/sep/04/syria-assad-obama-germany

        The claim is that
        (a) the attack was ordered by Assad in a fit of pique (ie non-rational actor)
        (b) the attack was substantially more deadly (or, to put it another way, substantially more likely to be noticed and no longer be deniable) because of “mistakes” in mixing up the chemical agents so that they were stronger than had been used in previous attacks.

        1. I was thinking about that, but also Saddam Hussein’s mistake in calculating the various risks he faced when he did his best to make the world think he had chemical weapons.

          1. “I was thinking about that, but also Saddam Hussein’s mistake in calculating the various risks he faced when he did his best to make the world think he had chemical weapons.”

            God, I’m tired of this. He allowed the UN inspectors full access (Hans Blix said that there were no problems of a practical nature in access), and the UN team said that they had pretty much verified that Saddam had no WMD’s, and that the needed a couple more weeks to be sure.

            At which point Bush told them to get the f- out of Iraq, because the war was on.

            I’ve noticed that Kerry is doing the same thing. He called for access to the chemical attack sites for evidence, and when the UN was granted access turned around 100% and said that we didn’t need no stinkin’ evidence.

  5. The administration has presented some incoherent reasoning to the American public in this matter. Sec. Kerry has told us that the Syrian regime is like that of Adolf Hitler, and then said that POTUS is seeking authorization for a limited military strike. Did FDR seek authorization for a limited military strike against Adolf Hitler? Something does not hang together here; bad reasoning leads to bad actions. If Assad needs to be defeated and brought down, someone in the administration should be telling us so.

    1. Honestly, is FDR’s policy towards Germany really the one you want to use for your point? For the first two and a third years of the Second World War, FDR took many belligerent steps against Germany, and even asked Congress to authorize some of them, without an actual declaration of war or a full commitment to war. No actual declaration of war was asked for until after Germany had already declared war on the United States in the wake of Pearl Harbor. In the meantime, FDR declared weapons “surplus” and sent them to Allied powers, built bases for the British in the Atlantic, had American ships escort convoys halfway across the ocean, and took a number f other steps that were all less direct than a military strike, limited or not. If you think that FDR’s belligerent policy, though limited, was still coherent, then seeing Obama’s Syria policy as incoherent by comparison is, well, incoherent.

      1. I think you’re missing the larger point. Nazi Germany represented an existential threat to most of the countries of Europe, Russia, India, and quite possibly the United States. The Second World War killed many millions and involved the total mobilization of all of those countries and the deployment of armed forces numbering in the millions. As the name suggests, WW II touched every corner of the globe. As Joe Biden might say, it was a big f*****g deal that required a big f*****g response.

        If Assad and his regime are really as great as threat to this country as was Nazi Germany, don’t you think that the proposed response is ludicrously inadequate? Rather as if the response of the United States had been to kill Sgt. Shultz with a cruise missile and call it a day instead of mobilizing for war? The point being that either the threat is being seriously exaggerated or the Obama’s administration’s proposed response is pathetically inadequate.

  6. People with much more intelligence and command of the relevant particulars than I possess have pointed out to me that there’s a strange signal being sent in intervening now, and not earlier. Harming your own citizens is ok if it’s done with shrapnel, but once you use nerve gas, then we’re talking a different kettle of fish altogether, apparently.

    1. I really think that Obama stepped on his d*ck here, as the saying goes. He felt that he had to do *something*, so he declared a ‘red line’, and probably expected that it would never be relevant. Then it was, and I believe now that he’s making a typical Harvard mistake, namely relying on Ivy League people who have failed repeatedly, but are still around because they are from the ‘in’ group.

      I had thought that making a request to Congress was among other things a way of buying time for a diplomatic solution (e.g., Assad has a few ‘rogue elements’ executed), but more and more I think that Obama might continue to dance on his own d*ck.

  7. By signally the red line of posionous gas, as the administration’s reason for a short brutal, punishing bombing campaign, this illustrates the selective tendentious logic of the ‘Alice in Wonderland’/Orwellian world American and other world leaders inhabit and have become so innured to. Based on the adminstrations’s narrow reasoning, shouid we infer that napalm, landmines, phosphorous bombs and cluster bombs which we allow, and in many cases encourage, be considered part of ‘civilized’ warfare, as compared to what..sarín gas? Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

    “Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced.” The civilized world, really, that’s the expression we’re using? Maybe he meant to say that he wanted to keep the civil war civil. Actually, that pretty much is what he’s saying: that the mass slaughter was perfectly acceptable and, to use the word he definitely used, I heard him, “civil,” until someone had to ruin it.

    1. ¨¨.. shouid we infer that napalm, landmines, phosphorous bombs and cluster bombs which we allow, and in many cases encourage, be considered part of ‘civilized’ warfare, as compared to what..sarín gas?¨
      That seems a fair description of the laws of war as they stand today. There are efforts to ban cluster bombs and napalm.

      1. This isn’t exactly on point, but I daydream of an international law that says, any weapon you drop, you have to clean up afterwards, win or lose. A Convention on Housekeeping. Or, Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here.

    2. The distinction isn’t that sarin is deadly to civilians and the others aren’t. It’s the other way around. All of those other items you list are effective against military targets. There are uses of them that stay within the laws of war.

      This isn’t really the case with chemical weapons such as sarin. (Let’s set aside the ambiguous nature of phosphorous for a moment.) As a military weapon they’re almost useless; the countermeasures are fairly straightforward and easy for a disciplined military to apply. They produce a slight degradation in combat performance due to needing to wear protective gear but that’s about it.

      On the other hand, chemical weapons are very effective against civilian populations. They’re also cheap. A world in which the taboo against the use of chemical weapons breaks down is one in which wars, and civil wars in particular, become quite a bit nastier for civilians. Yes, I realize that the Syrian Civil War has already been horrific for civilians. It can still get worse.

      I don’t think that U.S. intervention in Syria will make any meaningful difference in preventing others from using chemical weapons, so I’m largely opposed to us doing so. But the argument for it is both different and better than just saying that civilians killed by chemical weapons are more dead than those killed by other means.

      1. “This isn’t really the case with chemical weapons such as sarin. (Let’s set aside the ambiguous nature of phosphorous for a moment.) As a military weapon they’re almost useless; the countermeasures are fairly straightforward and easy for a disciplined military to apply. They produce a slight degradation in combat performance due to needing to wear protective gear but that’s about it.”

        Wrong. They are highly effective against most military targets, because most military targets are not First World (or Soviet) militaries. They won’t have the equipment, the training and the logistics to cope with that, in the unlikely event that they have warning.

        And everything I’ve ever heard (or experienced) is that chemical weapons cause serious degradation to combat effectiveness.

  8. I don’t know if this is a new point, or just another way of stating one of the above.

    But it seems to me that I see in the press, over and over, complaints by Muslims in other countries about “Western”/Christian invasions. (I don’t agree that Islam is not Western, but, that’s not relevant.) I’ve seen it so much that I have to assume it’s a widespread sentiment.

    Therefore, especially given that this civil war is also an intra-Muslim ethnic war of Sunni and Shia, why is it our responsibility to stop this carnage? The chemical weapons aspect doesn’t get me there, not by a long shot. Shouldn’t Muslims be upset, if they are so wicked?

    I suggest that we have no business invading Syria. Bombing is the same as invading, basically. I do not think it will help, and it is not our place. Whereas, if some moderate Muslim power wanted to do something, it would be our duty to help (read: help pay for it).

    1. There are a lot of other ways we could try to solve this problem, besides bombing. They do not equal “doing nothing.”

      1. And those ways would be? Obviously since I’ve been writing a lot here and elsewhere about the likely humanitarian catastrophe that would result from Assad retaining power, I would very much like to hear how these other ways of solving the problem of the Hama Rules would work.

        1. I don’t think the humanitarian math comes out anywhere near as clearly as you seem to. And I don’t think we in the US are even capable of doing that math, given our general ignorance of other cultures.

          Plus, when did this become a conversation about removing Assad? No one’s even talking about that here, except you. So since you raise the point, what would you replace him with? Some kind of partition? I’ve been wondering about that myself. Seems better than a bloodbath, though, I imagine there’d be overlap.

          1. I would hope that once the survivors decide that exile is their only hope for survival, it might be possible to organize a sit down with the main non jihadist players and try to hammer out some kind of provisional government with aid from the West being conditioned on there being no (or few) acts of personal vengeance against lower level regime members and some kind of court trials for those more important members of the Assad gang who didn’t get out in time or that even Russia wasn’t willing to take.

            Also, I think you’re right that I’m the only person openly advocating the decapitation of the Assad regime. So, yes, that’s my plan. I think it is the least bad alternative. Obviously, I’m going to the trouble of writing about it here and elsewhere because I am trying to garner some support and see if we can’t maybe make it at least the unofficial plan in place of Obama’s obviously silly and pointless one.

            As for the humanitarian math, if the past is prologue, I’m being conservative both as to the numbers likely to be slaughtered and in the horrors that are certain to be visited upon the opposition and their families.

          2. Mitch, do you suppose the Obama administration shares your aim but knows that, politically, it’s not wise to mention it up front to a war-weary nation? They can’t possibly be oblivious to the tinder box they’re about to light a match to, can they?

        2. Oh, and I forgot to answer your question — I don’t know who could influence Assad to either behave better or quit. I just know that there must be people he listens to, like Putin for example, and we should be leaning hard on those folks, with whatever carrots we’ve got. We could at least try it first.

          F.e., I wonder if we could possibly make a deal with Iran, that if they didn’t attack Israel and stopped funding Hezbollah etc, and didn’t get nukes, that we would never attack Iran. (B/c I wonder if the reason they want a nuke in the first place is fear of us?)

          I know it’s pretty out there to think about, but aren’t we really just beating around the bush with the Syria thing anyway? Couldn’t Iran and Russia just yank the rug out from under Assad? We must have *something* that Iran and Russia want. Even if it’s just that we promise not to attack them.

          1. I don’t know that there’s anyone who could persuade Assad to forgo reprisals for more than a token period of time. Putin himself in heavily invested in an Assad victory in terms of Russian domestic politics. In any case, what Russia represents to Assad is support in his struggle for survival and safe haven for himself and his family if the very worst comes to pass. That’s undoubtedly important but if the Assad family’s past and present actions are any guide to its future, if Assad stays in Syria he must apply the “Hama Rules,” because he understand their absolute necessity if he is to survive.

            So unless Assad is willing to go into exile and entrust his and his family’s fate to Putin’s tender mercy, there isn’t anything that Putin could offer or threaten which would prevent the application of the “Hama Rules”. Simply nothing. The best analogy I can offer is to suggesting thinking about how Michael Corleone decides that the of killing Sollozzo and the heads of the other New York Mafia families is imperative, even though Sollozzo is talking about making deal and a deal is actually reached with the other families.

            On the Iranian question, I largely agree with your general outline of a deal with Iran but I would note that neither Iran nor Russia could simply “yank the rug out from under Assad,” because he understands that life in exile would be very much problematic and dependent on the ever shifting winds of Russian and/or Iranian domestic politics. But if he remains in Syria and in power, he must apply the “Hama Rules”. His personal survival and that of his family is absolutely dependent on the “Hama Rules,” honoring a deal not to take reprisals would be suicidal.

          2. Well, I probably don’t pay as close attention as you, but, doesn’t he buy his arms from somebody? And couldn’t that person just cut him off? Unless he’s got years and years’ supply left. That would be a bummer.

        3. “And those ways would be? Obviously since I’ve been writing a lot here and elsewhere about the likely humanitarian catastrophe that would result from Assad retaining power, I would very much like to hear how these other ways of solving the problem of the Hama Rules would work.”

          I’d like to point out that since the ‘red line’ is the use of chemical weapons, ‘Hama Rules’ (massive artillery on a town) is in fact ‘acceptable’.

          As for humanitarian aid, the obvious one is to help the refugees, which will keep a large number of them from dying.

          1. Obviously, I can speak only for myself. Equally obvious is that Obama’s red lines are not my red lines and what’s apparently acceptable to him isn’t necessarily acceptable to me.

            Huge numbers of refugees are potentially destabilizing. There is the competition with indigenous peoples for resources and cultural preservation. There is the problem that second and third generations born outside their homeland often have only a tenuous link with their country of their parents and grandparent but may have any equally tenuous link with the country of their birth. It would be better if the large numbers of Syrian refugees could go home and a second wage wasn’t triggered by the fall of the House of Assad.

  9. Cribbing from Kevin Drum, let’s not kid ourselves. We do not deter chemical weapons or other crimes with military action unless the offending country is small enough and unpopular enough and the President feels like it and none of our allies mind too much. We are hesitating this time because we are war weary and McCain didn’t win in 2008. Does ad hoc enforcement on international norms mean enough to break international law and kill innocent people? It seems to me that the best path is to use the UN and improve the evidentiary basis. That makes it easier to use the UN Security Council, and closer scrutiny itself may have as much deterrent effect as a US attack.

  10. Although there is much talk about international law as though it were a real thing with actual existence–In fact, there is no such thing. The powers do what they determine is in their interest. They may argue that their actions are supported by or in conformance with international law but it is only an argument.

    Perhaps there should be international law–but, there isn’t any, now.

    1. Agreed – international law is whatever the most powerful do and can get away with doing.

      Cranky

    2. That goes to far. International law is weakly applied, but then so was national law in 1300, and on some issues like drugs still is. The ban on chemical weapons adopted after their widespread use in WWI (Geneva Protocol of 1929) succeeded in keeping them out of WWII, even on the lawless Eastern Front where prisoners were unlikely to survive and civilians were killed or raped on a large scale. Kerry is quite right that there´s a clear interest for incumbent powers like the US in shoring up the rickety structure, even where the norms are a bit arbitrary.

      1. James:

        With all due respect, was it not zyclon b? a poison gas that was used to kill something near six million people (civilians?) in gas chambers during WWII? Yes, we said never again. But then we gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein, didn’t we?
        As for people calling for “international law” and the UNSC, don’t we know already that the Chinese and Russians will veto and not allow it to happen? Sounds like a straw man to me.
        So, it’s on us. But really, don’t we have to look at how few we have really helped and how many we have harmed in our numerous military interventions since WWII? H’mm, how many people in refugee camps could we feed and care for for the price of these cruise missiles? Or even food stamps for the hungry children in our country?

        1. The Holocaust was different than combatant field. Imagine a WWII where the Germans started dropping poison gas canisters on London, and the Brits began gassing German cities in return, where German subs launched chemical gas attacks on New York City.

          1. I agree with most of what James is saying in this thread; but here he is arguing the theory behind WW2, not the reality.

            The “strategic” bombing of WW2 occasionally degenerated into the precise argument against chemical weapons — massive *deliberate* civilian deaths with no military target justification. Most obvious in the case of the various fire bombing campaigns, but you could throw the two nuclear drops in there as well. And the US was more or less happy to keep up this logic in Vietnam. It’s a fine line between dropping Sarin on a population and dropping a flame agent on them. (Some would add “and dropping Agent Orange on them”.)

            The fact that sarin et al are banned whereas napalm is not is unfortunate, and the US is happy to exploit this fact (and to prevent the legal norms from being changed). But a tenth of a loaf is better than none. It’s still a better world if sarin et al are illegal, even if plenty of other ways of killing are not.

      2. Ditto James. We may need better or stronger international laws, but let’s not throw out the baby. If we humans need to more or less fool ourselves and each other into behaving well, then that’s what it takes. Overall I think we may be getting there, very slowly.

  11. It is hard for me to see why people being killed by chemical weapons is worse than people being killed in any other way. Dead is dead. All of the nice rules of engagement seem to be frosting on a s*** cake to this commentor.

  12. > leaving anything vital out?

    war, in Asia, for “land war in Asia” see “classic blunders”

    classic blunders, “the two classic blunders” :
    1. Land war in Asia
    2. Going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line

  13. I give a lot of weight to A1, A2, Stephen’s A6, and some weight to A3-5. I also disagree with you on Libya: it is not yet clear whether Libya was “worth it” or not. Check back in 10 or 20 years and see (and of course it will still be unknowable, because there’s no mirror universe with Gaddafi remaining in power).

    This is stupid. Contact your congresscritters, if you have not already.

  14. I don’t find P2 remotely persuasive; the high regard with which this point is held in the Village is sickening.

    Mitch Guthman (among others) is arguing for an intervention broader than that being sold. Do you favor a limited and likely ineffectual response: limited bombing that kills only people not involved in any of the decisions at issue? To send the message to Assad that he may continue to apply Hama Rules, but with only 90% of his arsenal?

    Or do you think the proponents of this thing are lying, and what’s really going to happen is what you want: a forceful enough intervention to remove Assad and his power structure, whatever the consequences might be for ordinary Alawites, Christians, residents of Damascus, whoever?

    1. And the invocation of ‘credibility’ is particularly galling because one of the principal reasons the UNSC isn’t going to authorize pretty much any use of force is the open and pretty shameless duplicity with which UNSC authorization to act in Libya was obtained. We have no credibility because we spent it in a calculated and intentional matter.

      It is not necessary to overthrow Assad to enforce the norm. If we didn’t have a vocal faction looking for an excuse to overthrow Assad — and the red line remark was supposed to back those people off, which it did for a year — we’d have been looking for effective ways to deal with the use of CW. Working with Russia, which even if it is not going to agree to another “limited” strike, may well see an interest is propping up the norm. An idea: show our cards to the Russians, convince them that this was the government. Have the Russians instruct Assad to turn over everyone in the military chain of command involved in the decision making, planning, or execution of the attack to Russia, which will then turn them over to the ICC. They could then testify all they want about Assad’s personal involvement, which might become relevant if he’s overthrown but captured alive.

      No bombing innocent people. And the wedge here would be between Russia and Iran on one side, and Syria on the other. Rather than between the US on one side, and Syria and Iran on the other. I recognize that there are lots of people who find that latter a feature and not a bug. I just don’t think we should be following their advice.

      Would Russia do this? We’ll never know, will we. Putin’s remarks, though, suggest that the norm has some value in his world, maybe value enough to enlist his help, rather than enmity . . .

    2. Yes, what I’m proposing is broader and different from what’s being sold by the Obama administration. But not a full scale intervention by any means. I’m simply proposing to change the Assad Family’s calculus of values somewhat so that the application of the Hama Rules will become a less instinctual and less successful response to political dissent in Syria.

  15. So we are going to bomb the assholes behind Door 1 for gassing the assholes behind Door 2?
    Despite the real possibility that if the assholes behind Door 2 had the chance to gas the assholes behind Door 1… they would.

    Excuse me for being so blunt.
    Bot I got no favorite dog in this fight.

    Just an observation:

    If it is so easy for Muslim to gas Muslim how easy do you suppose it would be for Muslim terrorists (Door 3) to suitcase-nuke non-Muslims?
    The answer is: It would be done in a NY minute.

    Which is why for me: Muslim terrorism is an existential threat, in spirit if not yet in actual technological prowess.
    And that’s why I favor my government scanning your emails and saving your phone metadata, filtering browsing, etc.
    It is only a matter of time before the monsters behind Door 3 attempt something monstrously large again…

  16. Secretary Kerry says we must not be “spectators” to crimes against humanity. I have to wonder, when did that become U.S. policy? If we’re suddenly going to do what we said we’d do after Nuremburg, if we’re suddenly not going to stand idly by while crimes against humanity are being committed, I suppose that’s a good thing.

    In that case I have no idea what would be the point of a limited engagement. If there really are crimes against humanity being perpetrated, the right (though not necessarily legal) response would be to jump into Damascus with both boots, arrest Assad and all his henchment, and deliver them to the International Criminal Court for trial. Doing that would be worth American infantry casualties, lots of them.

    But we won’t be taking Assad to jail pending trial, and we won’t be taking any American war criminals there either, so apparently we still have the same old policy on war crimes, which is to ignore them most of the time.

    1. “Secretary Kerry says we must not be “spectators” to crimes against humanity. I have to wonder, when did that become U.S. policy? ”

      Kevin Drum summed it up perfectly:

      “…the U.S. will punish the use of chemical weapons if:

      You are a small country that poses no real threat of retaliation;
      And we didn’t like you very much to begin with;
      And the current U.S. president happens to want to do it;
      And America’s current strategic alliances permit it.”

      My comment is that if the US supports Our B*st*r in Whateverland, we’ll happily turn a blind eye to pretty much anything, and frequently help him do it, especially if there’s profit in selling him the tools.

  17. Mitch Guthman:

    “I would hope that once the survivors decide that exile is their only hope for survival, it might be possible to organize a sit down with the main non jihadist players and try to hammer out some kind of provisional government with aid from the West being conditioned on there being no (or few) acts of personal vengeance against lower level regime members and some kind of court trials for those more important members of the Assad gang who didn’t get out in time or that even Russia wasn’t willing to take.”

    And a pony! You’re starting with assuming that the ‘non jihadist players’ matter that much (and really also that non-jihadist but bent on revenge players don’t matter that much).

    1. (continuing)

      This is what people are worried about, that the ‘limited’ bombing will lead to greater involvement. And from everything which is known about this war, there’s going to be a horrible slaughter, one way or another, barring the US/other powers putting a couple of hundred thousand troops on the ground, to do some serious village-by-village combat.

      1. I think people are right to be worried about this. I’m worried about it, too. What we’ve seen starting in the second half of the 20th Century is that when societies where long standing “tribalistic” differences are ruthlessly suppressed even for very long periods of time (especially when this is accomplished by what Friedman describes as the Hama Rules), the consequences of a breakup tend to be horrific.

        There are a large number of such societies outside of North America and Western Europe. Each collapse of such a society has significant knock-on effect beyond the immediate massacres as refuges burden and create tension in the countries to which they flee as their tribalism conflicts with the indigenous culture and the newcomers compete for resources with indigenous peoples. We saw this with the Algerian Civil War in the 1990’s and with the ongoing migration from other Muslim countries because of tribal conflicts. From my own observations, the knock-on effects have had a lot of impact on England and France, in particular. And then the question is, does the West try to accommodate these large numbers of refugees from what appear to be cultures that are not compatible with our own and even allow our cultures to be changed in ways we might not like or do we simply harden our hearts, slam the door and try our best to ignore their piteousness cries?

    2. I’m not starting with the assumption that the ‘non jihadist players’ will dominate a future Syria. I don’t have remotely enough information to even hazard as guess about what’s going on inside Syria right now. I am, however, making the assumption that the choice is between the near certainty of the massive humanitarian catastrophe dictated by the “Hama Rules” in the event that Assad survives in power and the merely highly likelihood that the West will be unable to impose significant constraints on reprisals by the victors. I have argued that this is a binary choice and the absence of any reasonable alternatives suggests that this is so, in which case we in the West must make essentially two binary choices: The first is whether we are our brother’s keeper or, to put it another way, is there a duty of rescue in circumstances such as these? If such a duty exists (and I agree it’s debatable) then we are confronted by a second binary choice related to the mechanics of such an intervention. That it to say, which is the least bad choice between two admittedly bad alternatives.

      Again, if past is prologue, we can be quite certain that the Assad Family understands that it has been able to stay in power for this length of time only through the ruthless and thoroughgoing application of the Hama Rules. Thus, my prediction about the size, scope and grisliness of Assad’s reprisals if he survives in power. Against this must be balanced Syria’s uncertain future—perhaps devolving to something akin to present-day Libya (likely the best case ), perhaps something far darker and even more grisly than anything Assad could conceive. Again, I don’t know the future but I do know that there is no outside power that can possibly hope to persuade Assad not to apply the Hama Rules because he rightly understands that there is simply no way for him to dismount from the tiger and survive. So one horrific event is unavoidable but the other might be prevented; and that’s the binary choice.

      1. I understand what you are wrestling with, and am wrestling with the same things — I think we all are — and come out with the other answer. I don’t expect to talk you out of your position.

        If we end up with action, however, there’s more going on that just the issues you are describing. The kind of strikes currently being sold to Congress — and to the public — are not going to remove Assad. Assuming that removing Assad is or ends up being the goal here, you end up with some real military involvement, that goes beyond what a number of members of Congress voted to allow, and what a plurality of the minority of Americans supporting intervention are willing to go with.

        Is dishonesty a viable strategy for the President? His predecessor gambled that the results in Iraq would be so positive that no one would really care who said what to whom in the run-up. (This is the exact position of Mr. Chalabi, iirc). No one is even pretending to believe the result here is going to be so good that distortions and half-truths will be forgotten.

        It may seem crass to worry about domestic politics when tens of thousands of lives are on the line, but really, aren’t we supposed to be a democracy of at least some kind?

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