Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Weighing in on Prospective U.S. Military Strikes in Syria

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Up until this point, chemical attack allegations in Syria have been a “blame-game” dominated by circumstantial evidence, hypothetical questions / appeals to logic, murky details, and classified information. The Assad regime has blamed “terrorists”, as they have for the duration of the civil war, for launching chemical attacks. Why would we launch these attacks when UN investigators were in the country, they argue? Western powers do not believe the opposition has the capacity to launch such attacks, and blames the Assad regime of offering too little too late when it came to international investigations (this argument has been refuted by chemical weapons experts, which alongside congressional uncertainty, further complicates U.S. military intervention).

The UK dropping out of military strikes, as well as the lack of NATO, Arab League, or U.N.S.C. authorization, makes it difficult to frame a military strike as part of a global coalition. President Obama has assured war-weary Americans there will be “no boots on the ground”, and that a strike will not lead to another long-term entanglement in the region. However, direct military strikes–particularly without broad international support–will naturally lead to further engagement, particularly if  Western / American / Israeli interests are targeted in retaliation.

I actually agree with Speaker Boehner; we need more information on what intelligence the administration has and how strikes fit into Americas long term geopolitical strategy in the Middle-East. In the face of the sequester and looming budget / debt ceiling debates, how will these strikes be financed? The constraints that military spending impose on other fiscal policies affect all American’s; the citizens of this great country deserve more conclusive evidence the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Basing strikes on classified “knowledge” from unknown (to regular people) sources should not satisfy anyone’s need for a transparent and inclusive debate / decision making process leading up to possible military intervention.

Common sense tells us to wait a few days, in order to drum up more international support and get more intelligence from U.N. investigators. There is no sense rushing into action that–despite President Obama’s words and wishes–has inherent long term implications on U.S. military, foreign and fiscal policiesIt seems clear that either the Assad regime or more radical segments of the opposition as responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria. We must determine conclusively who committed this crime against humanity and hold them accountable. 

There has been a lot of talk about precedents being set; if we do not respond to the use of chemical weapons, then international laws banning their use carry very little weight. I agree with this argument, but military decisions should not be made hastily or emotionally. There is no question Bashar al-Assad is a thug who has mercilessly killed tens of thousands of his countrymen and driven well over 1 million Syrians into other countries as refugees, imposing the myriad costs of Syria’s Civil War on the region in an attempt to retain his families 4 decade rule in Syria. I also do not believe a political solution is possible, as Assad believes his rule in Syria is based on something resembling the mandate of heaven.

But the question still remains–did Assad carry out these chemical strikes? If we cannot rule out the possibility that opposition forces used chemical weapons, then a much more dangerous precedent may inadvertently be set–that extremist’s can solicit a military response by using chemical weapons on the very people they are supposed to be fighting for. While this is not what I think happened, we must be certain before making decisions with long term and unforeseeable ramifications. 

Financial considerations should ultimately be secondary once conclusive evidence is presented implicating who is responsible for these attacks. “We cannot afford to hold perpetrators of crimes humanity accountable” is not an acceptable excuse for inaction from the international community. Once conclusive evidence implicating Assad in chemical weapons attacks circulates (or at very least exonerating extremist factions within the Syrian opposition of involvement in said attacks), international intervention can be justified on any number of international law / treaty violations and/or R2P.

In an attempt to isolate these radical segments of the Syrian opposition, plans for creating a national Syrian rebel army have circulated, angering Islamist factions in the opposition:

Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.

The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.

Chaos among opposition forces and al-Qaeda’s growing role are barriers to any intervention.

Plans for an army are still under wraps but details began emerging earlier this month before the gas attack. It has the blessing of the rebels’ patronSaudi Arabia, which took over as the main regional backer of Assad’s foes earlier this year.

Momentum behind the new force comes from Saudi Arabia and Western nations who, alarmed by the growth of radical Islamists in rebel-held areas, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian Coalition, hoping it could help stem their power.

“Once we get the (battle)field organized, then everything will be organized,” he said. “This will be the army of the new Syria. We want to integrate its ranks and unify the sources of funding and arms,” the Syrian National Coalition member said.

Western-backed rebels say the new structure might be modeled on U.S.-backed militias, known as “Awakening Councils”, which drove al Qaeda from Iraq’s Anbar region six years ago.

The leader of one moderate Islamist brigade, which operates in several parts of the country, said he supported the proposal, but would not say if his fighters would join.

Leaders of more radical groups see it as a Western-backed plot to fight them. “They are undermining the work of all of us. They want to throw it in the bin, as if it never happened,” said a senior commander in Homs province.

Opposition political sources were careful not to portray the new army as a challenge to Islamists, but a senior official said it would only welcome them if they left their brigades.

“This will be an army like any other army in the world. When you join it you leave your beliefs outside. Islamists can join as individuals, not as Islamists.”

The new body is not an alliance of brigades, as in previous attempts to unify insurgency groups; individual fighters will be expected to leave their units to sign up.

Many Syrians initially welcomed the Islamists for bringing order to the chaos of rebel-held territories, but growing resentment of their puritanical rule could win popular sympathy for any new force that challenges them.

Activists in the northern, rebel-held provinces, where Islamists are most powerful, say those criticizing the Islamists are threatened or imprisoned.

“We have challenged Assad when he was strong, and now we are being bullied by radicals who are not even Syrians in our Syria,” said an activist in Aleppo who declined to be named.

With weapons and money flooding into the country, a class of warlords has emerged, including Islamists, who have grown powerful on arms deals and oil smuggling. Activists in the north complain of high levels of theft, bullying and thuggery.

“With this army the Coalition will have a military force on the ground, one that is composed of the best Syrian fighters,” said a Syrian rebel commander in a powerful brigade that has fighters across Syria.

In the meantime, most agree that the disparate groups should work together, at least in temporary alliances against Assad’s troops. But they share a skepticism that the new group will ever see the light of day, or have much impact if it does.

“During this revolution we have seen many great ideas and many great attempts destroyed because of mismanagement. The Free Syrian Army is an example of this. As long as the roots of the problems are not solved, then nothing will change.”

“They are all failed projects; there is no awareness among those leading this revolution and also there is no clear strategy. In addition to this you have got the hesitation from the West. As long as this continues, this will be a failed project.”

A national Syrian rebel army is a good idea for overcoming extremist’s influence–who are often not of Syrian origins themselves–that have tried to hijack the legitimate grievances which originally spurred the Syrian revolution . This Army will require adequate financing and training from Western backers if it is to fulfill its goals.

However, one must be suspicious of Saudi Arabia’s intentions in funding this army. Despite being “pro-Western”, Saudi Arabia and many other Middle-Eastern monarchies are fundamentally opposed to the ideas of political Islam, as highlighted by support for the Egyptian Military Coup and it’s “interim government”. It must be made crystal clear in the rebel army’s enabling legislation that the army exists to uphold the will of all Syrian people, is accountable to the Syrian people and it’s future democratic government, and is committed to a pluralistic democratic Syria and international human rights norms. Any Islamist in favor of these goals is free to join the national Syrian rebel army, provided they renounce ties and allegiances to other groups–a precondition for joining any effective and unified army.  

The last thing we need is another military backed authoritarian regime posing as democracy. These “democracies” ultimately undermine the ability for effective democracy to take root, by reinforcing the misconception that democracy and political Islam are irreconcilable.  

It would be tactically advantageous to have this rebel army armed and ready to capitalize after any U.S. led military strikes should such strikes ever occur. It seems like the timing is not right for these two military strategies to synergize, unless this army has been in the works for some time now under-wraps and is almost ready to be rolled out (which is unlikely). It makes sense now for Obama to wait at least a week before taking any action, in order to rally international support for military strikes at the upcoming G-20 talks in Moscow.

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