We are edging closer to the neo-conservative dream of total conflagration in the Muslim Middle East. Despite only 11 percent public support for US military intervention in Syria, a reluctant President Barack Obama is being pushed into escalation.
The given reason is that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons “on a small scale multiple times in the past year,” according to the White House. Intelligence officials say 100-130 people died from the attacks. Even if the chemical testing proves accurate, that can only be a pretext in a conflict, which has claimed at least 93,000 lives and seen barbarism on both sides.
The real reason appears to be that the balance of forces has changed somewhat in Assad’s favor since the recent victory at Qusayr by his troops and their Hezbollah allies. Fearing the collapse of rebel forces, the US is stepping onto the treadmill of escalation. Whatever steps are taken now by the US and NATO, of course, if they choose, can be countered by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
Obama’s reluctance is reflected in a statement by his adviser Ben Rhodes, responding to hawks like Senator John McCain:
“People need to understand that not only are there huge costs associated with a no-fly zone, not only would it be difficult to implement, but the notion that you can solve the very deeply rooted challenges on the ground from the air are not immediately apparent.”
Rarely has a call to escalation been so muted.
Obama is under intense pressure from the Saudis and their Sunni allies, together with the McCain Republicans, to take any measures to avoid defeat at the hands of Assad, the Russians, Iran and Hezbollah. The hawks believe Obama cannot afford to be seen as doing nothing in the face of mounting casualties.
Bill Clinton gave the overriding political rationale this week: “Sometimes it’s best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit.”
Decoded, this advice means that Obama is better off by a gesture of intervention than being blamed for staying out, as long as he avoids another prolonged quagmire. That is considered wisdom in the world of statecraft.
The Libya model looms large, especially with the recent ascension of Samantha Power and Susan Rice to the posts of UN representative and national security adviser. Both are fervent advocates of “humanitarian intervention.” In the case of Libya, the dictator Muammar Qaddafi was attacked in his convoy by drones, and then ultimately killed, perhaps with the involvement of the French secret service. An ungoverned land of militias has replaced his regime, and the terrorism wars have spread to Mali and North Africa as a direct result. In addition, the Russians are convinced they were misled by the US at the United Nations over the Libyan war authorization, and therefore have hardened their defense of their Syrian ally.
US thinking might also be shaped by the Balkans model, where Clinton employed months of bombing and almost intervened with American ground troops in the Nineties. Yugoslavia and Serbia were both dismantled and the new state of Kosovo carved into existence as a result. That intervention was chronicled and strongly supported by then-journalist Samantha Power. The Western world has never looked back, and considers the Balkans outcome a win for NATO in a zero-sum game.
But are Libya or the Balkans any template for Syria and the Middle East? A drone killing or assassination of Assad – like the killing of Qaddafi – probably would intensify the civil war in Syria and deepen the engagement of powerful proxies. Either Iran or Hezbollah would be free to retaliate at any number of other targets, including Israel or western ones. Trying to create a no-fly zone would transform the conflict into “the clash of civilizations,” and at best carve out a territorial enclave for the rebel groupings. In any scenario, the war with grind on, all parties desperately assuming that the next escalation will finally succeed. That logic leads to regional war and beyond. The poisonous residue of Cold War thinking probably prohibits the US from signing off any result appearing to be a gain for its adversaries.
Peace and progressive movements are somewhat divided at this late hour. There is no consensus even on whether the undemocratic dictator Assad should go, for example. Or whether anyone has the capacity to organize a cease-fire, partition, and interim arrangements for stabilization and humanitarian assistance. Or whether the war can only be settled realistically when one side “wins” and tries to impose a cold peace.
But further war only makes the war worse. Denying the president, Congress, and the war lobby a popular mandate is not only possible, but would be a significant restraint in complicating the path of escalation. As the bloodbath expands, it will once again be critical for domestic progressive groups – the AFL-CIO, NAACP, Sierra Club, etc. – to decide where they stand: in the fray or on the sidelines? After all, Obama’s promised turn to “nation-building at home” is on the line.
Lyndon Johnson’s fatal mistake was in believing he could deliver on pledges of both “guns and butter.” He learned too late that he could not. Domestic progressives will be completely out of line with their constituents’ priorities if they remain silent as another president is pushed into war.