Tag Archives: chemical weapons

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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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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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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