May 5, 2013
“You Shall Not Stand Idly By?” America and Syria – What to Do?
It should be clear that the last thing the Obama Administration wants is to get caught in another Middle Eastern war, with no “good guys” and no viable exit strategy. What else can explain American passivity in the face of 70,000 Syrian dead and 1 million refugees in two years? What else can explain the President’s hedging on his pledge to act if Syria crossed the “red line” of introducing chemical weapons, now that indeed Syria has crossed that “red line?”
So much for the Biblical command, “Thou shalt not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (Leviticus 19:16)
Bill Clinton confessed that his greatest regret was not acting to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Will Barack Obama make the same confession about Syria one day?
Yes, Syria is embroiled in a nasty civil war. Yes, the Syrian rebels, increasingly radicalized Islamists, are a mixed bag. Yes, Al Qaida is involved. Who should the US support?
In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” (April 30, 2014 – “On the Ground in Syria”) the New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, who has covered the wars in Libya and Afghanistan and spent time on the ground with Syrian rebels, understands Obama’s resistance to get involved in Syria.
Chivers says that though the rebels distrust and hate the west, they want the west to get involved because they cannot match the Syrian government’s superior fire power. The west, ironically, is their only hope. They do not want American troops in Syria, but they do want weapons, and, a no-fly zone to protect the people from the air.
“Put yourselves in the shoes of the Syrian people,” Chivers said. Your village has been occupied by the Syrian army and then shelled. Everyone has lost someone. Obama says that the “red line” that will provoke American action against the Syrian government is its introduction of chemical weapons, and the Syrian people think:
“My life isn’t what you care about. It’s the nature of my death. So if I die by high explosives, if I die by a bullet, if I die by disappearance because I’m rolled up at the checkpoint, never seen again, that’s OK. That’s a green line? And a SCUD missile’s OK? An airstrike’s OK? But chemical weapons, that’s not OK. I mean there are more than 70,000 killed in this conflict. And to the Syrians, they say those don’t count? But if someone takes the cork off chemical weapons, that’s different. They feel they’ve been abandoned by the world. “
Chivers is a distinguished journalist and observer of this kind of warfare. He is also a former marine who has seen his share of death. He confesses that he has no good recommendation to offer the President were he asked.
Despite American claims to the contrary, there has been a covert airlift of weapons to the rebel forces, probably orchestrated by the CIA, which creates a long-term problem. These weapons have a long life, and one can never know into whose hands they will end up. Maybe they will be used against the US and Israel.
An American response to chemical weapons is meant to deter other countries in the future from using them, but again, to the Syrian people that “red line” was set pretty far out to the right. The chemical weapons have come so late that the west has already tolerated great cost in human life.
The quandary of the Obama Administration is that people are suffering and there are reasons to arm them and reasons not to arm them.
Chivers notes that the Syrian leaders have played perfectly and with cunning calibration (as opposed to Qaddafi in Libya) the tactics of the war to what they thought the West could tolerate. The Syrian government began the battle with arrests, and with each step of the way introduced more violent actions; first came batons and then bullets; then came the army, mortars, and 107 millimeter rockets; then the artillery and air force, helicopters followed later by jets, and then ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.
It’s been like dropping a frog in water and bringing the water to a boil slowly, pushing the “red” line step-by-step forward until so many people have become desensitized by the violence.
“Thou shalt not stand idly by!”
But, what to do? A no-fly zone? Bomb Syrian government positions? Give more weapons to the rebels?
And then what?