Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Syrian Minefield

The dire situation in Syria has exploded on the world stage and the global reaction to it has quickly become the geopolitical version of an M. C. Escher painting.  You know what those are - mind-bending drawings of staircases that go around and around but end up nowhere, or buildings with unending twists and turns which also lead nowhere.  Likewise, the political twists and contortions that are still going on also seem to expend a lot of time, energy and media bandwidth but fail to go nowhere.

It all started several weeks ago as the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria, feeling threatened by a rebel insurgency that wants to see it gone, turned chemical weapons on its own people.  We all cringed at the photos and videos of the dead and dying Syrian civilians suffering the ravages of what has to be some of the most horrific and awful weapons ever created, next to nuclear.  President Obama, being the highly moral person he is, was thoroughly appalled and horrified over what had happened and rightfully condemned the government in Syria for violating a U.N. proscription against the use of chemical weaponry.  Saying the Assad regime crossed a "red line," Obama left it quite clear that he felt a military response against such an atrocity should not only be appropriate, but almost mandatory.  Obama expected the American people and the rest of the world to be properly and instantly outraged, and to fall in line in support behind him in moving forward with a military strike which would cripple or eliminate Syria's capability to gas their own helpless, innocent people.

What he got instead of support was ... virtual silence.  Obama was all set to go ahead with the attack using his powers as head of the executive branch without consulting Congress.  There was a clear precedent to this when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq about a decade ago, on a wildly dubious and ultimately untrue basis of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which proved to be something between astonishing incompetent intelligence information or just plain old-fashioned lying through your teeth.  But conspicuous in its absence in the wake of a terrible atrocity was a groundswell of incensed clamoring for immediate military action.  Where were all our allies in the West - Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, even Poland?  Surprisingly, the prickly French, who seem to delight in taking a contrary position to whatever the U.S. is taking, were the most agreeable to a forceful response to Assad.  The American people, while recoiling in disgust to the human tragedy, were also recoiling from the prospect of dipping our toes in another Middle East quagmire, with Iraq and Afghanistan being prominently featured in their reasoning.  Baffled and caught off-balance by the blatant non-response to a humanitarian catastrophe, Obama still went ahead and tasked the Pentagon with coming up with a plan of action and risk-assessment for what was being portrayed as a "surgical" strike.

This whole Syria issue has taken on a life of its own.  It has split into two different news stories: the first being the gas attack itself, and the second being the political reaction to the gas attack.  The second story has grown so rapidly that it has overtaken the original event, relegating it to the status of an afterthought or a mere detail in a bigger picture.  It has produced some very unusual and novel things, like Republicans calling for calm and restraint in the face of an opportunity to attack another country, which is like a starving dog turning down a big piece of filet mignon, or Democrats screaming to let the bombs fly sooner rather than later.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad looked like a character out of a John Waters movie on an interview today.  He denied that chemical weapons were ever used by his forces.  In fact, he made some vague, unsupported assertions that HIS military forces were the ones who got gassed.  Assad is quite a creep, and looks like he would be most comfortable in the back row of an X-rated movie theater.  When asked about the deaths of the people he is supposed to serve, he acted like he just got caught by his wife, making out with a trashy waitress he met at the downtown Damascus Hooters restaurant - deny, deny and deny some more.

The situation is very fluid and things change every day.  Now the Russians have come up with a proposal to put all of Syria's chemical weapons under international control, to be eventually destroyed.  This may be an out for all concerned that avoids a military conflict.  The American people are staunchly against any military involvement, and many make the "slippery slope" argument that a "limited surgical strike" will lead to American boots on the ground, and another Afghanistan in the making.

There are so many variables, so many possible ways this can play out.  If Congress does give the go-ahead and the U.S. goes through with the attack, how will the Assad regime react?  How will his neighbors feel about another country lobbing rockets at someone right in their back yard?  Will Syria pop a couple of missiles over the fence on Israel?  Would a surgical air strike against Assad's chemical weapons capability actually do any good?  It would be virtually impossible to cripple his entire chemical weapon stockpile, and would he then be much more willing to use whatever remains?

If Congress says no to the whole thing, would that encourage other dictators to use chemical weapons because obviously they could do that and get away with it?  What will a "no" vote do to American prestige and influence all over the world, but especially in a region where fear and intimidation are the main glues that hold together a fragile peace?  What will that do to the Obama administration as its second term plays out?  Will it cripple an already lame-duck president and compromise his ability to push through all the other things he wants to accomplish?  Will it be more difficult for him to get his way on other issues, like the upcoming debt crisis and immigration reform?  Will Obama himself be seen as weak and dithering on important issues?

Obama's move to drag Congress, kicking and screaming, into the fray may be either a good idea or the worst idea ever.  Now Congress will be on record as either opposing or approving an air strike, so they will share either the credit or the blame.  But bringing this incredibly dysfunctional body into center stage may be really dumb, since Congress seems incapable of doing anything constructive or useful.

We will probably get the first vote on the Syria matter in a couple of days, when the Senate votes to invoke closure on the topic, and deny any use of the filibuster (the Republicans' weapon of choice when they can't get their way by, you know, actually coming up with good alternative solutions to a problem) to gum up the works.  The House of Representatives looks like to won't vote for a couple of weeks on the matter, conceivably giving the Assad regime time to move its chemical stockpiles around and conceal them, or "harden" them by making it tougher to find and destroy them.  This will also involve moving them into civilian neighborhoods so if the chemical weapons do manage to get blown up, the gas will be released and cause horrific collateral damage and deaths of innocent people.

This is a quagmire of the first order, and one which definitely changes daily and often seems to evolve by the hour.  It would be completely fascinating to watch if it wasn't for the fact that so much is riding on what will happen when the U.S. and the world finally decide to take some sort of action against a heartless dictator who sees no wrong in subjecting his fellow citizens to die in a gas attack.

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