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Injustice in Syria and the Impotence of the World

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“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  Ellie Wiesel 

I do not think that any surgical strike against Syrian military forces and chemical weapons facilities by a handful of US Navy ships and submarines will stop the unrelenting bloodbath that is the Syrian Civil War. It would be nice if it would but realistically it will not.

What is going on in that country fits every definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined by Nuremberg, the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the Geneva protocols of 1925 which Syria is a signatory to specifically state that “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” This message was strengthened in the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992, a document that 98% of the nations of the world are signatories to, although Syria  is not one of them.

There are strong moral and legal arguments to be made for intervention in Syria. Unfortunately morality and legal arguments against crimes against humanity seem to have very little weight in the world. But then they never have. It is only when nations decide that the threat extends beyond the deaths of unfortunate people that they really could not care less who lived or died, but directly threaten the economic and security interests of the great powers then the vast majority of people and nations would rather not get involved.

This is especially true after the American led coalition invaded Iraq on the basis of the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The intelligence about the threat has been widely discredited, Iraq remains devastated, Iran empowered and the United States military hamstrung by 12 years of war. The Iraq War and its aftermath, the casualties, the costs and the loss of credibility of the United States as a result of it haunt the actions of the Obama Administration and will haunt future presidencies. As Harry Callahan noted “there are always results.” 

As Barbara Tuchman so well put it: “An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.” 

That was the result of the Iraq war. Though the vast majority of Americans had no direct link to the war that was fought by a small minority of military personnel the effects linger. Our politicians, pundits and preachers talk about us being “war weary” but that really can only be applied to the tiny number of men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and in numerous other places that no one knows or cares about. I think that people are less war weary than they are apathetic to anything that they do not believe directly effects them.

Bertold Brecht wrote:

“The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. 

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!”

When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.”

That being said the consequences of a military action that not only does not destroy the Assad regime’s military capacity to kill innocents could make matters even worse than they are now, a thought that is hard to imagine. Likewise the possibilities of the action going awry  and the situation escalating and even expanding outside the borders of Syria bringing are quite high.

The arguments against intervention as far as military consequences and the low probabilities of success of surgical strikes is a strong argument for non-intervention. Realistically unless there is the participation of major military forces from many nations back by the UN, the Arab League and NATO with boots on the ground to find, secure and destroy the chemical weapons a military strike may achieve a modicum of success but most likely fail in its ultimate goal. The result would be that the situation would continue to escalate and a broader intervention ensue.

I am not happy with the way this has played out. The moral thing would have been for the UN Security Council take strong action against the Syrian regime and the world join in. However that will not happen, too many nations see this as an opportunity to advance their own agendas in the region using both the Syrian government and the rebel forces, some of which are allied with the Al Qaida organization. Some of the Syrian Rebels are as bad as Assad when it comes to indiscriminate killing of innocents and the commission of war crimes.

This week there will be votes in the Senate and House of Representatives regarding a Senate resolution for limited military action against the Assad regime requested by the Obama White House. The political posturing of many opponents as well as supporters of intervention has been nothing but shameful. In many cases it is not about actual foreign policy but on politics dictated by gerrymandered districts and the politics of mutual assured destruction. There is a good chance that the resolutions will not pass and one or both houses of Congress. However there is a strong chance that even without Congressional approval that the Obama administration will most likely attempt to do the morally right thing with inadequate means.

I am torn on this. I do think that as Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that we are at a “Munich moment.” The consequences of inaction and limited action alike are potentially disastrous. The hope of many for the Arab Spring has turned into a nightmare. The question is how bad the nightmare will get.

Honestly I cannot say what is I think should be done. I can make the case for intervention based on moral, legal and ethical grounds and I can make the case against based on realpolitik.

All that being said, for the sake of humanity echo the words of Ellie Wiesel“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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All In or Stay the Hell Out: Syria, the United States NATO and the Middle East, the Guns of August All Over Again

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The Balkans aren’t worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”  Otto Von Bismarck

The terrible civil war in Syria appears to be reaching its crescendo as someone, probably the Assad Regime or its allies, or possibly the Syrian rebels are using Chemical weapons to kill non-combatants and rebel combatants. The evidence that the weapons have been used is apparently convincing enough for the UN to send in inspectors and for the US Secretary of State John Kerry to state that it is certain that they have been used.

Now NATO allies as well as representatives of Jordan and the Gulf States are meeting to decide what to do in response. Since most experts believe that the Assad regime is culpable for these attacks the belief is that the United Sates, NATO and the Arab Allies could be preparing for some kind of attack Syria. The Russians, long time supporters of Syria are pushing back against this and the Syrians are promising that any attack will result in a war that envelopes the region.

Chaos-in-Syria

What is happening in Syria is a tragedy and must be stopped. War crimes have certainly been committed by all sides in Syria and the direct involvement of Hezbollah and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and Al Qaeda affiliates on the side of the rebels complicate any response. However, that being said the question must be asked “just whose responsibility is to stop it?”

Some say the United States and NATO, others the Arab League while others the various factions of Syrians themselves.

My heart cries out for intervention in Syria if for nothing else but on humanitarian grounds. But the fact is intervention in Syria has to be much more thought out and organized than intervention that we have conducted since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will not be a cake walk and quite likely will lead to consequences far worse than the average citizen or boneheaded Congressman has never given a cogent thought.

Syria is an incredibly complicated country. It is multi-ethnic and multi-religion. Arabs, Kurds, Druze and others live in patchwork communities and regions even as various sects of Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Salafist Moslems vie for power while the divided Christian minority , Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and others hope to live and remain in their own country.

As far as others in the Region besides Iran and Hezbollah, various Sunni and Shia Iraqi insurgents have crossed over into Syria, while Israel teeters on the bring of being drawn in to the conflagration.

No matter what happens there will be no winners in what is happening in Syria. There is a high probability that the Syrian civil war will overflow the borders of that unfortunate country and drag the region and possibly major world powers into the war. If that happens there are no winners, only losers. The biggest question is who will be the biggest loser?

That being said even tonight there are reports of military movements in the region even as NATO and Arab coalition partners gather to discuss a response. I am resigned to the fact that the Syrian Civil war will overflow Syria’s borders and draw in the powers of many countries. Just who I am not exactly sure at this time. In the US there is a marked tepid feeling among voters about getting involved. That may be a good thing. It may temper our response and make us deliberate the consequences of military action or inaction.

Bertrand Russell once said that “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” I wonder if anyone in any of the nations currently involved or possibly that might be engaged in the war actually things about what Russell said.

The fact is that what is going on in Syria is the proverbial “Tar Baby.” There is no clean easy solution to the situation. Lobbing in a few hundred cruise missiles and launching airstrikes in support of the rebels is unlikely to have a profound strategic affect. Instead, unless NATO and its allies are willing to risk an actual ground war after the missile and air strikes then the fact of the matter is that those strikes will have little long term effect. If a ground invasion happens it will be bloody and not the cake walk that so many in Western Governments, media and populations that rely on a very small number of military professionals to fight their wars think it will be.

If by some chance the United States and its allies get drawn into the Syrian Civil War than all of them had better think of what the consequences of that involvement will be, for the region, the world and our own countries. The fact is that a major war in Syria will drag the rest of the region into it. This is not 2003 Iraq or 2011 Libya. The fact is that Syria is heavily splintered into various regional, ethnic and religious groups, most who have lived among each other for millennia and most of whom hate each other.

I cannot speak for other governments around the region and the world, allied to the United States or not. However I do know that our Constitution has in it the formula of who should committed the country to war and that, despite our recent history is not the President by his executive authority Commander in Chief but by Congress after due deliberation and a vote to declare war.

My thoughts are that if we in the United States are serious about this, that we believe that Syria and Assad need to be taken down then fine. Let us call Congress back to Washington now and have them debate the issue. If they vote for war then they need to do two things, the first is that Congress needs to be called away from its vacation and get to work debating the issue. If the President backed by a declaration of war from Congress and a repeal of the sequester that is gutting the country and the military.

If they cannot do this then let’s stop the bullshit and tell the work that the situation in Syria is terrible but the consequences of going to war without either an end in mind or analysis of the costs involved is criminal. Bismarck said it well in regard to the Balkans and his comments should be taken to heart by the United States and its allies.

The situation in Syria cries out for action, but that action must be action that helps the people of Syria, the region and the world and is not just an action to salve our collective consciousness and say that we did something. Simply throwing some cruise missiles at Syria accomplishes nothing unless there is a plan of what we intend to see happen. William Tecumseh Sherman said: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

My thoughts on this are to make going to war difficult. If the President and his cabinet determines that they believe in consultations with our allies that war is the last and best of the worst case options, the Congress needs to cut short its vacation. Republican and Democrat leaders need to gather and a decision has to be made. If we go to war it can no longer be done under the very loose and terribly vague rules of the War Powers Act because any attack on Syria will certainly escalate beyond a short term military strike done “on the cheap.”

There is no cheap or easy to Syria. If military action is the only way to solve the problem then Congress must convene, make a formal declaration of war and also repeal sequestration. A war in Syria will be costly in blood and treasure and will likely pull in many other countries. The human costs in the region, not just Syria will be beyond imagination while the costs to the world economy will be severe and quite possibly push the world into another recession or possibly depression.

The military power alone of the United States has been used far too many times as our governments under successive Republican and Democrat leadership have opted not to use the full measure of our diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic power to solve problems. Instead we fall back to the easiest and most ready means to satiate our need for a quick solution to complex problems, the military option. Military power alone, especially if it is incapable of ending the conflict and bringing a just peace is not an answer in Syria.

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The fact is that we Americans do not know the world nor do we understand it. Americans have become simple and lazy when it comes to dealing with complex issues. We deal in sound bites and tweets, the more fiery the better even as we stick our heads in the sand as to what is happening in the world. Ask how many people are more interested in the beginning of the College and Pro-Football seasons in the next couple of weeks versus those interested in really important issues of war and peace and you will get your answer on our priorities as Americans. We have no sense of history and are quite ignorant of the world around us and the political, cultural, religious, philosophical, ideological and economic factors that make up our world so our first response is almost always the sword.

If the President and Congress feel that it is absolutely necessary to go to war over the atrocities being committed in Syria let them make that decision, but only after considerable debate, consultations with allies, the United Nations and the Arab League followed by a vote on an actual declaration of war, the repeal of sequestration and a major stimulus to prevent the economy from tanking when the cost of oil goes through the roof and cripples the world economy.

Winston Churchill cautioned leaders “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” 

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To paraphrase Bismarck, Syria is not worth the life of one American or Allied Soldier unless our governments are willing to do it right. All in or stay the hell out and don’t go in without counting the real and the potential costs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Damned if you do and Damned if you Don’t: The Allied Intervention in Libya

Libyan Rebels gather around a destroyed T-72 outside Benghazi

War is the unfolding of miscalculations.
Barbara Tuchman

Back on the 9th of March I wrote this closing line to an article entitled The Guns of March where I discussed the developing situation in Libya and the really terrible options that world and regional leaders had in response to Muammar Gaddafi’s criminal actions against his own people. I concluded that article with this statement.

There are many possibilities for the situation in Libya to get worse and potentially engulf the region in a war that no one wants or really is prepared for.

We can only see what develops but there are no good options only options of bad or worse. Will the region like Europe in 1914 be engulfed in war where there are no winners or will somehow the situation be resolved before it can get that far?”

It is obvious to all that the region stands a very good chance of becoming engulfed in a regional war unless the rebels drive Gaddafi from power, Gaddafi steps down on his own or he is killed or captured. Gaddafi has promised a “long war” against the “colonial and crusader” enemy.

Gaddafi Defiant

In the days since I wrote the referenced article the Arab League spoke up in support of establishing a no-fly zone and the United Nations Security Council voted for member nations to enforce a no-fly zone and take “all necessary measures” in order to stop Gaddafi’s forces attacks on other Libyans. By the time the Security Council acted Gaddafi’s forces had retaken many rebel held cities inflicting great slaughter on civilians and were on the outskirts of the rebel capital Benghazi with Gaddafi threatening to send his forces “house to house” to kill the opposition and promising to show no mercy.  Within a day French and British aircraft were flying missions and striking the spearhead of Gaddafi’s forces outside of Benghazi and United States Navy ships were launching Tomahawk Cruise Missiles at the Libyan air defense system. They were joined by aircraft from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force as well as Canada, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Qatar.  Gaddafi’s forces were decimated outside of Benghazi and forced to retreat and a renewed rebel force, this time acting more like a military organization began a pursuit which has reached Ajdabiya.  In the west Gaddafi’s forces continue to attack the towns of Misrata and Zintan and according to observers and medical personnel inflicting heavy casualties on civilians.

President Obama in a briefing

Around the world there is much criticism of the operation as well as support. In the United States representatives as diverse as Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are raising concerns on the Constitutional issues of the intervention in that President Obama did not secure the approval of Congress prior to sending American forces into battle. Kucinich even calls it an impeachable offense.  Likewise a diverse assembly of politicians, former military and executive branch officials including those with experience at the State Department, the United Nations, NATO and the Middle East are voicing their concerns about the fact that the end state of the operation is not defined and about the possibility of mission creep. The administration has not helped matters in sending a number of messages over the past few days of a desired end state. It is obvious that President Obama did not want this fight nor did he want it to appear that we were again leading an attack on an Arab nation.  His hesitancy has led to some conservatives attacking his lack of decisiveness even as other conservatives criticize his decision to join the military operations. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been outspoken in his opposition to becoming involved in another war and seems to want U.S. involvement to decrease sooner rather than later.

Rebels with damaged 152mm Self Propelled Howitzer

The situation is still evolving by the hour and one thing is clear. The outcome is very unclear and the repercussions across the region are also uncertain. One problem is the apparent discontinuity in U.S. and Western policy to various despotic Arab regimes, supporting the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, a military operation against Gaddafi in Libya and very muted and lukewarm support to popular political movements in Bahrain and Yemen. The Bahraini demonstrations have been put down with the help of Saudi forces but in Yemen numerous influential military officers have taken their units to support the Yemeni protestors. Of course the situation in all of these nations is different with the exception of the fact that all are ruled by long term undemocratic and repressive regimes of varying degree. Likewise actors in each country are different as are the geo-political interests of the United States.

A friend of mine pointed out to me that we are not viewed as “the good guys” in much of the Arab World as much as we see ourselves as such. I think that is true to a large extent because of foreign policy choices of the past century in regard to the Arab World as well as the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan where even today photos taken by a rogue Army unit of soldiers posing with the mutilated and dead bodies enemies of the enemy further degrade opinion in the region against us.  But we are also the hope of many of those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other nations and in those places and others popular uprisings have called out to us for political support and in the case of the Libyans military protection.

Parallels of 1989 in the fall of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe are drawn by the optimistic observers of what has been called the “Arab Spring.” However as much as I would like to believe that this is the case I think the miscalculations of 1914 are more readily apparent. There is nothing simple about what is going on and it seems to me that the region is sinking into a war with very unpredictable and grave consequences. Those consequences will probably with us for a generation was were the unanticipated outcomes of the First World War. Of course one of those outcomes was the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the arbitrary redrawing of boundaries and selection of leaders in the newly created Arab nations and emirates by the victorious Allies. That is something that we are dealing with even as I finish this article.

As I wrote in another article I believe that acting to prevent the slaughter of Libyans by Gaddafi was the right thing to do.  Unfortunately as most observers know the people of Libya will not be safe unless Gaddafi leaves power. I think by backing Gaddafi into a corner early, even before he began his offensive against what were peaceful protestors and not giving him a face saving way out that we may have brought about a war that no one wanted and has few possible good endings. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Gaddafi Taunts the West and Kills his People: Our inaction speaks so loud he can’t hear a Word that we are Saying

Back when I was a sophomore in high school I played my one and one season of organized tackle football. I wasn’t very good and after seven weeks of not getting to play in a game, the last of which was a blowout where everyone got into the game but me I went to the coaches’ office in a rage. I confronted Coach Duke Pasquini demanding to know why I didn’t get in the game and he simply said “I can’t hear you.” So I complained louder and he repeated what he had said. That angered me so I was screaming and he finally said “your actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word you are saying.” I was dumbfounded as he told me that the reason that I wasn’t playing was that I my words didn’t match my play during practice.  It wasn’t until I took my anger out on the practice field and pushed harder than I ever thought possible that I got to play. Coach Pasquini taught me a valuable lesson with a lot of application for Western Leaders including President Obama.

That lesson is not to make pronouncements that you are not willing to back up with force. Unfortunately over the past two weeks statements by Western leaders as well as their actions of freezing assets and investigating the Gaddafi’s for war crime charges has emboldened the rebels and hardened the resolve of Gaddafi and his family.  In a nearly euphoric advance the rebels advanced to areas that they could not control if Gaddafi offered real resistance. Likewise when Gaddafi realized that the West was divided and unlikely to take action be it a no-fly zone or any assistance to the rebels he began an offensive that has devastated cities that the rebels had controlled and caused grievous casualties to civilians.  Gaddafi’s son Saif al Islam Gaddafi promised that the regime was coming after the rebels even the eastern part of the country using ground forces and air power.  He knows that he has a free hand until NATO and the Arab League or African Union decide to act even without a UN mandate as NATO did in Bosnia and Kosovo or the United States did in Iraq. He is openly taunting the United States, NATO and the international community and reveling in it. He has called our bluff.

The tide has turned against the rebels and in a war of attrition they cannot win unless the Libyan military switches sides, which does not seem likely in the light of international dithering.  The Libyan military after a period of wavering and defections appear to have fallen in line with Gaddafi even if they despise him.  Since that is the case Gaddafi now has the upper hand and unless Western Leaders, including President Obama back up their words the rebellion will be crushed a humanitarian catastrophe unleashed and a brutal dictator validated.

Now it is true that the United States above all nations must act with prudence because of our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures which have made the Administration shy away from any more military actions in the Muslim World. In fact we are overcommitted everywhere and there is a good reason militarily and politically not to go in.  That reason is simply that many radicals in the Islamic World will use it against us in a propaganda campaign and that is exactly how Gaddafi is already portraying the situation. Of course an air campaign which would begin with a no-fly zone should one be authorized would likely end up in bombing Libyan air defense installations and bring about what Gaddafi rightly calls a war. As a result the administration has for now decided not to act and to wait for the Europeans and the United Nations to take the lead. That inaction has emboldened Gaddafi and that inaction will turn Libya into a more important conflict than we ever wanted it to be.

If we do nothing after making a big show of calling Gaddafi a war criminal, freezing his assets and boldly stating that he has to go and the revolt fails then we will be seen by the same people that would condemn military action as weak.  This result would embolden tyrants and give our real enemies, Al Qaeda and Iran new life. Al Qaeda had been frozen out of the revolutions to this point but when those dying for freedom realize that we are all talk they will turn to the radical side to overthrow despotic regimes and when those regimes fall those that take power will not be our friends.

While doing something is fraught with peril the cost of inaction is worse and we could lose every Arab Ally that we have had for decades in a very short time. It will mean astronomical oil prices and collapse economies already weakened by the world wide banking and real estate crises. Israel will then be in the middle of a potential regional war because anti-western zealots will certainly carry their crusade against the Jewish state. There will be no more cold peace between the Arabs and Israel.

At least in the absence of US or NATO action French President Nicholas Sarkozy has recognized the provisional rebel government and is setting up an embassy in Benghazi and suggesting air strikes. British Prime Minister David Cameron is also pushing for action. The possibility is that some parts of the international community will take action but that is not certain. There are reports that the Libyan Provisional council is in clandestine talks with the United States.  If so that would be a start.

The reality is that this situation will not end well no matter what course of action is taken. The fact is that no matter which course the situation in Libya takes is that it is likely to spiral into a regional war with terrible consequences for everyone.  Americans will feel the pain of this in a big way when the oil prices go through the roof and the economy tanks.

Yes, our actions speak so loud that Gaddafi and the world can’t hear a word that we are saying.

God help us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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