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Saving Lives in Syria: Diplomacy Is Not Enough

Ralph Seliger
September 18, 2013


by Ralph Seliger APTOPIX_Mideast_Syria_0b384A MAJORITY OF AMERICANS ARE UNDERSTANDABLY WAR-WEARY, and all of us are wary of presidential overreach in conducting war. Vietnam is still the most glaring example of this usurpation of Congress’s Constitutional prerogative to declare war, but it’s happened a number of times since, as we know. And most of us (myself included) feel some relief that international diplomacy is being employed, rather than bombs and missiles, to attempt to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal. There’s also the messy reality in Syria of a bloody civil war with bad guys on both sides. Still, we should not forget that Assad himself opened the door to Jihadi extremists fighting in Syria by murdering peaceful demonstrators in massive numbers when the protest movement began over two and a half years ago. He forced the opposition to take up arms, and this let all hell break loose. If we had armed the mainstream rebels from the beginning, two years ago, the Jihadi elements would have been isolated and relatively weak. Our best hope to defeat the Jihadis now — and not betray a majority of Syrians, and our own interests, by letting Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah help Assad win a very bloody victory — is still to support the moderate rebels with arms. RUSSIA’S INTEREST IS SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT from, although overlapping with, the interests of Iran and Hezbollah, who have a strong religious and strategic connection in their struggle against militant Sunnis. Russia’s interest is partly mercenary (it earns a lot as an arms supplier to Syria),but Putin also seems to feel a personal, emotional investment in reviving Russia as an imperial power, which means challenging the U.S. and other Western powers (almost out of nostalgia for the good old Soviet days). Yet he also shares a fear of Sunni militancy, because Russia’s repression of Chechnya has created an Islamic backlash, which now constitutes an actual security threat. Putin has acted brilliantly to safeguard Assad by thwarting a military confrontation over chemical weapons. Ask the rebels how they feel: they are devastated (“Deal Represents Turn for Syria; Rebels Deflated”), because they expected a U.S. strike to help them. I’m not talking about the kind of action that Obama and Kerry were describing, “an incredibly small strike” (Kerry), “a shot across the bow” (Obama). Only if they took McCain’s advice would they make a difference on the ground by destroying much of Assad’s air force and other heavy weaponry. McCain has probably never met a U.S. armed intervention that he didn’t like, but I’m with him here, on humanitarian grounds. Still, it’s obvious to me that it isn’t going to happen, because Congress and the public have had enough adventures in the Mideast. I don’t advocate the U.S. being the world’s policeman, but I do support an alliance of world powers — backed up and bucked up by the U.S. — to act collectively as the world’s policeman. This is why I’m so high on the NATO-Arab alliance that succeeded in overthrowing Qaddafi. This was supposed to be the UN’s job, but hasn’t been, usually because of the Russian and Chinese veto power, and the war-weariness that generally holds sway in today’s Europe. The most flagrant examples of the UN’s failure occurred two decades ago, when UN forces were withdrawn from Rwanda just as the genocide began, and in the Balkans, when UN soldiers stood by as impotent observers in the face of the massacres of civilians in Bosnia. I would support the establishment of safe zones within Syria to safeguard the lives of millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes. This would likely require some use of air power to defend them, but I’d want an international coalition to do this, and I think the Turks, Gulf Arabs and Europeans (e.g., the French) should take the lead in such operations — much as they did in Libya. Unfortunately, the tragic deaths of an ambassador and three other State Department employees, plus shameless Republican partisanship in the middle of the 2012 election campaign, have obscured the fact that this Libyan intervention helped remove a monstrous dictator, without placing “boots on the ground.” It’s not that Libya’s suddenly recovered from its lost decades under Qaddafi to become a model society — far from it — but Obama’s Libyan policy of “leading from behind” was a success. As for Israel, it doesn’t have one clear agenda in the conflict, except for the hope that it doesn’t spill over, and that Iran or Hezbollah don’t retaliate against it (as they’ve threatened) if the U.S. attacks. If a democratic movement overthrew Assad, this would probably be best for Israel, but even that’s not obvious. Assad kept the Golan border quiet until recently, but Syria’s also been a conduit for arms from Iran to Hezbollah. Some Israelis think (as did Edward Luttwak in a New York Times op-ed a few weeks ago), that it’s in both the Israeli and U.S. interest to just keep the conflict going, with Assad and his Hezbollah allies killing off Jihadis (and vice versa), indefinitely. But I’m neither so cynical nor so bloody-minded. Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, publication of Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel), and continues to blog at the Meretz USA weblog and at Tikkun Daily.