by Ralph Seliger
HELL ON EARTH: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, a new documentary by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested (broadcasted on the National Geographic Channel and available for purchase via YouTube), has reinforced my view that Obama was wrong to suddenly reverse his initial 2013 decision to lead a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern powers in an air campaign against the Assad regime. Although ostensibly a response to Assad’s poison gas attack, which killed 1,400 people within five hours, this could have been much more than the slap on the wrist administered by Trump, who ordered a one-off missile salvo on a Syrian airbase after another use of poison gas this past April. Before he changed his mind, Obama had told Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham that he intended to seriously erode the regime’s military capability.
Obama’s about-face extended the war and suffering in Syria indefinitely. So far, half a million or more have perished and about half of Syria’s prewar population has been displaced.
The filmmakers indicate that in 2013 large numbers of Assad’s soldiers were defecting to the rebels, anticipating that a U.S.-led coalition was about to tip the scales irrevocably against the dictator. Attack aircraft belonging to Arab coalition forces were reportedly on the runway when ordered to stand down after Obama’s sudden change of heart. This was seen as a devastating disappointment, even a betrayal, by the moderate mainstream rebels. The film also counters the notion that there are no moderate rebels.
Vladimir Putin’s just-concluded summit on Syria, with leaders of Turkey and Iran, illustrates how Russia’s massive intervention with air power since 2015 has totally shifted the tide of battle in favor of the Assad regime, and elevated Russia to a central role in the Mideast. Adding to the injustice of this situation, Trump has reportedly signaled to Turkey that the U.S. will cease its alliance with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose militia-men and -women have just spearheaded the capture of Raqqa, the ISIS capital, in Syria. (I wrote of the feminist and egalitarian ethos in the PYD in a book review published on the Jewish Currents website last year.)
Hell on Earth is invaluable for encapsulating how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq intertwined and for framing a coherent narrative on what’s gone wrong there. For one thing, the filmmakers contend that Assad helped “create” ISIS by releasing violent jihadists from his prisons — the aim being to divert rebel forces from fighting him to combating the jihadists instead. Junger and Quested even point out that the Russians, while claiming to have intervened to fight ISIS, have ignored ISIS more often than not (80 percent of the time, according to the film) to conduct air operations against non-jihadi rebel strongholds, repeatedly targeting civilians.
IN THE SPRING 2015 issue of Jewish Currents, I took a difficult position “In Support of Military Intervention to Protect Human Rights.” My perspective is informed by my background as a child of refugees who lost numerous close relatives in the Holocaust, due to the reluctance of Western powers to confront Nazi Germany earlier with full military force. At the same time, I’m cognizant of how overly-simplistic analyses have repeatedly led the United States into wars and interventions abroad that have caused us, and those we were supposedly helping, undue suffering and injury.
Some key considerations for humanitarian military action could include:
- The likely consequences for human rights and the potential for human misery engendered by an intervention, as opposed to such costs in its absence;
- Assessing the threats posed to ourselves or our closest international friends;
- The level of national and international support for military action;
- The readiness of the U.S. and/or other powers to act in a coalition and (hopefully) with local allies;
- The existence of large-scale internal support for outside force;
- The probability that a military intervention could succeed without a major ground invasion;
- The overall chances for success and the risks of failure.
I do not suggest that all these factors must line up perfectly to affirm a decision for action, but much historical tragedy would have been avoided if they were weighed carefully each time. For example, even leaving aside bogus claims of Iraqi WMD and any hint of complicity in 9/11, the level of international opposition should have been a bright red light against overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003, despite a green light in terms of his regime’s ongoing human rights abuses and other murderous depredations.
Obviously, much more can be — and will continue to be — said and written on this subject.
Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.