Friday, June 17, 2016

West of Eden: Dissent in the State Department

12th-century Ayyubid Syrian baluster pottery jars in the Raqqa style, via Christies.

I more or less support President Obama's Syria policy as it is (with a reservation I'll get to below), but there's something I want to say about its critics, including the 50-odd US diplomats who have been circulating the internal cable that was leaked to the WSJ and the Times for today's papers,
urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.
I want to say that I may disagree with them, they're not bad people. I mean, some of the critics are bad people (hi, Senator McCain, hi, Ron Fournier), whose aims are not to help the suffering people of Syria, about whom they understand nothing, but to further their own misbegotten careers by picking at the president's perceived weakness in any way they can, to make themselves look larger, but some of them, possibly most, are good people responding to a terrible situation in a totally understandable way. (Including candidate Hillary Clinton, who I think is at least somewhat on the State rebels' side.)

Because the Assad regime is a truly dreadful, murderous and criminal, cruel and unusual, wicked operation. It kills far more civilians than any other party in the multilateral civil war. It imprisons citizens seen as dissenters and tortures them on a massive scale that is extremely well documented. It starves them to death and suffocates them. It interrogates them relentlessly though they have nothing to confess. It prevents them from bathing and keeps the hot cells unventilated. Its doctors extract prisoners' vital organs from them without anesthetic.

Outside the prisons, health and education systems are in a state of collapse. The government does nothing for them, but destroys whole neighborhoods including the women and children with barrel bombs. It keeps cities under siege and prevents humanitarian organizations from bringing in food supplies. Probably over half of the prewar population of 23 million has now been driven into homelessness, 6.6 million inside the country and 6.6 million outside (the number of registered international refugees is 4.8 million, mostly in terrible conditions in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan).

And it is very much the fault of the United States, because the United States created the chaos in western Iraq and eastern Syria that collided with the Syrian version of the Arab Spring, bringing in Iranian and Lebanese and ultimately Russian support for the regime, without which Assad would hardly have been able to survive (it needs to be understood that the Russian government absolutely sees itself as threatened by the Salafists in Syria and their connections with violent Islamist movements in the Russian Caucasus).

It is not unreasonable for Americans to want to do something about this, by military means if that's what it takes. It is not "neoconservative", or aimed at preserving a unipolar world order, and it is not "hawkish" in the sense of seizing on military solutions where diplomatic solutions are available; the proposals, for limited airstrikes on regime military targets, are meant to "pressure" the regime toward a diplomatic solution, not to replace the diplomacy.

What's wrong with it, as President Obama has understood, is just that it has no chance of making the situation better, and a strong chance of making it worse. In the almost inconceivable best case, that they somehow succeed in making Assad stand down instead of just making him still more murderously defensive, there's literally nobody to take over—I don't mean to take over the presidency, I mean the entire civil service and medical and educational establishments; every capable person who's not a criminal is a refugee, as they were saying on NPR this morning.

Wishing the US military could do something about it isn't a crime. It's Stupid Shit, but it's well meant. Please try to remember that.

There are two things I think the US could do, though it won't:
  • it could accept not 10,000 refugees but something like two million, toward the specific goal of depopulating Syria entirely and making it unviable, leaving Assad and Isis and the Nusra Front with nobody to govern (I've been saying this for years); and
  • it could join the International Criminal Court to help in preparing the case against Assad.
The reason we won't do these things is American "exceptionalism"—that we can't accept the risk that one single terrorist might show up in the batch, though we don't mind letting Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon have them, because they're just ordinary, unexceptional countries, and that we can't accept the risk that one of our own war criminals might get charged. We're so special we just can't be expected to put up with that. But we'd be delighted to oblige by killing some more of your people if you think that would help.

These are the ways the US could demonstrate that it's not evil. "Sending a signal", you know. Short of that, I''m afraid what we're already doing is the best we can.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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