Syria: We need to stop a new war in the Middle East

The Syrian civil war is spreading, writes Phyllis Bennis – but US military action is the last thing the country needs

June 4, 2013
9 min read


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

aleppoA man stands in ruins in Aleppo

Plans for an international peace conference on Syria are looking very shaky. Even as the US and Russia continue collaborating on plans for such a meeting, arms shipments on all sides continue to threaten even greater escalation. Arms flows to Syrian rebel forces from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey and Jordan continue, Britain and France forced the European Union to end its prohibition on sending arms to the opposition, the United States cheered the EU decision, Russia announced it is sending Damascus advanced anti-aircraft missiles, and Israel made clear it would bomb those missiles if they arrive in Syria. And the Obama administration has reportedly requested the Pentagon to prepare plans for imposing a ‘no-fly’ zone in Syria in support of rebel fighters and even for direct multilateral military engagement inside Syria.

Syria – and the Middle East – are in serious trouble. Pressures on the Obama administration to engage even more directly in Syria, establishing a ‘no-fly’ zone, creating ‘safe corridors’ for the rebel forces, sending heavy weapons to the US-identified ‘good guys’ among the rebels, training even more than the 200 CIA agents in Jordan are training now, even direct air strikes on Syrian targets… all are on the wish list of the We-Want-To-Attack-Syria-And-We-Want-You-To-Do-It-Now caucus.

Most, though not all, of the calls for intervention come from the same people who led the calls for invading Iraq – neo-cons and other hard-line militarists, pundits and Congressmembers, mainly Republicans but plenty of Democrats too, including the ‘humanitarian hawks’, those who never saw a human rights crisis that didn’t require US military involvement to solve. The long-standing Republican supporter of US military action in Syria, Senator John McCain, made a highly-publicised visit to rebel-held territory inside Syria, accompanied by top leaders of the fractious rebel alliance. His trip appears timed directly to scuttle any potential for Washington’s and Moscow’s efforts to establish the new peace conference for Syria.

The drumbeat is spreading, and it’s not only from Republicans. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller, reprising his 2003 ‘reluctant’ support for the Iraq war, once again supports US armed intervention in Syria. What does he think will be better in this war? Well this time, unlike Iraq ten years ago he claims, Syria represents a ‘genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region.’

Guess Keller hasn’t looked very carefully at Iraq today. His point about what happens if Syria collapses is true (despite his leaving out the far more dire impact on the Syrian people), but he ignores the crucial point that his description of a future failed Syria if we don’t intervene, matches precisely what exists today in Iraq – as a direct result of US intervention. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the exploding Sunni-Shi’a violence across Iraq and over the borders into Syria among other places – today’s post-intervention Iraq is precisely what Keller warns of if the US doesn’t join the Syrian civil war. He didn’t look at Lebanon, where the already-shaky confessional system French colonialists imposed in the 1930s is under renewed strain from the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into the country, as well as the political-military pressure of the Syrian civil war itself. He didn’t look at Jordan, where more than 500,000 Syrian refugees have stretched the country’s social fabric to a near-breaking point.

The failure of militarism

What neither side of the Washington debate have considered is that the escalating crisis in the Middle East is taking place in the context of the significant decline of US power and influence. With US economic and diplomatic power reduced, military force remains the one arena in which the US is the indisputable champ. But even the $800 billion annual US military budget no longer determines history by itself. The US-Nato campaign in Libya was partly, though not entirely, an attempt to remilitarise problem-solving in the region and thus re-legitimise US centrality. But it failed.

What the civil war in Syria and the Arab Spring have exposed is that the massive political and social transformation and real regime change underway in the region is led by people themselves – largely without military force and certainly with no role for the United States. US military involvement serves only to escalate the destruction, while distracting from other failures. The people on the ground engaged in those political struggles don’t want US military intervention; the only ones who benefit are the arms manufacturers whose CEOs and shareholders continue to reap billions of blood dollars in profit.

War hurts civilians, but US wars generally hurt and kill civilians far from the US – so direct consequences remain far from US public consciousness. The problem for US policymakers is that an arms embargo also hurts their key campaign contributors: the arms dealers. The US remains the largest arms exporter in the world; can anyone doubt that sending US arms to one side of Syria’s civil war (even, or especially, if it extends the war) helps justify things like the pending $10 billion arms deal to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Or that instability in Syria, whatever its cause, can only help reinforce calls for increasing the existing $30 billion ten-year commitment of US military aid to Israel? No wonder the international Arms Trade Treaty – not to mention any potential for global gun control – remain so far from Washington’s agenda.

There is also the problem of the fundamental illegality of any US military escalation. The only two ways a military attack – including establishing a no-fly zone – by one country against another can be legal is in response to a UN Security Council authorization, which does not exist and is not likely, or in the case of immediate self-defense. And there is no way even the most hawkish warmongers in the US can claim that Syria’s civil war represents that kind of immediate national threat to the United States. Any US attack – with or without a Congressional mandate (which unfortunately would be all too likely forthcoming if requested) – would still be a violation of international law.

That is also the case for Israel’s attacks on Syria, whether or not weapons arriving in Syria may be headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel’s position has wavered – until the recent strikes it had not been leading the charge against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, nor urging the US to escalate its involvement in Syria for the simple reason that Assad’s regime, like that of his father from 1970 till 2000, has been very helpful to Israel. Despite all the puffed up rhetoric about Syria as part of a regional ‘axis of resistance’, the Assad family has largely kept the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights pacified, the border quiet, and the Palestinians in Syria under tight control. Instances of cross-border violence were short-lived and rare.

It should not be forgotten that the Assad regimes have also been very useful to the United States. In 1991 Hafez al-Assad sent his air force to join Bush Senior’s Operation Desert Storm attack on Iraq. By 2002 Bashar al-Assad was a partner in Bush Junior’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program of the global war on terror – accepting prisoners at the request of the US, including Canadian Maher Arar, for interrogation and torture at the hands of Syria’s feared security police.

So now what?

The first thing is to de-escalate the fighting – to staunch the horrific bloodletting that Syria’s civil war is creating for the Syrian people. That means stopping the arms shipments to all sides. That means negotiating directly with Russia, on a quid pro quo agreement to stop US and allied training and arms shipments to the rebels and re-establishing the EU ban on weapons to the rebels, in return for an end to Russian and allied arms shipments to the Syrian government.

Plans for a diplomatic conference under United Nations auspices must go forward, with more pressure on both sides from their respective sponsors to participate. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described a joint US-Russian commitment, ‘to use the possibilities that the US and Russia have to bring both the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table.’ That’s an important start. Those negotiations will have to include the government of Syria, the armed rebels, and the still-struggling non-violent democratic opposition movement that first launched the Syrian spring more than two years ago. To bring the sides to the table, all the regional players and the parties’ strategic backers will have to be involved as well – Iran as well as Russia, and France and Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar alongside the US, will all have to play a role to push their recalcitrant allies to negotiate. That’s the context within which a Syrian arms embargo would really begin to mean something.

The US, Europe and the wealthy Gulf states should also take more responsibility for funding the cost of caring for the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced. The UN’s humanitarian funding appeals for Syria remain seriously under-resourced – yet too many ‘humanitarians’ continue to debate only military action.

None of this will be easy. But proposing military escalation as a response to fuzzy, uncertain allegations of chemical weapons, or imposing a no-fly zone because Israel attacked Syria, let alone threatening military force to overthrow a regime, is a far too dangerous road. We’ve been there before. Sixty-six percent of Americans oppose greater US military involvement. There’s no great eagerness from the White House. But President Obama, under pressure from London and Paris as well as US neo-cons, has yet to clearly reject the possibility.

That puts the obligation squarely on our shoulders. We need to take responsibility as people, as civil society, as social movements to raise the political costs of a new war in the Middle East so high, that it stays off the table for good.


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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