Syria and Chemical Weapons

By Vincent J. Truglia

It has been obvious for some time that the Obama administration has been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian conflict.  For me, that’s a sensible policy.  Jumping into the Syrian civil war would be like diving into the abyss. Obama has indicated that a “red line” would have been crossed if the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

The Red Line

In recent days we have all heard about the likely use of chemical weapons in Syria.  Has the so-called red line been crossed?  I have sincere doubts that the Syrian government would have deliberately used chemical weapons, which it knew would bring instant condemnation around the world, and possible military intervention/support for the opposition.

Assad has never shown himself to be irrational.  Using chemical weapons to kill several hundred people seems utterly stupid, especially since more than 100,000 people have already died in the civil war using conventional arms.  My hypothesis is that if it happened, either it was done by opposition forces, or by some renegade officer in the field.

Some Allies Are Pressuring the US

Many forces around the world, and within the US, are pressuring Obama to get involved militarily. France and the UK have been calling for more support for the opposition, with the French president even considering sending military forces into the fray. Maybe he wants to divert public attention away from his economic policies. Some US senators have been calling for intervention.  In addition, the Saudis are doing everything possible to support the opposition. Even Turkey has volunteered to send troops.

Beware Incidents

What should we make of the sudden “discovery” of chemical weapons use? We should resist being pulled into a fight over it.  In my lifetime, the US government has at least twice used misinformation or outright lies as a pretext to get the country involved in two unnecessary wars.

The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incidents were used to escalate the US role in the Vietnam War.  Most agree that the second Tonkin incident proved to be bogus. At the time, having two incidents in a row made it appear as if the North Vietnamese were escalating the war.

The second is nearer in time, and that was the claim that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We all know how true that proved to be and the costs that were incurred as a result, both in terms of American and Iraqi lives lost, and in terms of the US government’s fiscal deficits.

Pearl Harbor, Yes; Sarajevo, No

My advice is that we should never, and I mean NEVER use one or two incidents to become involved in a foreign war, unless the incident is on a scale similar to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Look at the conflagration caused by the reaction to a lone assassin in Sarajevo in 1914; World War I, another totally dumb and unnecessary war, which had horrible consequences which lasted at least through the end of the Cold War in 1989.

Preemption

I would add that I do believe preemptive military intervention is justified if the intervention is aimed at preventing a “rogue” country from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction on a grand-scale.  My problem with the intervention in Iraq was that it was based on deeply flawed analysis, which was not recognized by many countries as credible.  That inability to “prove” the likelihood of existing weapons of mass destruction to other Western nations should have been a signal to all of us to doubt the credibility of the intelligence. In other words, the evidence should be absolutely convincing.

Conspiracies?

Why are so many forces trying to get the US involved in Syria?  Having myself been accused over many decades of being part of various conspiracies, I am usually doubtful about the existence of conspiracies.  Therefore, I don’t believe “conspiracy is the appropriate term to be used regarding Syria.  Rather, it is either national self-interest or political self-interest, which seems to be driving the call for war with the Assad regime.

Obama Sending a Message?

First, let’s give Obama credit for possibly using this incident to raise the risk of US military involvement in Syria by upping the rhetoric.  Why might he do that? Who are the primary supporters of the Assad regime? Russia and Iran.  We all know that Obama is not too happy with Putin over the Snowden affair, another incident, which so far Obama seems to have handled appropriately.  He cancelled his summit with Putin, but not his attendance at the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg. What better way to remind Putin that Russia needs to cooperate with the US, than to ramp-up rhetoric regarding Syria.  If the rhetoric translates into reality, it would prove costly to Russia.

Lobbying

Although some senators may feel strongly, in their heart-of-hearts, that military intervention is warranted, I am somewhat more cynical.  Some politicians may want to embarrass Obama by portraying him as weak for purely partisan political reasons.  However, I believe most are probably beholden to pressure groups or lobbyists with clients in the anti-Syria lobby.

Iran

I believe the main reason why many countries, including the US, have to take a heightened interest in events in Syria, is the effect the Syrian conflict has on Iran, a real danger to world peace.

Iran is an important ally of Assad, which I have discussed in earlier blogs.  Now that the Alawites have been recognized as a legitimate Islamic sect by the Shiite religious leadership in Iran, it makes sense for the Assad regime to cooperate with Iran and Iran’s role in Lebanon, traditionally part of Greater Syria. This causes multiple problems for a number of countries.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia rightly considers Iran its greatest threat. Not only does Iran’s size make it, over time, the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, but support by Iran for Shiites throughout the Gulf poses a risk not just to the major oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shiites predominate, but in other Gulf states, with either majority or large minority Shiite populations, with Bahrain being the most obvious.  If Saudi Arabia can defeat Assad, it will produce another Sunni regime in the region, and be a blow to growing Iranian primacy in the Middle East.  We shouldn’t forget that the US war in Iraq produced a pro-Iranian government there, something decidedly not helpful to the Saudis.

Israel

Israel, for the first time in decades, has similar national self-interests with Saudi Arabia – stranger things have happened in history.  For both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran poses an existential risk.  We all know that Iran intends on destroying Israel, not just figuratively, but literally. With nearly half the world’s Jewish population now living in this small country, this is a threat to be taken quite seriously.  Iran’s support for Hezbollah is more annoyance to Israel than anything else.  However, as eventual war with Iran approaches, and a war with Iran will happen, Israel has a special interest in wanting to crush Hezbollah. Southern Lebanon could be used by Iran, when it is eventually attacked by Israel or the US, as a launching platform for dirty bombs or other weapons of mass destruction. If the Assad regime goes, logistical support for Hezbollah becomes much more difficult for Iran to provide. At the same time, chaos in Syria makes it far less likely that Syria would go to war with Israel.  Therefore, although there might be some support by Israel for toppling the Syrian regime, I just doubt it is high on the country’s list of priorities.

Widespread Chemical Weapons Use

In the end, unless the Syrian regime starts to use chemical weapons on a grand-scale, the US should resist getting involved militarily.

As always, Clear and Candid.