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The Guns of September: Beginnings, Endings and Beginnings

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“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”  T. E. Lawrence

In September 1939 Adolf Hitler led his Nazi regime into the bloodiest war in human history. In September 1945 that war ended when representatives of Germany’s ally Imperial Japan signed the instruments of surrender on the deck of the Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. In those 5 years  over 60 million people died and the world changed.

Twenty five years before Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht into Poland the former leaders of the imperial dynasties of Europe as well as France  had led their world into the abyss of the First World War. In that war close to 37 million people, both military and civilian died.

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In both conflicts leaders schemed to ensure that their nations would come out on top and the human costs were simply counted as immaterial so long as the overall goals of conquest and domination were achieved.

Since the Second World War ended the world has not become a safer place. In fact because the United Nations which was in essence created to prevent war and mitigate its effects has been so politicized where just five nations on the Security Council hold the key to it being able to act forcibly to stop genocide and the used of weapons of mass destruction. More often than not at least one of those five nations, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France have ensured that whichever despot they they support is protected from any action by the world body through the use of their veto in the UN Security Council.

No we stand at the precipice of war again. This time in Syria. The United States, France and a number of other countries have concluded that the regime of Bashir Assad has employed the nerve agent Sarin against its own people in their bloody civil war.  This is disputed by the Russians as well as the Syrians but backed up by the Israelis and Saudi Arabians.

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As for the United States leading any strike on Syria to either degrade or weaken the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction that they might have it finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. If it does nothing then the Assad regime can claim hat it forced the United States to back down and continue to slaughter its own people. If the United States attacks there is some chance of the strikes having some effect on the Syria ability to make war on their own people but opens the possibility of a wider and more bloody conflict, a conflict that may solve nothing but actually make matters worse.

The United State is also hindered on the world stage and at home by the Iraq debacle brought on by the Bush Administration. Despite the fact that less than one percent of the population has served in the military since the attacks of 9-11-2001 and even fewer have served in combat zones the political leaders, talking heads, pundits, preachers and media in general referrer to the country as “war weary.” The retired former Chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay made the comment on Twitter that they must be tired of shopping since so few have actually served. If there is war weariness it is in the military which has been in continuous action since 9-11-2001 and if we want to be honest almost ever since the First Gulf War with stops in the Balkans and Somalia along the way. I have been in the military 32 years and I have lost count of the number of places that we have deployed forces to and the amount of time that I have spent away from home. I think I have been away from my wife 10 of the last 17 years due to deployments and assignments that took me away from home. But I digress…

The fact of the matter that there are a number of layers to the situation in Syria that all need to be addressed but will not be. Instead they will be spun by those in favor or those opposed to war and mostly for for a very fleeting political advantage. An advantage only as good as today’s polls.

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In the past couple of days the Obama Administration has been taking its case for action against Syria to the American people and Congress and also to other nations. The reasons for intervention have been primarily moral as well as citing the precedent of international law regarding chemical weapons. Real politic has not played much of a role, at least yet but it should.

The reality is that the Obama Administration as well as the UN, the Arab League, NATO, the EU and other nations with an interest in what happens in Syria have to deal with the moral and ethical level of the arguments for or against intervention. They also have to look at the legal justification which depending on which part of international law you examine could be used to argue for or against the legality of intervention. Finally there is the real politic of the situation, not only the chances of a successful intervention but the consequences of action versus inaction, action versus delay in the hopes of finding another solution and the results of whatever course of action is taken. After all, there are always results and even the most well intended and executed plans result in unintended consequences.

As I have said a number of times I think that President Obama is damned no matter what he decides to do and that this war no matter what we do in the next week will most likely spill over the borders of Syria into adjoining countries. That is already happening in the form of refugees going into Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, further instability in Lebanon and occasional skirmishes along the Syria and Lebanon borders with Israel. The question is not “if” but rather when and how the military conflict and sectarian violence spreads to other countries surrounding Syria. That has t be weighed with the consequences of and consideration of the “branches and sequels” to any intervention or non-intervention strategy employed by the United States and whatever allies choose to go along for the ride.

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I am not in favor of war. That being said I do not know if there is a way to avoid it yet still enforce the norms of moral behavior in terms of the use of chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.

There are times that I wonder about those who believe that they can orchestrate policy that only benefits their country or political-economic interests. The fact is that the “war genie” is out of the bottle and where the situation in Syria ends is anybody’s best guess. What we do have to remember is that those rebelling against the Assad regime are not doing so for our benefit or for that matter any other nation’s benefit. What T. E. Lawrence said of the Arabs who revolted against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War is as true now as it was then:

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

There are nations and groups attempting to use this for their own interests and ultimately it will blow back on them. The region is perched on the abyss of war, possibly without end. What happens now will be less decided by what happens in Washington or the capitals or Europe or the United Nations but with the people actually fighting the war, their active supporters and their proxies.

As far as the United States political scene if a single leader votes for or against war based purely on their individual or political party’s gain in either the 2014 or 2016 elections or to undermine the current President a pox on them. I want an honest debate about the real world consequences, ethical, legal, moral, economic, military and geopolitical of any intervention or non-intervention in Syria. We owe it to the Syrians, those people in the region as well as our own people, especially those who will certainly bear the burden of whatever war ensues.

Honestly, we really need to think this through before so much as one missile is launched.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Syria: The History and the Really Hard Questions for All of Us

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Today President Obama called on the U.S. Congress to take up and debate an authorization for the use of military force in Syria. From any moral viewpoint his words on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government his words were correct. Likewise his calling to account of the international community, 98% of whom are signatories to treaties outlawing the use of these weapons against anyone to support this action was correct. The fact that he also demanded that Congress come into session and do its job was correct.

In spite of all of that the use of military force to attempt to force a change in the way that the government of Bashir Assad is problematic and fraught with danger. The chances of escalation and the involvement of other nations and non-state actors are great and even a “successful” operation could lead to subsequent events detrimental to the United States, the West, the region and even to Syria and its people.

A big part of this is due to the complexity of Syria itself and its history. Syria is a complicated mosaic of cultures, peoples and religions often at odds with one another. The fact that the Assad regime has remained in power is because of its brutality and willingness to play off the various factions against each other. The Assad family is of the minority Alawite sect of Shi’a Moslems from the western region of the country. One needs to read T. E. Lawrence’s 1915 report on Syria to get a glimpse of the complexity of Syria and to understand that one has to proceed carefully when dealing with any faction. http://www.telstudies.org/writings/works/articles_essays/1915_syria_the_raw_material.shtml

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The fact is that the best chance for a stable Syria disappeared in 1920 when the French, emulating the British in Mesopotamia (Iraq) overthrew the government of Emir Faisal Hussein. Lawrence wrote a powerful essay about this http://www.telstudies.org/writings/works/articles_essays/1920_france_britain_and_the_arabs.shtml and when one examines the actions of the British and the French in Syria and Iraq one has to look at history. The British were willing to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq because of history, the same is true of why the French are willing to stand with the United States in Syria. The Germans for their own part frustrated by imperial ambitions in the Middle East in the First World War and a failed attempt to support an Iraqi uprising against the British in 1941 have no interest in a war that might bring disorder and terrorism among the many Moslems that reside in their country. The Turks of course have no love for the Arabs and once counted Syria as a valuable part of the Ottoman Empire. Disorder in Syria is dangerous to them but ultimately they could benefit since they have been shouldering much of the humanitarian burden.

The Jordanian royal family has no love for Syria being the descendants of Faisal Hussein while the Israelis see Syria as a mortal enemy. Lebanon which was carved out of Syria after the First World War is hopelessly divided and with Hezbollah, the erstwhile ally of Iran in de-facto control of the country in danger of becoming a front in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Iran being the close ally of Syria has great opportunity to expand its power and should a military strike occur might become directly involved although the more likely scenario is that they would allow their Hezbollah allies to shoulder the burden of strikes against Israel and United States or other Western interests in the region. One cannot leave out the Russians who are behaving much as the Tsarist Regime did regarding the region in the First World War when they signed on to the Sykes-Picot agreement.

If the United States does nothing Assad wins. He shows that he and anyone like him who conduct themselves outside the norms of international law and human rights can get away it it. If we intervene it might strengthen his grip, likewise if our strikes were successful enough to weaken his grip and allow the rebels to take power the results could be even worse since the Al Qaeda ally Al Nursa is the strongest and most militarily effective part of the rebel forces.

In a sense the Obama administration is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t and damned if it does no matter what the outcome. It sucks for him because he is the President and it is his job he will get the blame. This despite the fact that his freedom of action in large part is undermined by the actions of the Bush Administration in the Iraq lead up and invasion. There are always results in foreign policy decisions. The invasion of Iraq has harmed our interests in more ways than its architects ever imagined, it was a foreign policy disaster of the first order that impacts everything that we do today in the Middle East.

That is why before a single cruise missile is launched the United States Congress must debate the action and go all in or stay out. The fact is that if we do this, and I hope, we don’t we have to do it right. We have to understand the consequences and do what we can under our system of government to debate the issue, look at the ramifications, not just in the region but to our own economy and national power.

If we do it the Sequester has to be repealed in all parts, you cannot wage war on the cheap and expect a military that is worn out by 12 years of war to keep taking on more war without funding it. The Tea Party Republicans who are attempting to hold the government hostage through the Sequester and a possible government shutdown cannot have it both ways. It is irresponsible of them to continue this madness until we can get out of Afghanistan and avoid involvement in Syria or other conflicts.

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That my friends is the hard truth about Syria. So before you get too caught up in the opening of the College and NFL football seasons forgetting that a dangerous world exists take some time to ponder and if you have the civic decency to write your Congressman and Senator on the subject. Pro or con tell them what you think and demand accountability. If you don’t do that don’t blame President Obama for what happens because you have failed your country as citizens.

Sorry I guess that might hurt. But we didn’t do that in Iraq. Today the 4486 dead American military personnel as well as all the other dead and wounded, American, Allied and Iraqi alike and those like me afflicted with chronic PTSD demand that you do it now. It is a moral responsibility of the first order of much greater importance than your fantasy football league.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s 2013 Down and Dirty Primer on the Muddle East

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“When you are up to your arse in alligators it is hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp.” Old British Colonial Saying

Note: This is an update to my 2011 Primer on the Muddle East

During the dark days of World War Two when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was making fools of a series of British commanders in North Africa people including senior British military and government leaders sometimes referred to the theater of operations as “the Muddle East.” Some things never seem to change. The Muddle East today is quite frankly speaking in a real muddled state if there ever was one with world leaders and regional leaders muddling about as if they were the New York Mets.

A large part of the muddle goes back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War when the victorious Allied Powers redrew the map of the Middle East and made alliances with various local tribal sheiks who many times were crowned king over other tribes who didn’t necessarily want them as king. This along with heavy handed European military actions such as the British using poison gas dropped from aircraft in Iraq and a real lack of effort to better the lives of the newly “liberated” peoples of the region was just the start. Add to the cesspool a bunch of oil presided over by major oil companies, the anti-colonial movements that flourished in the years after World War Two when the French, British and Italians had to divest themselves of their Middle Eastern holdings. The French had to fight a real war in Algeria but finally withdrew leaving Algeria’s new rulers to goof up the country and oppress their people for decades to come.  In the coming years many of these newly independent nations found that life still sucked so in a number of countries military officers overthrew the despised monarchs promising reforms but oppressing their people while blaming all their problems on the Israelis.  They got their asses kicked by the Israelis in a series of wars which did a number of things that made the Middle East Muddle even worse.

First it ensured that Palestinian Arabs ended up under Israeli rule and were used with great aplomb by the Middle Eastern despots to prop up support for their regimes while doing nothing to help the Palestinians other than to put them in camps in Lebanon.  Even when the Egyptians made a peace deal with Israel most of the Arab World ostracized them.  Then in 1979 the Shah of Iran was sent packing by a bunch of Mullahs and in 1981 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran in one of the bloodier wars of the late 20th Century which finally ended in 1988. Of course the United States was pissed at the Mullahs so Saddam became our favorite Arab despot for a while.  Add to the mix the Soviet Union and the United States arming their favorite Arab dictators who were given carte blanche to continue oppressing their people so long as it didn’t interfere with their support of either party or the oil supply. Finally the Soviets went Tango Uniform in 1989 not long after being forced out of Afghanistan by the U.S. supplied, Pakistani supported and Saudi Arabian fundamentalist financed Mujahideen.

With the Soviets “Tango Uniform” and the Warsaw Pact nations trying to get into NATO the United States was now the uncontested Numero Uno country in the world Saddam presumed upon his late supporters and invaded Kuwait, albeit after thinking that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq said that we wouldn’t mind.

Well he was wrong we did mind and got a lot of countries from NATO and including a bunch of Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to get on board on a mission to get Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait. It was a kick ass mission and since the United Nations didn’t authorize removing Saddam and because President George H.W. Bush was smart enough to not to drive on Baghdad to kick him out preferring the despot we knew to a quagmire Saddam was left in power.

So we stationed ground and air forces around the Gulf to keep Saddam and Iran in check and even put them in Saudi Arabia which a large number of radicals such as Osama Bin Laden equated to letting the Devil play in Allah’s Holy Sandbox.  So Osama went and set up a base with the Medieval bunch of Pashtun known as the Taliban in Afghanistan stirred up a bunch of shit killing Americans and blowing up stuff including the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers barracks complex in 1996, the USS Cole in 2000 and then 2001 another attack on the World Trade Center which took down the towers with hijacked aircraft and also struck the Pentagon triggered an American response against Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts.  The United States then invaded in Iraq in 2003 and succeeded in taking out Saddam but also succeeded in alienating a good many Iraqis who greeted us with open arms because we goofed up the occupation and pissed a lot of them off by dissolving the Army, Police and Civil Service and letting thugs and opportunists take over. Unfortunately since we didn’t go in with enough troops to secure all the Iraqi bases, their weapons depots and actually take control of surrendering Iraqi units these newly unemployed and dishonored people launched an insurgency bolstered by Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters even as Sunni and Shi’a Moslems began to settle scores with each other. Insurgency and civil war, two great tastes that go great together, but what the heck right?

Of course it took years to get control of the situation on the ground and thankfully the United States forces in Iraq were helped when the Sunni Moslems in Al Anbar Province realized that these foreign fighters were a worse enemy than the United States and switched sides. This turned the tables in Iraq and the insurgency was brought under control and an elected government managed to start to get their stuff together and allow us to begin withdrawing from Iraq. Of course the focus on Iraq gave the Taliban a chance to regroup as the Afghani Government proved itself corrupt, incompetent and not to give a shit about the Afghani people. So the Taliban who had been hated made a comeback and made our lives much harder so that now almost 10 years into the fight we are having a really hard time.  Well enough about us there was plenty more going on in the Muddle East besides the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Let’s see….there was the law of unintended consequences in that by taking Saddam Down and weakening Iraq we took away Iran’s natural enemy and the key to the balance of power in the region. Iran was strengthened and began a nuclear program that everyone with half a brain knows in intended for military use and expanded its influence in Lebanon where the Iranian backed Hezbollah took power.  Now Hezbollah which actually has an experienced military force and probably owns 40,000 or so rockets and missiles a good number of which can hit deep in Israel seems to be ready for war especially because they fought the Israelis to a stalemate in 2008, the first time an Arab military ever did that. Not only did they take on the Israelis but they are also helping Syrian dictator Bashir Assad turn the tide against the polyglot Syrian rebel forces which are being assisted by Sunni foreign fighters from all over the Middle East and the ever present Al Qaida presence.

Then was the effect that the wars in those countries made things harder for us in many other friendly Arab nations.  Of course there is the problem of a nuclear armed Pakistan which is about as stable as a Japanese nuclear reactor after getting hit by a tsunami and plays both sides of the street in the war on terror.  The Palestinians and Israelis continued their love affair and since Fatah which ran Palestinian Authority was so corrupt and gooned up a more militant group, Hamas took power in the Gaza strip. Hamas is a pretty bloodthirsty lot too but not the same level of threat as Hezbollah to the Israelis.  Of course the Israelis have done little to help the situation by their often heavy handed treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

The witches’ cauldron of the Muddle East is getting even more muddled on a daily basis as young Arabs throughout the Muddle East are rising up against their despotic rulers and it doesn’t seem that any are safe, those allied with the United States and the West as well as those that have been a thorn in the side of the United States and the West. It just seems that despots and tyrants are no longer in vogue. The uprisings began in Iran after a disputed election where reformers were cheated of power and the revolt crushed by the Revolutionary Guard and other thugs of the Iranian regime. However with the election of “moderate” whatever that means cleric Hasan Rowhani as President hopes are that Iran, despite the machinations of many other clerics and the Revolutionary Guard might be brought to the negotiating table. That being said Iran is reportedly sending about 4000 troops to go help Assad in Syria so go figure.

Elsewhere in the Middle East things continue to boil. In December 2010 the people of Tunisia rose up and overthrew their President for Life Ben Ali in a peaceful uprising followed shortly after by the Egyptians who tossed out long term President and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia a “moderate Islamist” regime has been attempting to maintain control of radicals and keep some semblance of balance in that country while in Egypt the Islamic Brotherhood was able to get majorities elected in the Parliament and elect Mohammed Morsi as President. Needless to say both countries are still in turmoil.

In Iraq the Sunni Shi’a divide is as wide as ever and that country is threatening to become engulfed in yet another civil war as sectarian violence increases and the Kurds make more moves toward independence.

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Turkey, the heart of the old Ottoman Empire is now beginning to erupt as secularist elements in the society are protesting the policies of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leading to repeated clashes over the past two weeks between protestors and police.

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Afghanistan though technically not part of the Middle East continues to be a problem for US and NATO consuming intelligence, economic diplomatic and military resources that could be put to play with better effect elsewhere.  What T.E. Lawrence said of the British occupation of a restive Mesopotamia  in 1920:

“We realise the burden the army in Mesopotamia is to the Imperial Exchequer, but we do not see as clearly the burden it is to Mesopotamia. It has to be fed, and all its animals have to be fed. The fighting forces are now eighty-three thousand strong, but the ration strength is three hundred thousand. There are three labourers to every soldier, to supply and serve him.” ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

In Libya the Arab Spring claimed the long time pain in the ass Moammar Gaddafi. That conflict center of the action in 2011 until Gaddafi was overthrown and murdered. Since then Libya has remained in turmoil despite elections, militias run amok and the US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an attack on the US Consulate and CIA base in Benghazi on September 11th 2012.

Yemen and Bahrain, Algeria, and Jordan have or are experiencing demonstrations which look to be revolts in the making and even Saudi Arabia is trying to head off a potential popular uprising.

However the real problem now, the problem that threatens to send the region into a regional war is the revolt in Syria which began with peaceful protests by reformers against the Assad regime. However the hard line response of that regime to the protests spawned a civil war which now threatens to overflow the borders of Syria. France, Britain and the US have stated that they believe that there is evidence that the Syria government has used chemical weapons, in particular Sarin nerve agents against the rebels. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 people with hundreds of thousands more now living as refugees.

The conflict in Syria epitomizes one of the greatest challenges in the Middle East that many in the West are just beginning to recognize, the Sunni Shi’a divide. That divide is becoming more serious with every passing day as Iran continues to lead and assist Shi’a elements in predominantly Sunni Arab countries, as well as in Iraq where the Arab Shi’a are in the majority. The conflict in Syria is predominantly Sunni versus Shi’a though in that patchwork nation of Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite Shi’a tribe of the Assad clan, various Christian and Druse groups. Lebanon which borders Syria is as divided as its larger neighbor and Hezbollah holds tremendous power in that country.

Yes my friends this is a mess and almost everybody that is anybody in the military and economic power houses of the world doesn’t have their handprints all over at least some part of this mess. All of these own some of the blame for what is going on, both the rulers of the nations in the region as well as world powers who all try to influence the nations and peoples for their own diplomatic, intelligence, military or economic gain. Almost no one is unsoiled by their involvement in the Muddle East over the past 90 years or so and so in a way all of great world powers, as well as the despots who ran these countries are to blame.

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The region is more volatile than at any time in recent history and events there could easily ignite a regional war with worldwide implications.  That is why the region has been called the Muddle East for decades.  We all hope and pray for the best and that somehow all of this that the promise of a peaceful and democratic “Arab Spring” will become a reality, but there are better than even odds that things get way worse before they get better. There are just too many wild cards in this deck and the swamp is full of hungry alligators.

With the announcement this week that the US would provide military aid and training to the Syrian rebels and that US forces will remain in Jordan even as US and NATO Patriot missile batteries stand ready in Turkey there is a really good chance that the conflict in Syria will not stay in Syria.

Of course there is always the wild card if what Israel may do in what it perceives to be its security interests against outward foes such as Iran and Syria but also inside its borders and occupied territories, especially if it is attacked or provoked by Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.

May God help us all and bring about peaceful change, or as my Iraqi friends simply say “Inshallah, God willing.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Red Lines… Syria and Sarin and United States Military Intervention: A Warning from History

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Updated August 23rd 2013: Since this article was written back in April of this year the situation in Syria, not to mention the rest of the region has continued to get worse. This past week there appear to be credible new reports of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against their own people. It appears that the US and other powers are cautiously moving military forces into the region closer to Syria and that Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel could be drawing closer to involvement in the war. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians of all ethnic groups and faiths are fleeing the country, primarily to Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon is beginning to collapse and Israel launched air strikes into Lebanon after being hit by rockets fired by the Assad regime’s ally Hezbollah. This is all taking place as Egypt is perched at the abyss of civil war, and much of North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is in the throws of war, civil war or the collapse of any governmental order.

Needless to say it is not a good situation and the United States as well as many other governments and international bodies are trying to find a way through the eye of the needle to keep the multitude of problems from coalescing into a truly disastrous regional conflict which could effect the political, economic and military security of countries in the region and yes, like us on the far side of the globe. 

Carl von Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” 

Personally I don’t think that there is anyone who has a clear understanding of what they think their country should do or accomplish in Syria of the Middle East. 

That being said here is what I wrote in April.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

For the past number of weeks various news agencies and governments have reported the use of Sarin nerve gas by the Bashir Assad led Syrian government against rebels in that country’s civil war. The use of such weapons would be in defiance of international law and the law of war. The confirmed use of such weapons has been defined as a “red line” by the Obama administration. Israel, NATO and Turkey have all warned of the danger of the use of such weapons. Sarin has been banned and almost all nations have signed the 1993 treaty, but Syria is not one of them and reportedly has one of the largest stockpiles of Sarin in the world.

Today US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated:

“the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

Last week both Britain and France wrote the Secretary General of the United Nations that they had evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against their own people. The Russians, a long term traditional ally of Syria have accused the West of attempting to “politicize” efforts to determine whether chemical weapons have been used and compared such efforts to the pre-Iraq War hunt for alleged Iraqi WMDs.

It is a dangerous time. The United States and NATO have deployed a number of Patriot Missile batteries to Turkey, which is harboring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and a small number of US troops are in Jordan assisting with refugees and working with the Jordanians on other security matters. Lebanon is becoming involved in the conflict due to the activities of Hezbollah and Israel has stepped up its security along its border with both Syria and Lebanon. In Syria the civil war has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives with hundreds of thousands more displaced or living as refugees in other countries.

It is a human rights disaster and in a perfect world the international community would come together to right the situation. That will likely not happen. Instead I expect that hawks in the United States Congress and press and potentially Israel and its Washington lobby will force President Obama to intervene in the Syrian Civil War, perhaps unilaterally or as part of a relatively small coalition. Both Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein made statements today on the need for intervention.

The fact is that as terrible as the situation is that an even worse situation will most likely develop should such a limited intervention take place to secure the chemical and possible biological weapons stored by the Syrian regime. Before Iraq I would have probably been on the bandwagon urging intervention, but I did learn something from Iraq. The fact is that though our intelligence agencies may believe that Sarin has been used in small quantities we need to be absolutely sure before any intervention is made. Some in the Defense Department are concerned because of what happened regarding supposedly good and solid intelligence. As such the Miguel Rodriquez of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs noted:

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. …

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making …”

I know what Sarin and other nerve gasses can do. I trained extensively as an Army Medical Service Corps Officer in NBC (Nuclear Chemical and Biological) weapon defense. The Soviets called Sarin GB and it was something that we trained to defend against during the Cold War. Back then we trained extensively to defend ourselves against chemical weapons, we practically lived in our MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) suits and protective masks. We trained to decontaminate personnel and equipment, we trained on knowing how such weapons were used, fallout patterns and half-life of the agents. We trained with atropine injectors in case we were contaminated and we learned that the triage of wounded was different when they were contaminated with chemical agents.

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However, since 9-11 and our counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan the general preparedness of most units in this type of warfare has been neglected because those wars did not require them.  With the exception of highly specialized units organized with the mission of Chemical, Biological and Nuclear weapon defense and response in the Continental United States few units are trained to the level that we were in the Cold War and even then most of us expected that if such weapons were used in the quantities amassed by the Soviets that most of us would die.

That being said we had damned well be absolutely sure that we know a lot more than we know now before committing a single American Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman to the mission of securing these weapons. Securing them in the existing environment in Syria would take tens of thousands of troops and based on the geography of Syria, the potential for Iranian intervention and the use of these WMDs against our troops by Syria should we intervene.

The question that I would ask anyone advocating military intervention now is “what is the cost in lives and treasure you are willing to make to do it? and what is your endgame?” The fact is that in two “low intensity” counterinsurgency campaigns we have lost over 6500 US troops killed and over 50,000 wounded not counting the hundreds of thousands afflicted with Traumatic Brain Injury and and PTSD. How many more would be sacrificed in a campaign in Syria and what will be the long term cost to them, their families, the military, national security and the economy?

The easy answer for the Hawks in Congress, the Beltway pundits and lobbyists is to send in the military. I think that it is a reflexive response now, send in the troops, damn the costs. That is easy for them to say because “the troops” are less than 1% of the US population. They can win elections without our vote. Sending in the troops looks strong and patriotic and people applaud when they see us on television doing a great job. But it is unrealistic. The military has been worn down by nearly 12 years of war. Equipment is wearing out, troops are tired, suicide rates skyrocketing, medical costs increasing. Add to this the fact that operational units are being squeezed by the budget fiasco forced by Congress in 2011 known as the sequester. But few will say this and that is as close to criminal negligence as one can get on the part of those advocating intervention in Syria.

I am offended by the knee jerk reactions of Congressmen and Senators as well as their enablers in the media and the beltway who seem to be advocating US involvement in yet another civil war in a Middle Eastern country. What is the legal basis for such an invasion or intervention? What is the human cost and what is the economic cost and who pays the bill?

Smedley Butler, Marine Corps Major General and two time Medal of Honor winner said it well when writing about the costs of war in his book War is a Racket following World War One, which by the way was the last time that US troops faced Chemical weapons:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.

If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

In another part of his book Butler wrote:

“In the government hospital at Marion, Indiana 1,800 of these boys are in pens! Five hundred of them in a barracks with steel bars and wires all around the outside of the buildings and on the porches. These have already been mentally destroyed. These boys don’t even look like human beings. Oh, the looks on their faces! Physically they are in good shape but mentally they are gone.” 

There are thousands and thousands of these cases and more and more are coming in all the time…

That’s a part of the bill. So much for the dead-they have paid their part of the war profits. So much for the mentally and physically wounded- they are paying now with their share of the war profits. But others paid with the heartbreaks when they tore themselves away for their firesides and their families to don the uniform of Uncle Sam- on which a profit had been made….”

Before any military actions are taken against Syria someone had better ask the hard questions that were so buried and ignored in the build up to the Iraq War. What is the cost? What is the legal basis? What is the endgame? If those questions cannot be answered in a satisfactory manner then not no American military forces be committed and not a dime spent.

Yes the situation in Syria is a tragedy, but intervention would likely make it even more so. As terrible as this conflict is, it is a Syrian affair. Yes we will have to deal with whatever comes out of it, but is American military intervention to secure the Syrian Chemical weapons the wise course of action, especially in light of how much that we do not know?

How many more coffins containing the bodies of US military personnel need to be shipped back from yet another war? Oh wait, I’ll bet you didn’t know that the bodies of soldiers killed by chemical agents are contaminated and most would not come home because of that risk. Somehow I don’t think that a military cemetery in Syria would be as well maintained as those in France, Belgium and Luxembourg where so many Americans lay in final repose following the First and Second World War. I know this because I have seen the British military cemetery in Habbaniyah Iraq.

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Yes this is a big deal for all of us. It is much too important to be made without a full accounting before a single American Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman is committed to action.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Arab Spring Fever: The Revolution Begins Anew in Egypt as Syria Begins to Melt Down

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Tunisian Demonstrators

It began in such an innocuous manner. A Tunisian street vendor named Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself due to what he viewed as harassment and humiliation by a local government official who confiscated his goods when he could not afford to pay bribes to the police. He died a few weeks later. That act set in motion widespread protests that led to the overthrow of long time Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ten days later.

The events in Tunisia sparked revolts throughout the Arab World, including the largest and most influential of the Arab States, Egypt and Syria. The situation in Egypt ended in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and free elections where Islamists gained a majority in Parliament and the election of Moslem Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mursi as President. The situation in Syria led to minor reforms before the government of Bashir Al Asad began a series of repressive and violent crackdowns against protestors. This led to a armed revolt that has only continued to gain ground and achieve a modicum of international recognition.

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Egyptian Demonstrators calling for the Ouster of President Mursi

It appears that Egyptian President Mursi and the Islamic Brotherhood may have bit off a bit more than they could chew when they hurriedly wrote a new draft constitution that maximized their power and limited freedoms of non-Islamists including Coptic Christians, Democrats and secularists. Mursi compounded his mistake by issuing an edict that gave him practically unlimited power. The backlash from the Egyptian judiciary, journalists and opposition parties has been dramatic. Protests on the order of the original demonstrations against the Mubarak regime have engulfed Egypt, Mursi has  annulled his decree that granted him those powers and the opposition is calling for his overthrow. The Egyptian military has again become a player in the unfolding drama.

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Free Syrian Army Soldiers in Action

In Syria the opposition is nearing complete control of many areas of the country and Bashir Al Asad’s regime is believed by many to be on its last legs, only the endgame remains to be played out. Some believe that Syria’s regime may be willing to use chemical weapons, particularly Sarin nerve gas agents against the opposition. The leaders of Western nations, especially the United States have announced that the use of such weapons would be unacceptable.

There are continued demonstrations, protests and political actions ongoing in several countries including US Allies Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Throughout the Arab World the Arab Spring has had marked repercussions. The long term dictators of Yemen and Libya were both overthrow, with Yemen’s case Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to negotiate his exit from power, while in Libya the regime of Muammar Ghadaffi was overthrown in a bloody manner following a protracted civil war. Ghadaffi himself was brutally murdered following his capture.

The Arab has also has had effects on the foreign policy of nations, particularly the United States, Russia and the European Union and others around the world who have stood to gain by maintaining the status quo in the region, playing off the interests of their Arab “friends” for their own benefit. The fact is that most countries or alliances with military, economic and political, diplomatic and intelligence interests are still trying to make sense of the new Middle East and how it will impact their interests.

The problem is that most people outside the region have little understanding of it or how different the culture, history and social considerations of each part of the Arab world is different than others. We like to take about the “Arab Street” or the “Moslem world” but the fact is that neither the Arab Street or the Moslem world is monolithic and what is the case in one country is not necessarily true in other countries.

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T.E. Lawrence with members of Arab delegation at Versailles

What we know as countries in many cases are nothing more than disparate Arab peoples of different, Tribal affiliations, cultural traditions, history as well as Islamic and Christian factions. There is no generic Arab country or people and in many Arab countries there is internal conflict based on tribal, ethnic or religious lines. This was something that T.E. Lawrence noted in his works and something that we in our desire to shape events to our liking, need to remember.

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British Troops Enter Baghdad in 1920

During and after the First World War, European powers, particularly the English and French, but also the Italians used their military, economic and diplomatic power to divide the Arab World, recently free of Ottoman-Turk domination through the Sykes-Picot agreement, agreements made at Versailles and San Remo. In doing so they prevented a natural development of Arab freedom and helped poison relations between the Arabs and the West for generations and in the case of Saudi Arabia led to the domination of the Wahhabi house of Saud.

The Arab world is a mosaic of different peoples, cultures, traditions and histories. As the Arab Spring continues to unfold it is very important that we, who are not Arabs understand the various tensions at play and make vague assumptions about them or what the Arab Spring portends in Egypt or elsewhere.

Yes, we have important interests in the region. However as chaotic as it may seem the Arab Spring is a natural outgrowth of a region and its peoples finding themselves after centuries of foreign domination, be it that of the Roman, the Byzantine, the Turk, the Persian, or various countries of Europe and even the United States. It is important that it play out with as little foreign interference as possible. The lesson from history is that the last century of Western domination, imperialism and interference in Arab affairs have not helped and that these events will have to play themselves out, and that may take at least a generation.

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Whether we like it or not, what is happening now, despite the violence, strife and chaos is a necessary part of their story. How can we not understand? How many centuries of ethnic, cultural, religious and political war and strife have the nations of Europe and America endured to come to some semblance of working peacefully together?

The Arab Spring will be with us for a while because Arabs, regardless of their nationality, tribe or religious sect must determine their fate.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Looking into the Abyss: The Middle East November 2012

Israeli “Iron Dome” Missile Defense System in Action (Ap Photo: Tasafrir Abayov)

“You don’t have any communication between the Israelis and the Iranians. You have all sorts of local triggers for conflict. Having countries act on a hair trigger – where they can’t afford to be second to strike – the potential for a miscalculation or a nuclear war through inadvertence is simply too high.”  Dennis Ross

 

As I write this the Israeli Army is beginning the mobilization of 30,000 reservists as the IDF continues to respond with great vigor to the missile attacks conducted by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad on Israeli cities including Tel Aviv. On the sidelines are Hezbollah and Iran while Egypt, now governed by leaders of the Islamic Brotherhood attempts to finesse support for the Islamists while not provoking a wider conflict with the Israelis. To the northeast, Israeli forces have exchanged fire with the forces of Bashir Assad’s Syria which are engaged in their own version of an Arabic Götterdämmerung against their own people.

In the past two days nearly 300 rockets launched from Gaza have hit Israel, killing 3 Israelis. The missiles that hit Tel Aviv were the first to hit that city since Saddam Hussein’s Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War. Over 100 more have been successfully intercepted by Israeli “Iron Dome” missiles. In response the IDF has launched numerous sustained attacks against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups in Gaza, even killing the military chief of Hamas.

The Obama Administration has warned the Hamas forces to cease fire and urged leaders in Egypt and Turkey to help get the Hamas forces to stand down. Representatives of France are attempting to broker a cease fire even as the fighting escalates. The US Senate passed a unanimous declaration of support for Israel and demand for Hamas to cease its missile attacks.

The situation is escalating and could spread, especially in light of the fact that the Arab Spring swept away dictatorships like that of Hosni Mubarak which though they oppressed their own people also used their military and police power to just enough ant-Israel protest to defuse more extreme reactions. The fact that an Islamic Brotherhood government is now in control of Egypt is a wild card that no US administration has had to face since the days before the Camp David accords. Likewise the actions of the IDF two years ago against a Turkish flagged merchant ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade severely damaged Israeli-Turkish relations and crippled a previously strong Israeli-Turkish military alliance.

We are in uncharted waters. The US is tied down in Afghanistan and the burgeoning crisis in the senior leadership of the US military and intelligence services caused by the Petraeus scandal has the potential to cripple senior military and intelligence leadership. Likewise ongoing domestic political crisis brought about by a badly divided electorate and government as well as the Fiscal Cliff the timing could not be worse. Despite a decade of bloody and expensive military campaigns in the region United States now has less influence in the Middle East than it did in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even the early 2000s.

As bad is the situation is the best case scenario is that it can be localized between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza. As tragic and as devastating as that will be to both Israelis and Palestinians the possibility that the conflict could spread and become a regional war involving Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and the United States is a distinct possibility. Syria is falling apart and in the middle of a brutal civil war. Lebanon is torn between its own historic divisions and heavily dominated by the Iranian backed Hezbollah terrorist group. Egypt is in the throws of its own revolution and in turmoil. Iran sits on the sidelines stoking the fires while making its own threats against Israel as well as its own Arab neighbors and the US forces in the region.

I am not going to try to predict what will happen next. The situation is developing and dangerous. One hopes for the best, that the conflict can be contained and the suffering of innocents minimized, but possibilities of a larger and more disastrous conflict are all too real not to downplay.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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