Friday, September 6, 2013

Bread over Bombs: Why the US Should Not Strike Syria

Over the last week, The Global Atlas’s metaphorical lights have been off as the three lead contributors were either out of town, dealing with Allston Christmas, and starting the new school year and the flood of students and work that comes with it. In that week, Pres. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have raised the decibel level on the rhetoric surrounding the Syria crisis. Both have confirmed their belief that a chemical attack took place in late August, possibly followed by another; both have pointed the finger at Syrian President Bashar al-Asad; and both have hinted that military strikes will begin soon, but only with congressional approval. The likelihood of a strike increased this morning with the State Dept. ordering all of its non-emergency personnel out of Beirut, and issuing travel warnings for Turkey and Lebanon.

I’ve been pretty vocal in my criticism of the handling of the Syrian crisis, and I’m not about to change now: bombing Asad’s forces would be a huge mistake. It could have the allegedly unintended effect of toppling Asad; it could also very well prevent the use of chemical weapons by either side or others in the future, which of course is a desirable outcome. Yet its other effects would be so negative and detrimental to finding a sustainable peace in Syria that they would vastly outweigh any positives that could result from such a strike. As I have written before, the time for a military intervention has long passed, and toppling Asad without a negotiated settlement in place leaves us with unsavory choices for his replacement.

The sprawling Zaatri refugee camp in Jordan. AP.

First of all, many observers remain unconvinced that the sarin attacks were in fact at the hands of the Asad government, even if the Secretary of State and President seem convinced. While the evidence that an attack took place seems solid, there are some serious questions about why Asad would choose to launch a chemical attack given not only that he has been winning with his conventional forces, but also that UN inspectors are n the country, stationed just a few miles away from the strike zone.

 In a Labor Day article, former State Dept. Policy Planning staff William R. Polk points out that it is the rebels, not Asad, that would gain most from a chemical weapons attack: first, the area that was hit is “disputed,” not under complete rebel control; second, Asad knew he would risk massive retaliation and lose the support of his allies; third, it would make sense as a last-ditch effort, but Asad’s been winning the war; fourth, he targeted a civilian, suburban area, which has not been his tactic thus far – he generally relies on small paramilitaries to go into such areas to avoid alienating even more of the population. The rebels, for their part, might have hoped launching an attack would garner external support and intervention on their behalf, as well as further terrorize the population, weaken the economy and support for Asad, and result in the regime’s collapse. As Polk puts it, “Assad had much to lose and his enemies had much to gain.”

Regardless of the origins of the attack, the lack of international consensus on intervention would only hurt the United States’ reputation and ability to find partners in future endeavors. Pres. Bush rode the US reputation as a benevolent hegemon (if we ever had one, but I digress) into the gutter with the invasion of Iraq, and even he managed to build an international coalition of partners and receive a UN resolution kind of/sort of sanctioning it. In Syria, America has lost its main ally Britain following the Parliament’s vote last week dismissing the possibility of military action. Even with the French and some Arab countries on our side, China, Russia, Iran, Lebanon… a huge portion of the international community will be against us and will use this as yet another example of US arrogance and bullying on the world stage. The support of both our allies and not-so-friendly nations will be crucial in post-Asad Syria, and striking alone significantly lessens the possibility that we will find willing partners in reconstruction when the dust clears.

A dummy bearing Asad's face in what was once Aleppo. AP.
Speaking of reconstruction, striking in Syria is essentially paying back Asad for bombing Syrians… by bombing Syrians. The lesson of not only Iraq but also post-civil warLebanon teaches us that bombing is easy, but reconstruction is hard, if not impossible in the short-term. In a country like Syria that has been in the grips of a civil war since 2011, and was experiencing extreme economic hardship due to drought for years before that, the infrastructure has already been decimated and entire cities like Aleppo have essentially been wiped off the map. Reconstruction of power grids, roads, the internet, hospitals, homes, etc. is already going to be an incredibly expensive, difficult task. If we add in US bombing of key urban areas that Asad happens to hold and store his chemical weapons in, then the task is made that much more insurmountable, not to mention the unavoidable civilian deaths that will occur. Simply put, “helping” the Syrian people by further destroying their towns and infrastructure as well as their lives is not really helping anyone at all.

Military strikes by the US also could lead to a violent escalation of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. There is genuine fear in Lebanon in particular that if the US bombs Syria, someone (terrorists or others) will retaliate by bombing Israel, and then Israel will bomb Lebanon. The escalating conflict could also set off a sectarian conflagration in Lebanon, still reeling from its own civil war and already seeing frightening amounts of violence. Even if the Asad regime fell without civil war spreading outside of Syria, there is no system in place to make sure that the same chemical weapons the US would be aiming for do not fall into hands that would seek to use them, and Lebanon is a close target. One Beirut resident marveled this weekend that “it’s 6 pm in Beirut and nobody is in the streets.” For the Lebanese, at least, the regional dangers rather than benefits of a US strike are all too clear.

So if, for all of the compelling reasons above, we do not bomb Syria, what do we do? As critical as I have been of the US government’s response thus far, one of my main critiques has been the sheer lack of response. I think it’s clear that we have a moral responsibility to protect in the international community, and protection is what I suggest we provide. The largest threat to regional stability is not the ongoing Syrian conflict, but rather the displaced Syrians who have fled their homes over the last two years. This week the official UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported 2 million Syrians outside the country, and at least 4.25 million Internally Displaced Persons within it. They represent one of the fastest growing refugee populations in history, and they have been chronically underserved in terms of their basic needs throughout the conflict.

The flood of refugees at a border crossing in Iraq. AP.
A crucial first step for the US to ensure that post-Asad Syria has a smoother transition would be to fund the entire humanitarian appeal by pressuring its allies to chip in. Not some of it, not half of it: all of it, and then some. Given that the relatively easier intervention in Libya cost us more than a billion dollars, I suggest that the money for a much more expensive strike in Syria would be better put to use ensuring the physical and human security of the refugees.  Currently the UN’s emergency appeal, by far the largest in its history, is about $3 billion. That’s a huge chunk of change, and it’s only 40% funded. This means that 60% of the Syrian refugees most basic needs are not being met, and this is going to create a generation of Syrians who are extremely antagonistic towards the outside world, which they rightly believe has abandoned them. This is particularly worrisome given that more than half of the refugees are under 18, making them the perfect age for radicalization, especially in the absence of basic education.

If the US could muster the $1.8 billion needed to close the funding gap, and entice its allies to do the same, it would not only increase actual US prestige, but it would shame those who are supporting the Asad regime without assisting with the regional humanitarian crisis, like Russia and China. It would also offer a pressure valve for tiny countries like Lebanon and Jordan, and unstable ones like Iraq, that have opened their borders to the refugees and thus far picked up the international community’s slack as best they can when it comes to housing, feeding, educating, and especially providing water for the refugees.

People stand in a bombed out building in Aleppo. AP.
Funding the UNHCR’s appeal only helps ameliorate one problem, and of course the looming issue of the Syrian civil war itself needs to be dealt with. To do so, the US should enlist its supposed “enemies” in the conflict to find a negotiated settlement that both the opposition and the regime can agree to. Russia and Iran may seem implacable when it comes to long-time ally Asad, but conversations between Lebanese and Iranian officials point to their weariness with propping up his regime while their own governments are by no means secure. Russia and the US have been experiencing a low point in relations that has observers on both sides worried. If Iran, Russia, and the US can bring all sides to the negotiating table and find a workable settlement, Syria would likely be more stable in a post-Asad world (he does, after all, have a large amount of Syrians on his side), and the relations between the three nations would get a much needed infusion of goodwill. A negotiated settlement would of course need to include the departure of Asad; I don’t think even he imagines he will retain his grip on power following the conflict. It also needs to enshrine respect for minority and women’s rights as well as a reconciliation framework to prevent massive human rights abuses in the power vacuum that the former regime will leave behind. Only the US, Iran, and Russia have the political clout necessary to force their respective constituents in the conflict to sit down at the negotiating table, if only they could see their own political interest in doing so.

What I have proposed above is not likely to happen. It goes against every false instinct American policymakers have developed in the wake of the Cold War: we are the world’s policeman, we can fix the Middle East, we do not negotiate with our enemies, and bombs are better than bread in solving conflicts. Yet if the US was able to engage in a massive shift in how we manage external interventions, the benefits to our country in the international community would be undeniable. Working with countries and people we find unpalatable kills two diplomatic birds with one stone: while helping to put an end to the Syrian conflict and build a stable regional future, we would also be improving our relations with longtime adversaries. We could learn from this in 2014 as we face withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the only sustainable solution may be to negotiate with the Taliban. Hegemons throughout history have made the mistake of thinking they can police the world and fix its problems; the US should learn from their errors and start to develop the crucial consensus-building and negotiating policies we will need if we want to remain a superpower for much longer.

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