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Are We Sure Of Syria’s Guilt?

Peter Hitchens says wait a minute, do we really want to go to war again on the basis of what we think we know? [1] Excerpt:

I cannot say how many times I have heard people assert that there is ‘little doubt’ the Syrian government used chemical weapons – in fact I just heard this tricky phrase on the BBC’s  radio news.

‘Little doubt’?

How does one quantify doubt?  How much doubt does there have to be, when a quite possibly unlimited war is in question? If there is doubt of any kind, surely we shouldn’t be broadcasting or writing as if there were no doubt, let alone talking about embroiling ourselves in a vast and probably endless sectarian war between Shia and Sunni, now rapidly catching fire in the region?

Easy enough to lob a cruise missile into Syria from a submarine, no doubt. But what sort of child imagines it would end there? If the missiles failed to shift President Assad, what next? And there are other horrible possibilities I will leave it to you to work out.


We have been told that such things surely couldn’t have been faked, except by incredibly skilled technicians. But the Syrian ‘rebels’ (in fact a salad of Sunni extremists backed by Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf States, and egged on by two major Arab TV stations) are not short of money or propaganda skills.

Then there is the logic of it. President Assad has in fact denied that his government is responsible. The denial is by no means incredible. He knows (for it has been made clear so many times, not least on the precedent of Saddam Hussein’s Halabja massacre, as well as by President Barack Obama’s statement that such an attack would constitute a ‘red line’) that such an attack would provide the pretext for a ‘Western’ intervention in his country.

It would allow the USA, Britain and France to bypass the UN Security Council, and the vetoes of China and Russia against any UN-sponsored intervention.  Mr Assad knows that a UN inspection team is on hand in Damascus. He also knows  (and so do the rebels) that the fighting in the Damascus suburbs makes it very difficult for that team to reach the site of the alleged massacre. He does not control these suburbs, and cannot guarantee the UN team’s safety( at the time of writing the UN experts have withdrawn after they were fired upon, allegedly by rebels) . If he is to be required to prove his innocence, it will be very difficult. Thus, a media presumption of guilt, readily swallowed by vainglorious and posturing politicians (the sort we mostly have these days) is very likely.

In those circumstances, what could possibly have possessed him to do something so completely crazy? He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk. It does not make sense. Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion.

The rebels, on the other hand (in many cases non-Syrian jihadists who are much disliked by many ordinary Syrians because of the misery they have brought upon them) , have many good reasons to stage such an attack .

Hitchens goes on to say that it’s possible, obviously, that Assad’s government really did launch a chemical attack upon its own people. That would have been a lunatic thing to have done, and it still wouldn’t justify Western involvement in another Mideast war, but still, before we haul off and do this again, shouldn’t we be extremely skeptical, based on past experience? Last year, the CIA explained how it had gotten Iraq’s WMD situation wrong.  [2] Remember Colin Powell’s UN speech, in which he said the US had irrefutable evidence that Iraq had WMDs? Untrue. [3] The CIA source called “Curveball,” on whose word the case was largely built, later admitted that he made it all up.

I agree with Hitchens: even if the Assad regime did this evil thing, it is not worth the United States involving itself in a Mideast war. But given how easily we were dragged into Iraq, we shouldn’t be so quick to believe the scariest thing.

John Kerry says evidence of Assad’s guilt is “undeniable.” [4] Colin Powell said evidence for Iraq’s WMD program was “irrefutable.” We’ve heard it before.

41 Comments (Open | Close)

41 Comments To "Are We Sure Of Syria’s Guilt?"

#1 Comment By niccolo salo On August 26, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

It’s hilarious to see the USA still think of itself as some sort of moral authority in light of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, GITMO, the NSA story, etc.

The USA has no credibility and is simply the world’s most dangerous force, fully capable of producing its own parallel reality to justify to itself why it should engage in military aggression counter to International Law.

#2 Comment By Bernie On August 26, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

For God’s sake, let’s stay out of involvement with Syria. Why did Obama have to draw his “red line” about chemical weapons? What can we do to turn around Syria? And if we do, what do we have on our hands? Does anyone really know?

I heard an ex-General make a statement on a news program that we might drop a few “feel good” bombs so that Obama will not look weak for not honoring his “red line” challenge. More deaths, no real advantage. Brilliant.

#3 Comment By Robert On August 26, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

Honestly, given what our government has come to, I would not be the least bit surprised if this entire thing were a CIA operation to justify our involvement in the war.

#4 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 26, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

I say stay the hell out of it! It is not our problem but if we get involved it will be.

#5 Comment By reflectionephemeral On August 26, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

Your larger point about proof, and our capabilities, stands, but here we do seem to have evidence of an actual attack— which is pretty different than asserted evidence of a hidden program, which as you point out was overstated and based on fabrications.

We had a lot of tragicomic comments from politicians on that at the time; here’s one from Donald Rumsfeld in March 2003 on where the WMD were: “the area in the south and the west and the north that coalition forces control is substantial. It happens not to be the area where weapons of mass destruction were dispersed. We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.”

#6 Comment By Jake Lukas On August 26, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

One of the best things we who oppose intervention can do about this situation is to speak of it in terms of WMDs. If we use the phrase as frequently as it was used little over a decade ago, perhaps the verbal resonance with our former folly will make apparent what arguments will not.

#7 Comment By FN On August 26, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

Indeed what you are saying is very true; we should be skeptical about claims that Assad did it – it is objectively not in his interest, but it is in the interest of the rebels – and careful with our reactions to them.

However, now is a perfect time to observe how little this will count in the media discourse and in the political discourse. There will be some kind of attack on Syria by the US, this is now obvious, otherwise Kerry would not have spoken in such definite terms about Assad’s responsibility. There is no walking back from there. Very few people (in the US) will question Kerry’s and Obama’s words. It might well be that we find out it was the rebels, only it will be too late.

If Assad is toppled, it will be the end of Christianity in Syria, and few will hold Obama responsible for it, although he will be. Obama is not a christian-hating secret muslim, but if he attacks Syria, he could not be acting more like one.

#8 Comment By Lord Karth On August 26, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

We need to ask ourselves this: suppose we actually “won” ? Suppose we picked a side—Assad’s, let’s say, because the rebels seem to be a motley crew of jihadists and Iranian sympathizers—and gave that side overwhelming firepower. We could even do something truly overpowering and drop a nuke on the chief rebel city. Or side with the rebels, land the 82d Airborne and the First Marine Division in Damascus and use tactical nukes in the heart of the city.

(That would make for good television, wouldn’t it ? Lots of nice, viewable fireworks ! Hours and hours of Solid Entertainment Value !!)

Either way, we “win”. What happens then ? Do we keep Assad in power indefinitely, like Rome did ? Do we let him commit massacre after massacre—let him use the “Hama” rules to stay in power ? Do we prevent that by having US/British/French troops to occupy the country and keep the lid on our “ally” ?

Or if we back the rebels (an incalculably stupid idea, IMO, but you can always trust an American politician to reliably do the wrong thing), what do we do when they establish Sharia law and start massacring Christians ? Do we see more of that wonderful branch of Islam that beheads young men on YouTube because they accidentally slander “Allah” ?

The Romans would have, at the height of their power, simply gone and decimated (that means “kill one of every ten”, for those of you who are the products of the American formal education system) the population. That would make an impression. But modern Americans are too squeamish to do something like that. So that option’s out.

Bottom line: there are NO GOOD OPTIONS for the US in Syria. The best we can hope for is a long, bloody stalemate (we can still send the TV camera crews, so the mediamen can be happy), followed by a peace of exhaustion.

The Syrians can manage that All By Themselves. The best thing we can do is not waste the life or limb of any American soldier. (TV crews can go there, by all means. The accountants will like that—it’ll de-clutter the payroll, after all.)

In short, America, STAY OUT. Like the old Dial Soap commercial said, “You’ll Be Glad You Did !”

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#9 Comment By Rachel On August 26, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

The question that I want to ask every talking head on TV is: when will we be done? How do we know that we’re finished and we can go home?

I could not oppose this new war more. This is just another endless Middle Eastern war for us to get bogged down in.

#10 Comment By dominic1955 On August 26, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

We’ve always been at war with Eastasia…

#11 Comment By Kluger On August 26, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

Larry Johnson, who was in the CIA and was also Deputy Director of the U.S. State Dept. Office of Counterterrorism, thinks it’s horsesh*t. See Johnson’s [5] where he asks some pretty good questions:

Question 1: What is the actual medical evidence supporting the allegation that a nerve agent (e.g., SARIN) was used on the people shown on television?

Recover the bodies and do autopsies. What did the people actually die of?

Question 2: Who gave the order to use chemical weapons? If the Government of Syria actually carried out an attack with a military grade chemical weapon, then there must exist a signal intercept of the order. The Israelis are claiming they have such proof. I seriously doubt it, but since the claim is now public, show us the proof and provide, even better, provide a copy of the actual audio. If that exists then the evidence is total and damning. But we have seen this [bullsh*t] before, courtesy of Colin Powell (another buffoon) yammering before the UN Security Council.

Question 3: How were the chemical agents delivered? These was not a simple case of two guys with toxic water pistols running around squirting folks. A Chemical attack requires concentrated, massive fire. It is not just one or two shells or bombs. Were the alleged agents delivered via bombs or artillery shells?

I do not make a single apology for being skeptical. Obama is a liar. Bush was a liar. Very simple. And I am not going to trust another politician eager to start a war without proof certain. Been down this road before.

Ditto for other guys who have been the ones to get it right, such as Col. Patrick Lang, who was head of intelligence analysis for the Middle East for the Defense Intelligence Agency for 8 years and briefed Presidents (including George H. in the first Gulf War). Lang writes on his [6]:

I wrote “Drinking the Koolaid.” It was published in “Middle East Policy” in 2004. The article is analysis of the deliberate deception employed by the Bush Administration in lying the United States into war with Iraq.

The same methods are being used now to drag the American people into another Middle Eastern war. The corporate, self-serving media are leading the effort to “brainwash” Americans into acceptance of war against Syria.

#12 Comment By Michael N Moore On August 26, 2013 @ 7:09 pm

President Obama invited the Assad opposition to cook up a chemical attack when he made his “red line” statement. It was either a very stupid or very conived statement to make.

#13 Comment By Deggjr On August 26, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

… little doubt … as in frequently wrong, never in doubt.

And my gosh, I agree with Lord Karth. Not only can no one articulate what ‘winning’ looks like, no one can even imagine it in their wildest dreams.

#14 Comment By J On August 26, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

Maybe Assad is counting on a burned once, twice shy response by average Americans.

The Telegraph page on Syria has a lot of narrative about small scale poison gas use by Assad forces inside Damascus since April. This has slowed the rebel advance in very defender-friendly concrete jungle terrain but not reversed it. This advance is not very important militarily but if it forces the Assad regime to evacuate from the government district of the city, that’s a very hard blow to the morale of Assad supporters.

The relatively large scale gas attack a few days ago is easy to understand as an act reflecting frustration and panic by the Assad side. They don’t have the skilled fighters or special equipment and massive amount of well targeted high explosives need to crush the rebel offensive in conventional warfare. Poison gas is what they do have, and low level Assad commanders have used it sparingly so as to not trip the American ‘red line’. This small scale use of poison gas over conventional weapons is an indication that Assad no longer has the troops available to win with conventional weapons.

But it’s easy to see that fear and political calculation at the very top could result in orders given to decisively defeat and that particular rebel advance with any means available. Which means poison gas in much larger quantities. Over low level commander’s objections that this might not work (poison gas is pretty dicey in military effectiveness) and might be a PR disaster as well. The bad news is that right the first attempt to do so was found out by Western media because so many civilians were gassed in an area with relatively good media access.

#15 Comment By Liam On August 26, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

Not in Our Name. Again.

#16 Comment By Turmarion On August 26, 2013 @ 7:19 pm


In scholis publicis Americanis de schola grammatica ad universitatem publicam (“the American formal education system”) studiavi, et hoc verbum “decimate” et huius verbi historiam bene scio; linguam Latinam duos annos etiam studiavi in schola secondaria publica. Omnes scholae meae in partibus rusticis fuerunt, non in urbis magnis nec divitibus; et pater, mater, duo nepotes, matertera et allii familiae meae magistri in scholis publicis fuerunt.

One can learn things in the “American formal education system”.

#17 Comment By Turmarion On August 26, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

Oh, and we should stay out of Syria.

#18 Comment By Turmarion On August 26, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

Erravi–non “nepotes” sed “avunculi”. Errare humanum est–mea maxima culpa.

#19 Comment By Coldstream On August 26, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

Why did Obama have to draw his “red line” about chemical weapons?

Well, our “Greatest Orator since Cicero” was speaking off-the-cuff, so that’s what we get.

Really don’t know how this ends without some sort of attack. Any sort of deal Assad can make now that would allow US/UK to call off attack and allow Obama to save face at this point? Leave his Nobel Peace Prize somewhat untarnished?

Not sure pinpoint strikes of “WMD targets” that leave Assad in power accomplishes much. Would Assad’s forces crumble under rebel pressure backed by regular strikes a la Libya? Who takes over then? Any way that Syria doesn’t collapse into an even more Lebanon-like civil war?

Not sure how this ends well.

#20 Comment By M_Young On August 26, 2013 @ 8:09 pm


#21 Comment By Patrick On August 26, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

Just cannot see why Assad would try to get us involved. Can see why the rebels would try.

#22 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 26, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

Does anyone doubt that a pre-emptive war in Syria, will end up killing far more people than if the U.S. hadn’t gotten involved at all, even covertly encouraging and supplying the Islamist rebels?

This has been our bequest, something that repeats periodically in interventions since the Spanish-American War.

#23 Comment By JonF On August 26, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

Sigh. I feel the haunting presence of a certain déjà vu in all this.

#24 Comment By Ben H On August 26, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

I’ve been thinking the same thing. Sadly I think we are really going to bomb Syria because of the ‘red line’ comment and the lack of success of the ‘rebels’ (who are supported by the Saudis and their faction within the State Department). I’m trying to think of a more irresponsible cause for war that wasn’t either calculated or a spontaneous mob action but I can’t think of anything.

#25 Comment By cecelia On August 26, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

That Obama and our military leaders do not want to go into Syria is obvious and given this reluctance – it seems unlikely the US actually did this deed – it takes a particularly vehement form of hatred for one’s country to come to that conclusion. Consider the effort made by the administration to get thus peace conference scheduled for Oct(?) in place. Note also that the small arms we promised to the rebels back in June have not yet been delivered – at this time the Pentagon is supplying medical and communication supplies only. Of course – this does not preclude that either the CIA or allies are supplying arms. But it is clear that the President and the Chiefs of Staff do not want to get involved.

I do not know if Assad did this or the rebels – but the suffering of the people of these towns that were hit is undeniable and has been independently verified.

But to say that Assad has no reason to do this seems wrong headed to me. He has every reason to believe he can act with impunity – 1) the Russians are backing him up and so no UN resolution authorizing an intervention is likely 2) there have been at least two prior chem attacks – one of which the UN did say was from the govt forces and no response from the US 3) the US and the EU have been impotent to stop what is going on in Egypt. So from Assad’s perspective – he has nothing to fear from a paralysed West. It also could have been a lower down the chain local commander who gave the order. We have already seen with Quadaffi and Mubarek that people with wealth and power do not give it up easily and after so many years of exercising absolute power they can become mentally convinced of their invincibility and ability to maintain control – after all – violence got them and kept them in power thus far – why should it not continue to work?

What is so disturbing to me is that all our international laws and institutions – are powerless to stop the bloodshed in Syria – powerless to protect the civilians – the children – in Syria. What a failure.

#26 Comment By Gerry On August 26, 2013 @ 9:38 pm


#27 Comment By Wes On August 26, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

*Listening to Curveball was a terrible mistake, but Curveball wasn’t the only source that the Iraqi WMD intelligence came from. The CIA explanation in the linked Time article doesn’t even mention Curveball.

” Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion.”

I’m not sure that this is true. Assad personally may not be as bad as Saddam Hussein and may even have originally been a reformer as Hillary Clinton infamously said. But Assad’s regime was founded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was as bad as Saddam. We can’t just look at a dictator, but at the dictator’s regime which is often made up of overly ambitious officials.

“In those circumstances, what could possibly have possessed him to do something so completely crazy? He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk. It does not make sense.”

We should never assume that dictators or terrorists are rational or at least rational in the way that we consider rational. And we don’t know if the order to launch chemical weapons came personally from Assad or from of those lower “ambitious officials” that I talked about earlier.

” but still, before we haul off and do this again, shouldn’t we be extremely skeptical, based on past experience? I agree with Hitchens: even if the Assad regime did this evil thing, it is not worth the United States involving itself in a Mideast war. But given how easily we were dragged into Iraq, we shouldn’t be so quick to believe the scariest thing. John Kerry says evidence of Assad’s guilt is “undeniable.” Colin Powell said evidence for Iraq’s WMD program was “irrefutable.” We’ve heard it before.”

We should try to be as sure as is realistically possible that Assad’s regime did indeed launch chemical weapons. But as Charles Krauthammer said, this isn’t CSI Damascus, even though everybody talks about “chain of custody” in regards to alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria. In my opinion, Assad is a brutal terrorist-sponsoring dictator who has killed tens of thousands of his own people and his regime is just about as bad as Saddam’s was and so we should launch missile strikes against Assad’s regime anyway. Nobody is talking about launching a big ground war in Syria like we did in Iraq.

#28 Comment By Basil On August 26, 2013 @ 10:21 pm

“He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk.” Precisely; Assad may be bad but he is not mad. I am by no means a conspiracy theory fan, but the ME is a very murky region and US involvement in it has at times been stranger than fiction, so perhaps this is not as far fetched as it first sounds: [8]

#29 Comment By The Wet One On August 26, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

Bush was an agent of evil. He played the chicken little game and sucked everyone in.

Now when we have an actual use of WMD’s (which is not in doubt), likely by a party that actually has WMD’s (no one doubts that Syria has chemical weapons), and that that is act is an evil one which ought not go without rebuke by the international community, now America balks because Bush lied, hundreds of thousands died and trillions were wasted on phantoms and bull manure.

Great job Bushie! Doing great things for humanity since 2000.

So it goes.

#30 Comment By MikeS On August 26, 2013 @ 10:32 pm

My view is, the boy has cried wolf one or two too many times and no longer has credibility. In any case it’s not like US intervention can stop intra-Muslim barbarism for long.

#31 Comment By Henri James On August 26, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

That’s what strikes me as weirdest. I mean, why bother using chemical weapons in a handful of engagements when that’s almost the ONLY thing the international community is even pretending would be grounds for intervention?

It just seems like there’s so little to be gained and so much to be lost.

Granted I don’t think Assad would be morally above it, but, it seems to defy logic that he would purposely use chemical weapons.

#32 Comment By cecelia On August 27, 2013 @ 12:22 am

it seems obvious that chem weapons were used – even if one just accepts Docs without Borders – some 3000 people showin up within a few hours time with neurotoxic symptoms.

And what motivation does the rebels forces have to do it? They actually were doing well – successfully blocking the road into Damascus from that area – now with the artillery and chem attacks – their advantage has been lost. And the risk of being discovered if the rebels did it is greater for them than Assad – they lose all possible western support.

The UN has gotten their samples and interviews – so we’ll know for certain if an attack occurred but not who did it.

I do not support troops on the ground or a no fly zone but a couple of cruise missles to destroy the sites where the weapons are stored seems a right response. It does not drag us in any further – it does not advantage the rebels who are not the most savory group either. But we need to work a lot harder on international responses to this kind of stuff because it is probably going to happen again.

#33 Comment By Noah172 On August 27, 2013 @ 1:15 am

So what’s the Israeli angle here? There has to be one: no way we get into another Middle East quagmire, particularly one in a country bordering Israel which Israel has attacked more than once, without our bought-and-paid-for leaders taking Israel’s interests into consideration.

I would think that Assad would be the devil-you-know, and the Israelis would want to keep his secular despostism in place rather than roll the dice with Islamists. Furthermore, an entanglement in Syria might delay an Iran war, which is what the Israelis want most of all.

Then again, the Israelis could figure that Assad is finished in the not-too-long run, and thus the Americans need to get suckered into occupying Syria in order to secure the chemical stockpiles and whatever other WMD Assad may have lying around, as well as prevent an actively anti-Israel (as opposed to most of the region’s governments, who talk tough about Israel but don’t act on it) Islamist regime taking over. (Iraq’s current government, for instance, is certainly not friendly to Israel, but at least is not aggressive about it in the manner of Saddam Hussein.) The Israelis may even think that an American war in Syria might creep into Lebanon to take on Assad’s ally, and Israel’s enemy, Hezbollah; let’s not forget that Reagan foolishly and unconstitutionally intervened in Lebanon’s civil war for 18 months 1982-84 (265 Americans dead) for Israel’s benefit, so it’s not like we have no precedent for such a scenario today.

#34 Comment By David Bofinger On August 27, 2013 @ 5:01 am

Leaving aside what Assad did or didn’t do, there seems a common feeling here that the US would find it difficult or expensive to overthrow Assad. Actually, I doubt that’s true.

It’s true there’s an established military principle that air power can’t win alone, that infantry is needed to hold territory. But Kosovo showed us that if your air power is the USAF then your infantry can be complete rubbish and still win.

The KLA was able to throw the Serbs out with US help and the various anti-Assad groups should be able to do the same in Syria. They were doing OK for a while – worse recently – without much help from outside. To make them win, all the US needs is easy fixes: give the rebels training (in Turkey and maybe other places), provide weapons, supply money (for bribes, public servant pay packets, soldier pay packets), ship in food where Assad is trying to starve anyone out, deny Assad the ability to use his air force (for strike, transport or close support), prevent Assad from concentrating troops for attacks, destroy any armoured column moving in the open between cities. The US should have no trouble achieving all of this, it’s bread and butter to them and US casualties will be minimal.

There are lots of good reasons to hesitate about war in Syria. We must fear the reaction of the Russians (and perhaps the Chinese as well?) – Russia agreed to a no-fly zone on Libya and was furious to see Gaddafi overthrown, it wouldn’t trust the US as far on Syria even if it wasn’t hoping to keep its naval base there. We have to worry about the possibility of replacing Assad with an equally evil but less rational Iran-backed Shiist (is this a word? I want the word that is to Shiite as Islamist is to Muslim) regime that turns out to be a bigger problem than he was and kill more people. And a lot of people will die, especially if the victorious rebels decide to vent their spleen on the factions that supported Assad. (Of course, a lot of people are dying now.)

These are all good reasons. Fear of US incapacity to alter the war isn’t.

#35 Comment By El On August 27, 2013 @ 6:02 am

For those whom are interested in the question of chemical weapons, it’s well-worth reading Eliot Higgins’ (aka Brown Moses) blog: [9]. He is one of the foremost resources.

Many of Hitchen’s points, I believe, are dealt with in the blogosphere that surrounds Syria. As an example: Yes, the the regime has been doing more or less well. But Damascus has remained a city where they’ve made very little headway. Additionally, the rebels have captured several arms depots and airports as of late.

Rod, I suppose here’s my question for you: What is the justification for conducting US foreign policy toward Syria based off of our experience with Iraq? What is the basis for your analogical argument?

Hitchens’ statement, “Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion” rather gut-wrenching. What does Hitchens mean by “medically-trained” here? I suspect it’s either code for “moral,” or perhaps – more disturbingly – “like one of us.”

To argue that the Syrian opposition is constituted strictly by variants of al-Qaeda is simply wrong. Yes, ISIS and JaN play tremendous roles, especially in the fighting. But it’s a gross misreading of Syrian society, and indeed, much of the rebel fighting forces.

[NFR: For me, it’s simple: we went barreling into Iraq full of certainty; we turned out to have been wrong, and made a bigger mess of it than existed in the first place, and got ourselves enmeshed in a sectarian civil war. Don’t want to do that again. — RD]

#36 Comment By Manfred Arcane On August 27, 2013 @ 8:11 am

I have great respect for this Hitchens and the question of whether the US, once again, should be policing in the Middle East is a complicated one (we should actually just walk away from it all but really can’t because of our committments and concerns, especially on Israel and Iran — both of which are connected to the Syria conflict).

But Hitchens does say something which is just wrong:

“Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion.”

Hitchens gets the nature of the regime just wrong. What Bashar is, is weak and stupid (despite having studied in the UK), a front man for the family, beholden to the much more ruthless relatives around him – his brothers and uncles who are running the war.

To use Godfather terms, Bashar is Fredo, the lacking middle brother, and he is surrounded by a bunch of Sonny Corleones and Luca Brazis. A lot of brutality and testosterone there but not a lot of smarts. This regime is absolutely capable of doing this outrage right at this time because it does feel the West is weak and does feel emboldened by open-ended support by Iran and by the enablers in Moscow.

#37 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On August 27, 2013 @ 11:40 am

I was against the Iraq war, so I’m obviously against this one. Even the war in Afghanistan was scoped too broadly. I would have preferred a narrow engagement to kill Bin Laden and his cronies, and then get out.

#38 Comment By elrond On August 27, 2013 @ 11:42 am

I think it’s possible that Assad did indeed use chemical weapons, with the expectation that this would be blamed on the rebels as a false flag operation. Basically, a real-life version of a John le Carre novel.

#39 Comment By J On August 27, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

So what’s the Israeli angle here?

I think you obsess and think too narrowly on Israel.

Israel’s leaders talk a lot of propaganda but what they actual do is usually utterly practical.

I think what they’ve learned from Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, etc. is that it’s really not the Nasser and Islamic Revolution era anymore. I think their worries about the usual variety of post-dictator government in the region have diminished immensely. Yes, these are necessarily Right/center Right, Islamist, and conservative because that’s what their core constituents are. But that doesn’t translate into belligerence toward Israel, it translates into fighting out all the internal disputes and social problems and disorder the dictatorships suppressed.

The Syrian military is grossly degraded from two plus years of war. Israel has nothing to fear from its conventional weaponry, even if that gets into the hands of a formally hostile different form of government. Danger to Israel lies largely in the ballistic missiles and poison gas and air defense missilery the Assad government has accumulated.

I think that’s the pragmatic Israeli priority- the destruction of the ballistic missiles and poison gas accumulated by the Assad regime. Secondarily, the way Syria props up Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thirdly, the alliances with Iran that Assad maintains. And fourthly, the Syrian alliance with Russia that keeps Syria armed with ballistic missiles.

I think that after careful review of their fears and rational consideration, Israel’s leaders have concluded that there may be a lot more upside and much less downside to the rebels winning than they thought at first. Perhaps close to no downside if a third party- read: the U.S.- happens to destroy all the ballistic missiles Syria has.

In terms of the larger Middle East conflict which pits Teheran and Damascus (and Moscow) versus Riyadh and Jerusalem (and Washington), Assad falling pretty much collapses the Islamic Revolution back to the borders of Iran. Perhaps most importantly in the long run it probably means a collapse of reasons for all the current nation-state and other borders in Syria and Lebanon which were largely put in the wrong places by the French and English. It entails their renegotiation. As in Afghanistan-Pakistan, a correction of borders and sovereignties to match local realities and ethnic territories probably can only be for the good and end a lot of dispute and misrule.

I don’t think Israeli leaders are idealists, of course. But they’re not utter fools. Correction of the currently established misorder in Syria-Lebanon poses the danger of creating a larger and more competent opponent. But it’s much more likely to result in more partitions with appropriate borders, removing much of the fuel of the hostility and leading to diminution or demise of powers such as Hezbollah.

#40 Comment By Howard Kainz On August 27, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

What would be Assad’s motivation for killing what appear to be mostly civilians and thus crossing Obama’s “red line”? Certainly the rebels would have immense motivation for bringing in the U.S. to do their work for them.

#41 Comment By Noah172 On August 27, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

J wrote:

I think you obsess and think too narrowly on Israel

We are not talking about Borneo here. We are on the brink of war with a country bordering Israel, part of whose territory Israel has occupied for more than forty years, which Israel has attacked in recent years because of WMD fears, which supports a violent enemy of Israel (Hezbollah), and is supported by a much larger enemy of Israel. How is it possible to speak of this Syria business without discussing Israel — especially in light the astounding power of Israel’s partisans in our domestic politics?

I think that’s the pragmatic Israeli priority- the destruction of the ballistic missiles and poison gas accumulated by the Assad regime. Secondarily, the way Syria props up Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thirdly, the alliances with Iran that Assad maintains. And fourthly, the Syrian alliance with Russia that keeps Syria armed with ballistic missiles.

How does any of this contradict what I wrote? If anything, you are elaborating on what I wrote: Israel wants us entangled in Syria for its, Israel’s, strategic interests, which are not America’s.

Isn’t that the bottom line? We are about to fight someone else’s war, yet again.