Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Syrian tripwire has been sprung

{A shorter version of this is in the SEN 8/30/13}
As most sane people expected, but only the lunatics wanted, Syria is rapidly turning into a clusterfuck of immense proportions.
Of course, I'm referring to US airstrikes on Syrian military and government facilities, the latest round of gluttonous insanity that has been all too prevalent in our foreign policy circles for years now.
Before I go on, I should add a disclaimer: I'm writing this Tuesday afternoon, after Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement we'd conduct a few days of strikes starting Thursday. It's possible we actually did nothing – something I hope is true. It's also possible that multiple nations are now ablaze, although that's not too likely in such a short time frame. The fact you're reading this obviously indicates the worst potential hasn't been realized (yet, and hopefully never).
That said, I think it's safe to say Washington's reaction, or lack thereof, has introduced a new element of randomness into an already chaotic mess. Kerry was claiming readiness to attack even before there was clarity on what kind of agent was used (some sources claim a nerve gas, some claim an industrial toxin) or on the perpetrator's identity (some ID the Assad regime, claiming desperation in the face of rebel advances near Damascus; others point at the rebels, arguing they saw a chance to bring in the US).
Neither side is one I particularly want to ally with.
Although use of chemical weapons is horrifying, the only way to actually stop the killing there that stands a chance of working requires the US, Russia, China and Iran to all be involved. Anything less might tamp down the violence for a while, but will guarantee the killing resurfaces in potentially even more nasty ways. That's because solitary intervention, especially by the West, won't actually solve the problems that sparked and continue to fuel it.
Those problems are many and of long duration. The longest fuse goes all the way back to the Sunni-Shia split that began developing around 1400 years ago. That's the surface rationale behind the way various Middle Eastern nations have taken sides: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the rebels (mostly Sunnis, with radical Wahhabi-fueled al-Qaeda elements being the best armed) vs the Alawi Assad regime backed by Hezbollah and Iran (mostly Shia, although some Sunnis and Christians support Assad).
To me, this is mostly an excuse being used by leaders on both sides to provoke co-religionists into fighting for causes that won't actually benefit them. Those leaders are using the religious differences as a tool to promote their own political influence in the region, the latest clash in a centuries-long rotation of power among the Iranian Plateau, the Arab lowlands, and the Anatolian highlands.
Layered atop that, and in practice a bigger factor, is the fact this region has long been a focal point of arrogant colonialist game-playing. Even as World War I was raging, the British and French devised a secret plan, called the Sykes-Picot Treaty, to partition the Middle East for their own benefit. It “gave” Iraq, Jordan and Palestine to Britain, and Syria and Lebanon to France, well before they had any sign of success vs the Ottoman forces that ruled the region. The 1916 plan totally ignored the wishes and cultural realities of the people who lived there, and the winners later granted newly-concocted puppet kingdoms to certain leaders even if they had no connection to the area they were to rule (for example, Faisal in Iraq).
Adding to that was the fact Britain had also been under pressure from Zionist Jewish and Christian leaders for a couple of decades to support creation of a Zionist state in Palestine. London did so in the Balfour Declaration and helped hundreds of thousands of European Jews get to Palestine, especially as the horrors of the Holocaust came to light.
Unfortunately, that aid conflicted with promises London had made to Arab allies and the facts on the ground there, and Arabs have never forgotten. At the time, Palestine, today's Israel, was a sparsely populated corner of the Ottoman province of Syria. It was almost entirely Muslim with very few Jews, although Jewish communities were scattered all over the empire, particularly in the cities. The evidence shows they were well-integrated into the Muslim majority and usually practiced their own culture with little trouble until after Israeli independence in 1948.
The post-WW2 years brought a new form of external influence – the Cold War. In 1971, Moscow established a fairly small naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus; the Russians are still there despite the Soviet collapse in 1991*. They've reportedly been renovating it to support larger warships in recent years, and Russian technicians have gone to Syria to operate new air-defense batteries, but how many are there is unknown.
A widespread lack of information is one of the biggest risks US air attacks have. We don't know what treaties Syria has with Moscow, or what Russia is likely to do if its facility or people are hit. Putin has warned the US to stay out of Syria repeatedly, as has Iran, which recently stated a US attack would cause the whole region to become a “ball of fire.”
The confusion of alliances there is unpleasantly reminiscent of those in the Balkans in 1914.
On Tuesday, the Guardian's Julian Borger reported that Washington wouldn't wait for the results of the UN investigation already in Syria, only for a vote in the UK Parliament slated for Thursday.
The same story states, “As presidential systems, the US and French governments do not have the same obligation to go to their legislatures to seek approval to act ….” He's dead wrong about that. Our Constitution specifically gives only Congress the power to declare war. Since the attack in Syria wasn't against us and the UN has not authorized intervention, the president has no authority to act absent such a vote.
Even if “successful” (whatever that means here), such an attack puts us right in the crosshairs of an ancient trait of Arab culture: the Bedouin sense of honor. Under that code, attacks do not go unpunished – a tendency that has often led to very long blood rivalries between tribes. It's true that Israel is widely believed to have bombed a few Syrian convoys and, several years ago, Syria's nearly-complete nuclear reactor, but there's a difference from what Obama's planning. Syria did not react then because Israel did it literally in darkness and never admitted it (which would have triggered the honor issue), but US warships blatantly launching missiles at Syria do not have that culturally-sanctioned “deniability.”
Ironically, Obama's doing it to “save face” as well, since he made the “red line” ultimatum months ago. Under the circumstances, his “honor” means far less than the big-picture consequences, and is definitely not a good reason for war.
As usual, caught in the middle are millions of civilians who'd much rather just live their lives without fear of being blown up, shot or poisoned. For them, this is truly a no-win situation,and most of the statements of concern about their well-being, from all sides, are little more than propaganda.
That's always the case in wars; they're invariably driven by somebody's overweening ego and thirst for power, with “humanitarian concerns” being just a pretext. Unfortunately, such BS will continue until normal people force the warmongers to fight to the death among themselves in steel-cage matches – then we kill the winner when he steps out. War over, no civilian deaths, no massive destruction to rebuild, no innocent people huddling in terror as the next bomb screams down.

* Given the potential explosiveness of this situation, I think it's worth noting that an errant US missile hitting the Tartus base and nearby rail center was the final straw leading to nuclear war in Pat Frank's classic novel Alas, Babylon. Although that book is quaintly out-of-date in many respects (it was written in 1959, well before nuclear winter theory), it still serves as a good warning: we'd count ourselves extremely lucky if a nuclear WW3 manifests that gently....

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