Forum: A Syria Roundup

The Watcher’s Council


Every week on Monday morning, the Council and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum with short takes on a major issue of the day. This week’s question is a bit different than usual, as it features a number of opinions and information on Syria from various sources:

Conrad Black: Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.

The Soviet Union crumbled jurisdictionally: In 1990-1991, one country became the 16 formerly constituent republics of that country, and except perhaps for Belarus, none of them show much disposition to return to the Russian fold into which they had been gathered, almost always by brute force, over the previous 300 years.

The cataclysmic decline of France, of course, was the result of being overrun by Nazi Germany in 1940. And while it took until the return of de Gaulle in 1958 and the establishment of the Fifth Republic with durable governments and a serious currency, and the end of the Algerian War in 1962, and the addition of some other cubits to France’s stature, the largest step in its resurrection was accomplished by the Allied armies sweeping the Germans out of France in 1944.

What we are witnessing now in the United States, by contrast, is just the backwash of inept policy-making in Washington, and nothing that could not eventually be put right. But for this administration to redeem its credibility now would require a change of direction and method so radical it would be the national equivalent of the comeback of Lazarus: a miraculous revolution in the condition of an individual (President Obama), and a comparable metamorphosis (or a comprehensive replacement) of the astonishingly implausible claque around him.

The Washington Post Editors: An attack that weakened regime forces could, of course, help the jihadists gain ground — but only if the United States and its allies failed to simultaneously bolster the mainstream Free Syrian Army. That’s why it is essential that Mr. Obama couple any strikes with a stepped up train-and-equip program for vetted rebel units.

Long War Journal: “If we wanted to cut the supply lines it is easier for us to take the warehouses of the FSA. Anyhow we are buying weapons from the FSA. We bought 200 anti-aircraft missiles and Koncourse anti tank weapons. We have good relations with our brothers in the FSA. For us, the infidels are those who cooperate with the West to fight Islam.” – (al-Qaeda commander in Syria, as quoted.)

NBC News: Defense officials estimate that al Qaeda and related extremists groups now constitute “more than 50 percent” of the rebel force, which is made up of at least 70 different factions, “and it’s growing by the day,” according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Charles Lane, WAPO: Today, the question before Congress is ostensibly narrow: whether to give President Obama a green light to use military force against the Assad regime in Syria to enforce the international norm against using chemical weapons. […]

For all that, Congress should think long and hard before denying Obama the authority he seeks. This would be true even if Republicans occupied the moral high ground with respect to political polarization — which they do not. It would be true even if Americans were not justifiably war-weary — which they are. And it would be true even if Obama were not sounding such an uncertain trumpet.

Those Republicans, and Democrats, tempted to vote no need to consider the precedent they may be setting and the signal they would send not only to Syria, or Iran, or North Korea — but also to allies from Jordan to Japan.

Joshuapundit: The Obama Administration has announced that regime change isn’t the objective, so why exactly should we intervene on the rebel side? And make no mistake, if we go in, we’re putting U.S. blood and treasure on the line to help them defeat Assad. Let’s go there, since after all, this is an act of war. Cui bono, who benefits?

The two main Sunni insurgent factions with actual boots on the ground are Jamat al-Nusra, the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Free Army, or to label things more correctly, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the Obama endorsed Syrian Opposition Coalition is Muslim Brotherhood dominated. So taking out Assad will result in the ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Alawites, Shi’ites and what’s left of the Christians, and will simply put Assad’s weapons in the hands of another Hamas-style reichlet. That’s exactly what happened in Libya and we’ve seen the results in Benghazi, Sinai, Algeria and Mali.

How is putting another Hamasistan in Syria armed with Assad’s weaponry beneficial to the U.S.?

Or Israel, for that matter? I mention that because one of the excuses Secretary of State John Kerry is cynically using to sell this is that we ‘have to act to protect Israel’… as if the Obama Administration has ever been all that concerned over Israel’s security, or if Israel has ever had problems dealing with Basher Assad and Syria when necessary on their own.

Another factor no one seems to be mentioning is Jordan, a U.S. client state right next door to Syria and a country where, due to tribal factors, the Muslim Brotherhood is extremely strong and King Abdullah is hanging on by his fingernails. Imagine a Muslim Brotherhood enclave right next door to Jordan armed with Assad’s weaponry. How long do you think King Abdullah would last? King Abdullah has obviously considered it, since he’s adamant that no attacks on Assad be launched from Jordan’s soil. Why haven’t we?

Nor does the humanitarian angle hold water. This president sat by and did nothing during the genocide in Darfur by Sudan, whose president Omar al-Bashir has actually been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. President Obama sat by and watched the aggression and ceasefire violations by Sudan against the new nation of South Sudan, and paid no attention to the ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Christians that was almost exclusively carried out by the Islamist insurgents. He did nothing. Why the urgency now?

President Obama has talked a lot about the Middle East, but there’s one question he’s never been asked, and it’s about time someone demanded a straight answer from him. Why is he constantly championing the Muslim Brotherhood? We’ve lost one strategic asset in Egypt, strained our relations severely with the Saudis, gotten involved in one war on the Brotherhood’s behalf and are now being urged to get into a second one. What does the president find so beneficial to America in backing these Nazis with a crescent instead of a swastika?

Diana West: As war on Syria is weighed, it is perverse to imagine that Americans must now die to legitimize presidential posturing in the White House pressroom. I refer, of course, to the president’s comments on Aug. 20, 2012, when he told the White House press corps regarding Syria that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Going to war without an American interest at stake to uphold such a statement is a downright monarchical concept – “L’Etat, c’est moi,” (“I am the state”), as King Louis XIV is supposed to have said. Worse, it sounds like a news flash from a country ruled by a Dear Leader, whose very word is law.

Presidential remarks do not constitute a declaration of war. Nor should ill-considered presidential remarks send a nation to war. Obama’s credibility may be at stake, but that’s by no means an American interest, and therefore not a cause to ask Americans to die for.

Meanwhile, Obama’s calculations have changed again. This week in Sweden, the president said, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

Could Obama possibly have forgotten what he said a year ago? Of course not. It may be more polite to describe such talk as “walking away from his earlier comments,” but I think it’s more accurate to say the president told a whopper – a lie. So much for Obama’s “credibility” right there. He went on: “The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”

Presidential flailing isn’t a casus belli, either.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So what exactly is the most telegraphed missile strike in history meant to achieve? Such a strike — now in the works at the White House — clearly isn’t meant to speed regime change in Syria, where the government killed more than 1,300 people using chemical weapons last week, according to opposition groups. There’s no indication that regime change is President Barack Obama’s goal, and a limited attack probably couldn’t accomplish such a thing anyway.

John Kass, Chicago Tribune: The problem is, Obama’s war plans keep changing, and they’re rather ambiguous. Axelrod says the dog has caught the car, but there’s no telling when the car will take off again, twisting and turning and leaving that poor dog dizzy.

Obama’s plan for Syria is almost like Obamacare: We’re not supposed to know what we’re getting until after he gets the votes.

In his news conference on Friday at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Obama was asked repeatedly if he would go to war even if Congress voted no. Rather than answer, he dodged, although in avoidance his meaning was plain. By rhetorically voting “present,” he was saying “yes.”

If this is true, then what is the political exercise about? Mere theater? Or is it a Chicago Way political trick to spread the blame, avoid direct ownership and make Congress the fall guys before the next election?

Jonah Goldberg: …from the vantage point of foreign brutes, bullies, and buffoons, it’s understandable that America’s methods could be confused for stupidity. This is why I love the old expression, “America can choke on a gnat, but swallow a tiger whole.”

So I am trying very hard to hold onto this perspective as I watch the president of the United States behave in a way you don’t have to be a pan-Arab autocrat to think is incredibly stupid.

Where to begin? Perhaps with Obama’s initial refusal to support the moderate rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a puppet of Iran and bagman for Hezbollah. Or we might start with Obama’s refusal to support the Green Movement in Iran, which sought to overthrow the Iranian regime, which would have been a triumph for both our principles and our national interests.

These were odd choices, particularly given his decision to help depose Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, an indisputably evil man, but also a dictator who posed no threat, who abided by our demands to relinquish WMDs, and whose domestic death toll was a tiny fraction of Assad’s.{…}

Obama doesn’t believe he needs authorization from Congress to strike Syria, he just wants it. He’s like a kid desperate for a prom date, but too vain to admit it. In Libya, Obama had the U.N. and NATO on each arm, so he didn’t bother with asking the dog on Capitol Hill for a date. But now, faced with the prospect of going it alone, he’s in effect telling Congress, “Hey, it’s not like I need your company, but you’d be crazy not to go to war with me.” {…}

Meanwhile, according to numerous accounts, Assad is moving military assets into civilian areas and civilians into military areas, even as the Obama administration insists it makes no difference militarily to wait for Congress to debate. That’s not just stupid; it’s an outright lie that will be fact-checked with blood.

I understand the attraction the buddy system has for a man who, as a state legislator, perfected the art of voting “present” on hard questions. But it’s hard to see this as anything other than rank political cowardice.

The buck stopped with Truman. For Obama, the buck is kryptonite.

Stephen Hayes: But non-interventionism or neo-isolationism or whatever it’s called these days doesn’t explain the Republicans on Syria.

The vast majority of congressional Republicans are not so much opposed to intervention as a matter of principle as they are opposed to this intervention, at this time, under this president. Their argument is simple: President Obama has failed to lead on Syria for more than two years and we don’t trust him to do so now.

Certainly there are some congressional Republicans who oppose the president because they believe that what happens in Syria is none of our business. But it’s a small minority of the Republicans in Congress. And Senator Marco Rubio, who sits on both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, is not one of them.

“What’s happening in Syria is a consequence of disengagement,” he says. “The reason why we don’t have better options in Syria is because we haven’t been more engaged. If two years ago we had made the decision we’re going to find some rebel groups in Syria who are moderate, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they’re the most capable, effective and organized fighting force on the ground, I’d think that a military strike right now would be a much better option than it is. Because now we don’t know who the beneficiaries of a military strike are going to be but it’s very possible that it could be radical al Qaeda elements who now control significant portions of that country.”

Rubio gave a speech at the Brookings Institution in April 2012 laying out the case for the continued projection of American power and values.

Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas who serves as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, shares those concerns. “The president has brought us to this situation by failing to show any leadership, failing to have any strategy for Syria and for the Middle East,” he says. “The president is talking about driving by and lobbing some bombs. It doesn’t work that way. There is no clearly defined mission, so I don’t see this achieving anything.” The president’s case, he adds, “makes no sense.”

Clifford May: It’s not just President Obama’s “red line” that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has crossed. Civilized people have long set limits on armed conflicts. Using chemical weapons — that’s been a war crime since 1925. Targeting innocent women and children — that’s been taboo since at least the Middle Ages. Are we now giving up these efforts, saying what the hell, boys will be boys, barbarians will be barbarians, and it’s none of our business anyway?

That’s not an unreasonable interpretation of what the British Parliament said last week. A majority voted not to support — not even in principle — a military strike against the Assad regime as condign punishment for its use of chemical weapons, gassing residential neighborhoods, and murdering babies, girls, boys, old men, and women by the hundreds. The Brits now join U.N. Security Council members Russia and China — leading members of the so-called international community — in favoring cost-free state terrorism. That’s tantamount to licensing it. The rulers of Iran and North Korea are among those taking notice.

President Obama, by contrast, says he wants to hold Assad accountable. “We cannot turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus,” he said Saturday. He has asked Congress to authorize him to take military action — something he did not request prior to intervening in Libya.

Should Congress refuse, it will confirm an ominous trend. At the conclusion of World War II, the West said “never again” to genocide. Yet genocides have been carried out in Cambodia, Rwanda (over which President Clinton later apologized on behalf of the “international community”), and Darfur. {…}

In remarks last week, Secretary of State John Kerry did a creditable job of explaining the seriousness of Assad’s transgressions. “Some cite the risk of doing things,” he said. “We need to ask what is the risk of doing nothing.”

Deciding precisely what to do is hard work. A few ideas to build on: (1) At the end of the exercise, Assad should conclude that using chemical weapons against civilians was a mistake, one he would not repeat. Other dictators should see it similarly. (2) To achieve that, serious consideration should be given to destroying Assad’s air power. Planes, helicopters, and major airfields are difficult to hide. So are port facilities. (3) Kerry correctly said that Iranian forces in Syria are “contributing significantly to this violence.” Hitting those forces would send a clear message.

Well, there you have it.

Make sure to tune in every Monday for the Watcher’s Forum. And remember, every Wednesday, the Council has its weekly contest with the members nominating two posts each, one written by themselves and one written by someone from outside the group for consideration by the whole Council. The votes are cast by the Council and the results are posted on Friday morning.

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