The inability of the Syrian government to crush an 18-month-old revolutionary movement is putting increasing pressure on its neighbors. Not only have hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria poured into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, but political forces in each of those countries are having to choose sides and to reevaluate their choices over time.
The bombing in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood that killed security chief Wissam al-Hassan last week has widely been blamed inside Lebanon on the Shiite Hizbullah party-militia, which backs the current government of Najib al-Miqati. Angry Lebanese Sunnis of the March 14 movement led by Saad al-Hariri, who oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and sympathize with their Sunni co-religionists in the Syrian opposition, have vowed to bring down the Miqati government. Miqati said Sunday that although he had thought about resigning, he has decided not to stand down.
Still, it remains to be seen if the Lebanese government can avoid falling, given the firestorm set off by the Syria conflict. The problem for Miqati and Hizbullah is that among their key coalition partners is Walid Jumblatt, the mercurial Druze leader, who is said to be turning against the Baath government of Syria. (Jumblatt has flip-flopped on Baathist Syria several times; it is alleged that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt, assassinated in 1977.) The Washington Post is even hinting that Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrullah is himself wavering on whether to continue to support Syria so strongly, given the possibility that it could mean the loss of the Miqati government and the political marginalization of Hizbullah inside Lebanon. I actually doubt that Hizbullah is wavering, given its strong alliance with Iran, which is backing al-Assad.
Likewise, the Syria conflict is spilling over onto Iraq, where the NYT alleges some Shiite fighters are going to Damascus to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, holy to their branch of Islam, from possible destruction by hard line Salafis that have already targeted that neighborhood. During the Iraq War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria, and Shiite Iraqis congregated around the shrine. They have largely been ethnically cleansed by hard line Sunnis, seen as foreigners supporting the al-Assad regime, and there are concerns that Wahhabi-influenced Salafis might raze the shrine. (Saudi Wahhabis, like early militant Protestants in 16th-century Europe, are iconoclasts who despise the cult of saints, shrines and relics, insisting that only God is holy, and no intercession is possible with Him by third parties. Shiite Muslims, in contrast, are all about saints related to the Prophet Muhammad, and their tombs and shrines, and do believe they will intercede for believers.)
On Saturday, Sunni guerrillas unleashed a series of bombings and attacks on Shiite pilgrims and Shiite neighborhoods in Iraq. Although this tactic of attempting to foment Sunni-Shiite violence is by now 9 years old, it may be continuing in force in part because of the new struggle over the future of Syria. Syria’s Baath government is secular, socialist and nationalist, but the upper echelons of the Baath government and army are dominated by members of the Alawite minority, a form of folk Shiism. About 10-14 percent of Syrians are Alawite. The al-Assad government also has a geopolitical alliance with Shiite Iran and, increasingly, the Shiite government of Iraq.
The idea of a 4-day cease-fire in Syria’s ongoing revolution/ civil war during the Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God) was always a difficult proposition. Cease-fires work when two sides are exhausted and can’t see how easily to make further gains through fighting. That situation does not obtain in Syria– the ceaseless back-and-forth of guerrilla strikes and regime reprisal has been going on for over a year, and the revolutionaries appear to have gradually chipped away at the Baath government’s control of much of the country. When one side has the momentum, it simply makes no sense to have a cease-fire.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government fears that some of the Syrians seeking to escape to Iraq might be Sunni radicals, and they blame Syria for having given logistical and other help to al-Qaeda types who wanted to go to Iraq (the former Syrian ambassador to Iraq has also made these allegations). They appear to fear that the refugees may become assets for Sunni radicals.
Despite thes security concerns of those two countries and the burden of the refugees (also carried by Jordan), it is illegal in international law for them to keep those 10,000 people trapped that way.
Turkey has already taken in over 100,000 Syrian refugees. But it has closed its border with Syria in the east because it is afraid that Kurdish separatist guerrillas, basing themselves in the Kurdish strip inside Syria, will take advantage of the chaos to engage in terrorism in eastern Anatolia.
Mitt Romney’s speech at VMI on foreign policy has been widely condemned as vague and lacking in substance, sort of like the man who gave it. But the speech is also full of suggestions and criticisms of the Obama administration that are simply not realistic. The speech is Romney’s “Mission Impossible,” only without the cool theme music and also without a prayer of being actually achievable short of launching a series of 5 wars. I’ve decided that my initial assumption that a businessman of Romney’s experience must know something about the world was dead wrong. Apparently it is possible to sit in cushy big offices in companies like Bain, and to remain completely ignorant of foreign affairs. Romney’s speeches are all just a replaying for us of the prejudices of CEOs when they play golf together and complain vaguely about the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and so forth. Or, maybe Romney has gotten so many campaign contributions from arms manufacturers that he can’t help see foreign affairs through the lens of new wars he wants to fight.
1. The First War: Return to Iraq
Romney wants to send US troops back into Iraq and complained again about Obama’s “abrupt” withdrawal from that country. I don’t know how many ways there are of saying this, but it was from the beginning absolutely impossible for US troops to remain in Iraq legally. Romney apparently let Dan Senor, Bremer’s Neocon spokesman who came out to lie to us every day in Baghdad, write the following paragraph:
: “In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al-Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran. And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The President tried—and failed—to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”
Romney’s premise, that the US military in Iraq had some sort of ‘achievement’ that is in danger of being lost now that it is out of the country is ridiculous. The United States launched an illegal war of aggression on Iraq that virtually destroyed the country and kicked off a power vacuum that eventuated in a civil war that still continues at a low level. In 2006 when there were over 150,000 US troops in Iraq, in some months the death toll from political violence was 2500. That doesn’t even count all the armed Iraqis the US military was killing. The United States military never controlled Iraq and could never prevent bombings and attacks. When the US troops stopped patrolling major cities, the death toll promptly fell, because guerrillas were no longer setting improvised explosive devices to hit US convoys– operations that often wounded Iraqi by-standers as well.
In August, 2012, the death toll from political violence in Iraq was 164, half what it had been in July, after a crackdown by Iraqi army and police. So Romney is just wrong that there is some sort of secular trend in Iraq toward the kind of violence that had racked the country half a decade ago, and it is wrong to think that the US military was anyway primarily responsible for the end of the mass killings. What appears to have happened is that in 2006-2007, Iraqis living in mixed neighborhoods having both Sunnis and Shiites ethnically cleansed one another. Once the neighborhoods were mostly only one sect, the killing subsided (you’d have to get in your car and drive a while to find someone of a different persuasion to kill). That wasn’t a US achievement, it was a US failure!
It was the then leader of the Republican Party, George W. Bush, who negotiated the December 31, 2011, deadline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq with the Iraqi parliament. Obama simply implemented the agreement Bush signed. The reason the accord had to be worked out with the Iraqi parliament was that Bush wanted to be sure that US officers and troops could not be prosecuted for military actions they undertook in Iraq. The only way to forestall such prosecutions was a bilateral agreement authorizing US troops to fight in Iraq, and signed by the Iraqi government. Simply negotiating it with the prime minister would not have made it legally solid enough to protect the troops. Their presence had to be authorized by the Iraqi legislature. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was barely able to get the agreement passed, and only succeeded because it seemed to a lot of members of parliament their best bet for ushering US troops out of the country.
For that agreement to be renegotiated so that US combat units remained in Iraq would have required another vote of parliament. The Iraqi parliament is dominated by Shiites, along with Sunnis and a minority of Kurds. The Kurds were the only group that might have voted to keep US troops in the country, and they just don’t have that many seats. The Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party of al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Sadrists or followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, dominate parliament, along with Sunni nationalists. None of them wanted US troops in their country in the first place. They would never, ever have voted for a continued US troop presence in Iraq, and there would have been no way for Romney to make them do so if he had been president. His snide implication that Obama had a shot at this endeavor, and took it and missed, is just inside the beltway wishful thinking.
Guys! The Iraqis don’t like you. They didn’t want you in their country. They didn’t give you candy or put garlands around your neck. They killed over 4,000 of your troops, hundreds more of your contractors, and only failed to kill more because they were poorly armed compared to you.
After 8 years of ‘shaping’ Iraq, you got a Shiite government allied with Iran and Syria, the leader of which is now in Moscow seeking a $5 billion arms deal from Mr. Putin, so as to become more independent of the US. That was your best shot at empire, with hundreds of thousands of troops cycling through and a trillion dollars to play with, and it didn’t work. Because in today’s world it doesn’t work. Political-military empire is over. People are mobilized.
The only way for the US to dominate Iraq any more would be to re-invade the country, which would be Romney’s first war.
“The President has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women, and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months. Violent extremists are flowing into the fight. Our ally Turkey has been attacked. And the conflict threatens stability in the region.”
He goes on to say later in the speech,
“we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity. As one Syrian woman put it, “We will not forget that you forgot about us.” It is time to change course in the Middle East . . . “
“In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.”
So, it seems clear that Romney wants to “lead” in Syria, i.e., get involved in the war there.
But the reason that not only Obama but the entirety of Europe has declined to get involved in Syria is that there is no UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. In its absence, any army that used force except in self defense would be open to being hauled before judges in the Hague or judges in some country where the judiciary claims universal jurisdiction.
If the US went into Syria unilaterally, the same thing would happen to Romney as happened to Bush– the US would bear all the costs and would gradually become isolated and alone in the enterprise. As for fearing that people won’t forget that the US did not come to their aid, you could equally fear all the people who will be upset that the US intervened militarily, or you could fear ingratitude even if we did intervene (there are lots of examples of both).
3. The Third War is with Iran
Romney couldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear enrichment program if he were president, any more than Obama can. That step would require an invasion and occupation of the country. Simply bombing the facilities would only briefly set them back.
“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region—and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.
For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions—not just words—that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated. I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations. I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf. “
But close cooperation with Israel against Iran would ensure that none of our Arab allies would be willing to associate themselves with such a campaign. There is a reason that George H. W. Bush kept PM Yitzhak Shamir out of the Gulf War.
And, Romney can’t tighten sanctions on Iran any further without going all the way to an actual naval blockade of Iranian commerce. The US already has a financial blockade against Iran. Blockades, like ultimatums, cause wars. Countries threatened with strangulation frequently strike out. Even more stringent sanctions and blockades risk pushing Iran into reacting violently for self-preservation.
4. The fourth war is in Afghanistan. Although Romney said he would wind down the war there by 2014, just as Obama has pledged, he intended to ‘remain strong’ and to ‘consult our military,’ i.e. he implicitly is reopening the question of the US withdrawal from that country. He said,
“President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.
I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation. ”
There is no reason for Romney to bring up his political prospects being damaged unless he is considering reneging on Obama’s pledge to get out of Afghanistan. Likewise, that is implied by his reference to ‘evaluating conditions on the ground’ and taking ‘the best advice of our military commanders.’
On Afghanistan, Romney is pulling an anti-Nixon. He appears to have a secret plan not to end the war in Afghanistan.
5. The small wars: Intervention in Yemen, Somalia, perhaps even Libya in a ‘war on terror.’
The US has hit Yemen and Somalia with drone strikes and is occasionally kind of at war in those countries, though it is a desultory, occasional, and limited sort of conflict.
Romney says that drones are not enough. What would you use in such conflicts besides drones? Infantry? The implication of being ‘more forceful’ and dismissing drone strikes is that you would support the insertion of troops into those conflicts.
Romney’s various wars would, if pursued, bankrupt the country and cause more backlash and terrorism against the United States. Romney thinks that US prestige flows from strength, defined as military might.
But in fact what people in the Middle East admire about the US is its values, such as democracy and the rule of law. They hate our military hubris and still have not forgiven us for what we did to Iraq.
The only positive thing about Romney’s speech was his commitment to getting a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Unfortunately, we know from his leaked fundraiser recording of last May that he intends to ‘kick the can down the road’ on the Israel-Palestine issues, and that he does not trust the Palestinians with a state. So that positive language is just lies.
Four or five wars and lots of other conflicts are not a foreign policy vision, they are a nightmare.
Yesterday I explored the errors and fantasies in Gov. Mitt Romney’s WSJ op-ed on the Middle East. Here I will briefly go over the mistakes that the Obama administration has made in the region. Unlike the proposed blunders of Romney, I have to say, most of these are errors of omission or of an abundance of caution. I’d give Obama a C on Middle East policy, whereas I’d give Romney’s announced plans an F. Still, the present administration has had significant failures.
1. Obama came into office determined to restart the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He failed in this attempt. In part, he was stymied when Kadima Party leader Tzippi Livni failed to attract enough coalition partners to form a government, in February of 2009, allowing Likud hard liner Binyamin Netanyahu to become Prime Minister. Netanyahu had boasted of derailing the 1990s Oslo peace process, and was the least likely partner for Obama you could imagine. After briefly acquiescing in a settlement freeze for some of the West Bank, which got Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to open negotiations, Netanyahu managed to deflect Washington’s demands that he go back to the bargaining table by vastly increasing the rate of Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. The Palestinians angrily withdrew, not sure why they should try to negotiate over a pie that was being actively gobbled down by the other side. Since his failure, Obama has neglected to speak out on Israeli aggressive colonization measures or even on settler attacks on mosques, churches and individuals. Obama appears, incredibly, not to have realized how hard it would be to accomplish anything on this front, and not to have realized that he would have had to make it a top priority and put his presidency on the line about it, as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David. Sending George Mitchell out as a special envoy was simply too little.
2. Obama accepted the plan of David Petraeus and other Pentagon officers (who, admittedly, boxed him in) for a troop escalation in Afghanistan, combined with an ambitious counter-insurgency program that aimed at pacifying the country ahead of a US withdrawal. The alternative, allegedly championed by Vice President Joe Biden, was a much less ambitious counter-terrorism approach. The latter would not involve big conventional armies but sending light mobile special operations units in to deal with violent cells where they popped up. The operation against Bin Laden had this shape. The big counter-insurgency project and the troop ‘surge’ manifestly failed, as I predicted at the time. Petraeus and others were misled by their Iraq experience, where the US troop escalation in 2007 had some success, but only because it coincided with a Shiite ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis from Shiite neighborhoods, which fatally weakened the Sunni guerrillas, so that the US could polish a lot of those cells off. Afghanistan was not comparable.
3. Obama has used economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to deflect the enormous pressure from Netanyahu and his allies in the American Israel lobbies (which work through Congress) to bomb Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Such a strike would release toxic chemicals and metals and would kill thousands of non-combatants in Isfahan. But the latest round of very severe sanctions on Iran, to the extent of trying to prevent the sale of Iranian petroleum, go beyond a boycott to being a form of blockade. It isn’t a naval blockade. Rather, Obama is preventing Iranian banks from interfacing with their counterparts and making it hard for other countries to pay Iran for the petroleum they buy from it. The US is now also threatening third-party sanctions on countries that buy Iranian petroleum. Blockades, like ultimatums, routinely cause wars. Roosevelt’s cutting off of Japan from US petroleum was part of the reason for Pearl Harbor (the Japanese had a choice of becoming a normal country or trying to keep their empire, and in the latter case the generals believed they had to take the Dutch East Indies for its petroleum, instead, and so had to neutralize the US pacific fleet). Moreover, there is danger of causing so much economic pain and isolation with severe sanctions that children and other non-combatants cannot get access to, e.g., needed medicines. Obama has put the US on a war footing with Iran, and may not have been as clever as he imagined about avoiding the traps Netanyahu set for him.
4. Having joined in the NATO effort to protect Libyans from the murderous regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama seems to have more or less lost interest in that country. It was predictable that when an idiosyncratic, personalized, police state collapsed, the country would limp along without the needed institutions until they were rebuilt. NATO (which is led by the US) should have helped train up a new Libyan army and police. As it is, the militias thrown up by the civil war are still too powerful (and some have become gangs), and the new elected government has too few police and military tools to establish order. In March, a mere 250 troops were graduated from the Tripoli academy. (Though, as I have underlined before, despite occasional incidents, security is better in Libya than we had any right to expect, and it isn’t the basket case it is often depicted in the US press).
The current Neocon critique of Obama over a terror cell’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the US ambassador and 3 others, by the way, makes no sense to me. No president could have done much to prevent such a sudden terrorist attack, and the fog of war would always prevent an exact understanding of the events for a period after such an attack. Why CNN has been bringing Murdoch hacks on, who have no knowledge of the situation on the ground in Benghazi, to make this flimsy case mystifies me.
5. Obama has been peculiarly passive as Syria has descended into mass murder, with over 30,000 dead and widespread displacement, hunger and misery. His hands have been tied by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council, to be sure. Nor would it be a good idea for the US to intervene with boots on the ground or by giving weaponry to the ragtag Free Syrian Army. But had he wanted to act more decisively on Syria, short of going to war, the president surely could have. Even just finding ways to get humanitarian aid in to starving Syrians would make a difference. (The current levels of US humanitarian aid are small and the delivery methods uncertain). They say that Bill Clinton has profound regrets over letting the Rwanda genocide proceed unhindered. Obama’s neglect of Syria, I fear, is likely to haunt him, and to haunt us all.
6. Obama should move the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain to some other port in the Gulf, and should speak out forcefully against the repressiveness of the Sunni monarchy against the Shiite majority in Bahrain. It is shameful for the US to have to depend on a government that is acting like a sordid little police state. It has just actually sentenced physicians to long prison terms for simply treating wounded rebels. That is the act of a petulant tyrant, and the US should dissociate itself from him.
7. Obama’s deployment of drones in northern Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia is deeply problematic. It has no real legal framework. It is classified and often run by CIA civilians, and so cannot be properly debated in an open, democratic way. Obama has claimed the prerogative of assassinating people by drone, and has even killed American citizens. Although some members of Congress are briefed on the program, it is too secretive and too far outside the realm of the rule of law to be compatible with the US constitution. Worse the drone strikes are probably politically counterproductive. Where the US hits again quickly after an initial strike, killing rescue workers, it is probably committing a war crime.
The Obama administration has done a fair job of navigating through the shoals of the Arab Spring. He should have called for Hosni Mubarak to step down much earlier than he did. But that was not a disaster, and neither are US relations with post-revolutionary Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. The US has good relations with the government of Hamadi Jabali in Tunisia. Obama called for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in Yemen from June of 2011. In general, Obama has done no harm, in the face of mass popular movements that changed the face of the region. The withdrawal from Iraq was necessary by the terms of the agreement Bush reached with the Iraqi parliament, and while Iraq will have problems for a long time, at least US troops are not fighting and dying there. There haven’t been big breakthroughs or successes with the possible exception of the nullification of Usamah Bin Laden, but also no major disasters and quagmires (Afghanistan is not a quagmire because Obama has announced he is getting out in 2014 no matter what).
These periodic bombing campaigns in Iraq, however, have never resulted in the opposition gaining control over territory. In the absence of territory, they remain small rebel bands playing spoilers. Ultimately, they are sectarian in character and cannot hope to unite the masses.
Also on Sunday, the Iraqi Supreme Court sentenced Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashemi to death for allegedly running death squads. Al-Hashemi is a Sunni and a figure in the main party that represents Sunnis. Regardless of his innocence or guilt, the decree bodes ill for the al-Maliki government going forward. That government cannot thrive without reconciliation with its political enemies, including the Sunnis.
Iraq is deeply divided all these years after the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The US and Iraqi-Shiite approach has been vindictive toward former regime elements (whether Sunni or Shiite). The more radical Sunnis, whether Baathi secularists or believers in political Islam, are unreconciled to the rise of a new, Shiite-dominated government. They manifest that discontent vocally, and a minority of them do so violently.
The radical Sunnis are just playing spoiler in Iraq. They take no territory, and to my mind have little prospect of doing so. The bombing campaigns always cause some pundits to wonder if it was a good idea for the US to withdraw; but they forget that the bombs went off with much greater frequency all the time the US troops were in country. Al-Maliki’s counter-terrorism capabilities are not very good, but the violence is way down from the levels of the American heyday. Iraqis will have to solve their own problems.
Syria also saw nationwide violence on Sunday. Its violent clashes, however, seem to be going someplace. In Iraq, each of the four-times-a-year bombing campaigns is hard to distinguish from the other. In Syria, the fight is over territory. The regime tried to dislodge revolutionaries from a neighborhood in Damascus and in Aleppo.
In Aleppo, the rebels attacked a military base with bombings. A little later, the regime launched an aerial bombing raid against them. The Arabic press alleges that the aerial bombing raid was intended to turn the people of the neighborhood against the rebels.
I don’t think the conflict in Syria is primarily sectarian, though it has a sectarian dimension. It seems to be mostly about class. If you attend to where the opposition has been fiercest it has been in working class neighborhoods and in districts that have seen labor immigration from the countryside. Lots of Sunnis are still on the fence or are supporting the regime.
Just to underline, I am not saying that there is no sectarian element to the Syrian civil war. Since Alawis (folk Syrian Shiites) have disproportionately benefited economically from their dominance of the regime, and many Sunnis outside the charmed circle of government patronage are poor, there is an obvious overlap here.
The Alawis are only about 10 percent of the population, and although they are present disproportionately in the officer corps, there have to be lots of Sunnis supporting the regime or it would already have collapsed. They are supporting it because they derive economic patronage from the government, which is more important to them than whether it is Alawi-dominated or not.
When I hung out with young Syrian activists in exile this summer, they were singing the praises of the minority of Alawis who had joined in the rebellion, and could name the villages and incidents. Their discourse was one of national unity against the regime, not of sectarian hatred. Inside Syria, and especially in the more radical units of the Free Syrian Army, the sectarian attitude does exist. I just didn’t encounter it personally.
And, if Syria is to avoid Iraq’s fate, its revolutionaries have to avoid the sectarian reprisals that have marked the latter, and they will have to fashion an encompassing post-revolutionary identity on the basis of the solidarity of workers and the middle classes.
The conflict in Syria is likely to grind on for a long time.
I have to say, I don’t think it is in US interest for the fighting to go on and on in Syria. The civil war is clearly (further) destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq, and the impact on our NATO ally Turkey could ultimately be severe. Little Jordan is also being blown like a leaf in the wind. I suspect the Israeli security establishment is deeply divided about whether it is good for them for the Baath to fall. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely it is for the opposition to become radicalized, and a raw, radical group in Damascus could prove unpredictable. While some Free Syrian Army units have fundamentalist tendencies, the revolution as a whole does not (being a mass phenomenon it comprises all kinds of people). But in a long marathon of a revolution, the least attractive elements could come out on top.
On the other hand, I don’t foresee US intervention any time soon, and I don’t think unilateral US action is desirable.
A caveat: although the Syrian regime seems to control less and less of the country over time, it still does have substantial military assets and thousands of loyal troops, and many city quarters have not risen. I’d say there is a 30% chance of an Algeria outcome, in which the regime fights a dirty war and ultimately prevails, though shakily.
In contrast, the likelihood that the Iraqi guerrillas can succeed in overthrowing the Nouri al-Maliki government is almost nil. They would have to stop being so anti-Shiite and would have to craft a broader coalition of have-nots, as apparently is the case in contemporary Syria. Otherwise, they’re just extremists who can terrorize people for a few hours every three or four months.
Tutu is right that there should be accountability for illegal wars, because otherwise they legitimize aggression. The architects of the Iraq War in the United States are now glomming onto Mitt Romney in hopes of maneuvering themselves into a position to get up a war on Iran. That they got away scott free with their earlier atrocities has only whetted their appetites.
The leadership conference did go on, and Blair addressed it, defending himself on the Iraq War, saying that even if there had not been weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein had been a brutal dictator who killed thousands and used poison gas against his own people, and now he is gone; what, he asked, is wrong with that result? Blair’s self-defense, despite the accuracy of his charges against Saddam Hussein, is ethically and legally weak, since it takes the form of an “the ends justify the means” argument. Ironically, al-Qaeda, Blair’s arch-enemy, argues the same way in justification of its killing. One of the ugliest points Blair made in self-defense was that Iraq’s gross domestic product is now three times what it was in the late Saddam period. But Blair and the US and other UNSC members had engineered an economic blockade of Iraq that threw its economy down into fourth-world levels, so it had been Blair who set the low baseline that he said his invasion and occupation improved on! All that happened was that the invaders lifted their sanctions! Blair was paid thousands of dollars to attend the conference; if Tutu had gone, he would have spoken gratis.
Blair’s attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, reasoned that an attack on Iraq in the absence of an explicit UN Security Council resolution allowing it was very possibly illegal in international law, and might expose British cabinet members to prosecution in European courts. He admitted of a grey area, because of the first UNSC resolution demanding Iraq reveal its WMD. Blair unethically connived at keeping his cabinet members in the dark about Goldsmith’s reservations, according to Alastair Campbell. That is, Tutu is right that Blair had legal advice that what he was about to do was very likely illegal, and he did it anyway.
But Tutu seems to have been especially angered by Blair’s 2010 admission that he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known that it possessed no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Many observers took this admission as a sign that Blair actually did know that the WMD case had been weak, and that he was advocating might makes right, opening him to charges of war crimes.
Tutu’s observations are very much of a piece with Sands’s. He argues that Blair went to war against Iraq on fabricated false pretenses, since there were no Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” and he implies that Blair knew this to be the case before the war was actually launched. He tells the story of how he called then US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in early March, 2003, urging that United Nations inspectors be allowed to do their job before hostilities were initiated. Bush, Blair and the UN had demanded that the weapons inspectors be sent back in under Hans Blix. They were admitted, in February. The CIA gave them a list of 600 suspected weapons sites. They got through 100 by early March and had found nothing. Zero, zilch, nada. It was clear that if they were allowed to complete the list of 600, the casus belli or cause for war trumpeted by Bush and Blair would evaporate.
Tutu says that in response to his request that the weapons inspectors be given a chance, ” Ms Rice demurred, saying there was too much risk and the president would not postpone any longer.” Bush pulled the inspectors out and went to war.
There was, of course, no risk at all from ramshackle, beaten-down Iraq. The risk was that Bush’s shaky coalition of the willing to commit war crimes might falter or fall apart if he didn’t immediately launch a Blitzkrieg.
Tutu’s charge is that the Iraq War was a crime against humanity because it was a “fabricated” war, with no legitimate or moral casus belli, which resulted in massive deaths of Iraqis, their displacement in the millions, and continued instability in Iraq and in the region. Tutu even lays the blame for the current instability in Syria at Blair’s doorstep.
Tutu is careful to quote only the most conservative estimates of Iraqi deaths deriving from the Anglo-American war and occupation, saying 110,000 died. It likely was a much larger number, several hundred thousand. Since about 3 times the number of people are typically severely wounded as killed in such conflicts, some 300,000 to a million Iraqis likely lost limbs or suffered long term cognitive and other damage. A lot of the killed were men, forcing their widows and orphans into penury, and even sometimes sex work. Although Blair in his defense cited the Iraqis who died under Saddam, likely the US and Britain were responsible for similar numbers of Iraqi deaths.
Tutu is arguing from the black South African experience. South Africa suffered British conquest and colonialism, and then white Apartheid under the racist National Party (mainly an Afrikaaner institution, but more British whites passively supported it than would later admit to having done so).
I presume that part of Tutu’s charge against Blair is that he did not secure a UN Security Council resolution for war against Iraq, in the absence of which going to war is illegal in the post WW II international legal framework. If so, Tutu would have done us a favor by saying so. (This lack of a legal framework for war was one of the reasons I opposed the invasion of Iraq.)
I have long advocated that the criminal actions of Bush, of his vice president Richard Bruce Cheney, and of other high officials, be investigated. Bill Clinton was impeached for a fib about fellatio, but taking the US into an illegal war was treated with impunity.
The only thing I’d differ with in Archbishop Tutu’s argument against Blair is that probably the instability in Syria is not very related to the Iraq War. People in Syria were tired of Baath dictatorship and Bashar al-Assad pushed them into armed struggle. Most of those fighting al-Assad were opposed to the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq.