U.S. Preparing for Syria Intervention

“We live in the capital. Every turn, every street, every neighbourhood has some government target. Where do we hide?”

That is the question facing many of the citizens of Damascus, Syria’s capital city, as President Obama ponders conducting “limited” strikes in the country and Britain prepares to introduce a resolution calling for military action in Syria by the U.N. Security Council.

Two and a half years into Syria’s civil war, reports of President Bashar Assad’s forces using chemical weapons against civilians has started to stir Western powers into action. Damascus residents are stocking up on essentials like water, batteries, and canned goods in preparation for foreign strikes. Many who live near military or government institutions fear becoming victims of the people claiming to protect them.

If you read anywhere that this is a simple, straightforward situation, you are reading a lie. There are a lot of factors here.

Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the evidence against the Assad regime in this case is “undeniable.”

U.N. investigators traveling to the site of one of the alleged attacks came under fire from unidentified snipers. However, they were eventually able to travel to the attack site. Their mandate is to determine whether chemical weapons attacks took place, not who initiated them.

Reportedly a U.S. official had sent a message to the U.N. that the inspections were dangerous and in fact pointless because of the evidence against Assad’s regime. The U.S. decision on strikes in Syria will be based upon U.S. intelligence assessments, not anything from U.N. inspectors.

So far, the U.S. intelligence reports state the rockets used to deliver the chemical weapons were a kind only the Assad regime possesses.

Other analysts aren’t so sure. One the key questions they ask is why Assad would choose to use chemical weapons, given that it makes it much more likely that an international intervention would occur in his country. However, they’re equally skeptical that the rebels would have committed an attack, so it’s not really clear what they think. They do advocate waiting for results from the U.N. inspection before the U.S. takes action.

Long story short: that’s not going to happen. So what is the plan?

The Plan

“Limited strikes” is the catch phrase we’re hearing. But what exactly does that mean?

The most likely scenario the administration is laying out right now is to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean into Syria on military units thought to have used chemical weapons. An important detail is that attacks will not target chemical weapons depots, because that could result in dispersing the chemicals agents and basically fucking over anyone in the general vicinity.

Tomahawks are low-flying missiles that can be launched from distances of 1,000 miles from their target.

So far, the administration has maintained that its goal with these strikes would be to punish the Assad regime for their use of chemical weapons, and to make it more difficult or costly for them to use them in the future. They have categorically denied any goal of regime change or forcing Assad to the negotiating table. There are those who think we should be more ambitious, aiming to remove Assad from power. Because that has always gone really well for us in the past.

But the idea of limited strikes to prevent the use of chemical weapons and protect civilians. There are a couple of problems, though.


For one thing, by the administration’s own admission (and for valid reasons) they will not be targeting actual chemical weapons stores, but instead other military installations. So, while it might be seen as a punishment for the use of chemical weapons, it won’t actually prevent their future use. It is more symbolic. So what happens if the planned couple of days of strikes does not deter Assad from conducting more chemical weapons attacks? We’ll have painted ourselves into a corner. Otherwise, we’ll have responded to one instance of chemical weapons use but not to a second one. That just seems ridiculous.

Hell, even one the key architects of the strike plan the administration is pushing is expressing serious misgivings, basically saying that he doesn’t think it will work. In his words: “Punitive action is the dumbest of all actions. The Assad regime has shown an incredible capacity to endure pain.” He also points out that if we do start destroying chemical weapons stores, then Assad will just start distributing his remaining ones amongst his forces more quickly, which could lead to more use of chemical weapons, not less.

Finally, he criticizes the use of a tactical option, launching limited punitive strikes, without a larger strategic goal.

Also, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, air strikes would be a form of taking sides in the conflict, against the regime. While that might not seem like a problem in itself, since the Assad regime has committed its share of atrocities and repression, it sets the stage for broader and deeper U.S. involvement.

Then there is the argument that perhaps we have chosen an arbitrary “red line” in our decision that chemical weapon attacks in particular are, in Kerry’s words, “a moral obscenity” beyond the obscenities of conventional warfare. In fact, some argue that chemical weapons like Sarin gas either kill relatively quickly or else people recover fully, while conventional weapons can cause considerably more suffering.

And then there is the argument that, instead of preventing human suffering, a taboo on chemical weapons just creates a situation where “red lines” create more situations like we have now: the U.S. has stated that the use of chemical weapons would require a military response, and thus run the risk of escalating the crisis. That is without even going into the potential for blowback in a region where the U.S. already has a serious public image problem, or the hypocrisy of the U.S.’s admonishments against the use of chemical weapons, given that both the U.S. and Israel have used white phosphorous in past conflicts.

Final Thoughts

It is entirely natural, human, and, I think, good, to see the violence and bloodshed of war and the suffering of other people, and to immediately want to do something to mitigate it. But it is also important to look at our track record on military intervention in the Middle East (and around the world.) It is rarely clear that our interventions improve conditions, rather than further complicating them and making them just as troubled, but in new ways. Likewise, despite the pledges that our strikes in Syria will be limited and end soon, there remains the possibility that they will actually lead us into deeper involvement in another country’s civil war, and leave us occupying another part of the Middle East years later, uncertain as to what victory would even look like or what we are fighting for.

Finally, this is one of the best discussions on Syria I have seen so far, much improved by the presence of one of my personal heroes, Jeremy Scahill.

UPDATE 8/29/13:

Contrary to the President and Secretary of State’s certitude, intelligence officials say that the case against Assad is “not a slam dunk.”

UPDATE 8/30/13

Now we have some reports that the chemical attack in Syria may have been a mistake by rebels, who may have received the weapons from the Saudis.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Christinaw says:

    This was one of my favorite articles! Interested to hear your take on the situation as it develops.

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