As I write this, global capital markets are barely in the black after trading down anywhere from 1-2% yesterday on fears of Western governments declaring a “surgical strike” on Syria in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons. The blogosphere and MSM have lit-up with speculative commentary. In aggregate, they seem to be banging the drums of war, all agreeing that a three-day American-led strike is coming on Thursday.
These are all opinions. At best, some prognostications have been bathed in Bayesian probabilities; others are mere thought exercises dressed in the cloak of expert bias. Those citing inside sources are pawns–mere mediums conveying the White House’s tactical broadcasts. Point is, nothing is know with certainty, and it annoys me that some outlets profess otherwise.
Stratfor is probably the most qualified media outlet to comment on these ongoings, but even they’re armchair observers, left only to appraise the situation as if it were a chessboard–deducing strategy from a combination of heuristics and psychology.
I can do that too! So, I wanted to discuss the background, the known-knowns, and the unknown-knowns. Trying my best to control for my own politics and biases, it seems clear to me what should be done. Of that I’m rather certain, but as to what will be done, again, nobody knows…
You can refer to Wikipedia for a full background on the Syrian civil war, the regime’s conflicts with the rebels, Western powers’ involvement, as well as the geopolitical complexities of US/EU grappling with Russia.
To begin, here’s my executive summary…
Syria is thought to have the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons, and the fear is that the incumbent government would deploy them in a scorched-earth tactic were the rebels to wrest control.
In August 2012, US President Barack Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line,” provoking intervention by US forces. Since then, there have been multiple reports of chemical weapons use, including major strikes in Aleppo (March 13), Saraqib (April 29), and the Eastern Ghouta region (August 21). In addition, an August 5th attack in Adra and Houma was followed by the release of graphic homemade video of the dead men/women/children left in the attack’s wake, which really led to global outrage, debate, and a call for humanitarian action.
The US and EU launched investigations into the use of chemical weapons, and each claimed to have found conclusive evidence as to the Syrian government’s use of illegal substances. A Syrian ally, Russia, vehemently defended Syria against the allegations, having unearthed its own evidence to finger the Syrian rebels for the use of chemical weapons.
They all handed-over their evidence to the UN, who could only conclude that chemical weapons had been used, but it was uncertain who had used them:
On 22 June the head of UN human rights investigation, Paulo Pinheiro, said the UN could not determine who used chemical weapons in Syria after the evidence had been delivered by the United States, Britain and France. However, the commission reported that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons.”
With those UN investigations stuck in some kind of [bureaucratic] stalemate, the US is now taking the onus upon itself by [reportedly] coordinating imminent, surgical strikes upon the Syrian government. America’s posture was perhaps best communicated on Monday, August 19, by Secretary of State, John Kerry, and White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, who both seemed convinced of evidence that the Syrian government was “culpable.” However, in response to Westerners’ threats, Syria has assured more gridlock by pointing its rockets at Israel, upon whom it threatens to fire if anyone attacks Syria. It’s a catch-22 worthy of a good action film–you know, the one where the protagonist has his gun pointed at the antagonist, whose gun is pointed at the protagonist’s love interest… except, this is real life, and people are dying by the hundreds.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (“Assad”) is a crazy. Period. But, he’s not stupid. He has no reason¹ to provoke the US by defying Mr. Obama’s “red line” ultimatum. First, the US has long been wary of his regime, given ties to Iran and Russia, yet the US can’t pick sides in this tussle, since the rebels’ most homogeneous factions are Sunni Muslims with al Qaeda ties. Second, Assad has survived two years of civil war, and the only thing that can likely defeat him is international intervention.
By that reasoning, Assad would never violate the one inviolable threshhold proposed by international powers. That gives rise to the theory that the rebels, Hezbollah, or al Qaeda surrepticiously framed Assad.
Just yesterday morning, Russian newspaper Izvestia released an exclusive interview with Assad. Here’s the key excerpt, in my opinion [emphasis mine]:
– Interviewer (question 6):
“On Wednesday, the rebels accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons; some Western leaders adopted these accusations. What is your response to this? Will you allow the UN inspectors access to the site to investigate the incident?”
“The statements by the American administration, the West and other countries were made with disdain and blatant disrespect of their own public opinion; there isn’t a body in the world, let alone a superpower, that makes an accusation and then goes about collecting evidence to prove its point…
“The American administration made the accusation on Wednesday and two days later announced that they would start to collect the evidence–what evidence is it going to gather from afar?!
“They claim that the area in question is under the control of the rebels and that the Syrian Army used chemical weapons. In fact, the area is in contiguity with the Syrian Army positions, so how is it possible that any country would use chemical weapons, or any weapons of mass destruction, in an area where its own forces are located; this is preposterous! These accusations are completely politicised and come on the back of the advances made by the Syrian Army against the terrorists.
“As for the UN Commission, we were the first to request a UN investigation when terrorists launched rockets that carried toxic gas in the outskirts of Aleppo [on March 13, 2013]. Several months before the attack, American and Western statements were already preparing public opinion of the potential use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. This raised our suspicion that they were aware of the terrorists’ intentions to use these weapons in order to blame the Syrian government. After liaising with Russia, we decided to request a [UN] commission to investigate the incident. Whereas we requested an investigation based on the facts on the ground, not on rumours or allegations; the US, France and the UK have tried to exploit the incident to investigate allegations rather than happenings.
“During the last few weeks, we have worked with the Commission and set the guidelines for cooperation. First of these, is that our national sovereignty is a red line and as such the Commission will directly liaise with us during the process. Second, the issue is not only how the investigation will be conducted but also how the results will be interpreted. We are all aware that instead of being interpreted in an objective manner, these results could easily be interpreted according to the requirements and agendas of certain major countries. Certainly, we expect Russia to block any interpretation that aims to serve American and western policies. What is most important is that we differentiate between western accusations that are based on allegations and hearsay and our request for an investigation based on concrete evidence and facts.“
Here, Assad is appealing to our sense of democracy and due process… and he’s right. That’s what the UN is for: theoretically a multilateral, objective arbitrator.
The UN option comes risks. It could gift a guilty Syrian government more time to commit more war crimes or even evade punishment and retain power. It could be a sign of US weakness. It could also let UN voting powers like Russia and China–the former an interested party, the latter disinterested, but both against UN action–veto sanctions.
On the other hand, what would the US military mission be in Syria? Destroy chemical weapons? Even if we had the intelligence and recon, there could be innocent casualties and chemical residuals gone airborne. Destroying the weapons doesn’t destroy the regime that deployed them either. That would require ground troops and an occupation.
Plus, since any action risks tiggering the ready Syrian reaction of bombing Israel, a US strike has to be worth it and has to be material. It has to be more than just a slap on the wrist–more than the cruise missile launch upon remote military bases that’s being proposed. (It’s already clear that the Syrian army has moved into schools among civilians, so an innane bombing of abandoned military infrastructure sends a weaker message than US inaction.)
The US doesn’t want another war. We don’t want to pay for it in currency or lives, and we don’t want to topple Assad’s regime, inheriting the risk of a more corrupt successor a la Saddam Hussein or the many other autocrats we’ve enabled in the past.
I just don’t see why Mr. Obama would act under the US flag–as opposed to the UN banner. After all, it wouldn’t be a populist order. Mr. Obama made a mistake in establishing a “red line”; an innane slap on the wrist would be a greater sign of weakness than aiding a UN investigation. Besides, he’s not entirely backed into a corner; he could always hide behind the burden of proof. The risk of Assad countering with a strike on Israel could blow-up the whole powder keg in the Middle East, drawing Iran/Russia and Turkey/Saudi Arabia to the front. Further, pulling an end-around to evade the UN is hypocritical. Deferring to the UN risks a Russian or Chinese veto, but nobody can or will veto a UN ruling that affirms Assad’s use of chemical weapons. There’s no sound alternative, so Mr. Obama should refer this to the UN.
¹This is the folly of explicit ultimatums: they’re too objective and can’t cope with millions of variables that are incorporated in the decision-making process. Sometimes they serve to confuse even more; sometimes they let our adversaries toe the “red line”; sometimes they commit us to following-through on our vow–even if circumstances have changed. (This reminds me of Ben Bernanke’s “transparent” Fed.)