An attack on Syria won’t protect civilians

A US military strike opens up the possibility of far greater bloodletting than what we have so far seen.

Public opinion polls show Americans oppose military intervention in Syria's civil war [AFP]

A little over a decade after September 11, 2001, the United States may find itself on the same side as al-Qaeda if it goes forward with an attack against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

To be fair, al-Qaeda represents a minority of those fighting to topple Assad. The rebellion in Syria began as a popular uprising against decades of tyranny by the Assad family, which hails from the country’s Alawite minority. The government’s swift and brutal suppression fractured the country, as well as the Middle East more broadly, and the rebellion quickly spread to other parts of Syria.

It changed into an armed rebellion. Fighters from other parts of the world flocked to join, more and more arms poured into Syria, and unspeakably merciless violence has ensued from all sides.

We are now at a point where a proxy war is being fought in Syria. The anti-Assad side includes – in addition to the United States and al-Qaeda – Qatar, Turkey, and unlikely bedfellows Israel and Saudi Arabia. Supporting the regime are Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah. The Syrian people are divided, with the overwhelming majority simply wanting an end to the carnage, even if it means keeping an unpopular dictator in power. For now, at least.

President Obama wants to directly involve the US military in Syria. His insistence on going forward with an attack in the wake of the Assad regime’s likely use of chemical weapons has been stymied by the fact that the American people are overwhelmingly opposed to another war.

No evidence forthcoming

Britain, the US’ staunchest ally, has refused to join the US in an attack on Syria. World powers such as Russia and China are openly standing against a US attack on Syria, with Russia sending warships to the area and indicating that the Kremlin would interpret an attack on Syria as “an aggression“. Russian President Vladimir Putin had said he would consider backing a US request to get UN approval for military action against Syria – if the US could show proof that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons, which is Obama’s stated reason for launching an attack. That evidence has not been forthcoming.

US seeks plan on Syria chemical weapons

On Tuesday, President Obama indicated in a 16-minute speech that he is willing to delay an attack if Russia can convince the Assad regime to hand over all chemical weapons in its arsenal. This diplomatic effort began after an apparently offhand remark by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

It was clear, however, that Obama’s address was meant to sway US public opinion in support of an attack. Obama spoke about morality, declaring that Americans must not stand by as innocents are gassed to death. Others have invoked the Jewish holocaust, such as Democratic congresswoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer, she said, “As a Jew, Wolf, I have to tell you, as a member of Congress who represents one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations in the country – to me, the concept of ‘never again’, has to mean something. And the United States, morally, cannot turn the other cheek.”

Wolf Blitzer, himself a staunch Zionist, did not ask Wasserman Schultz why she expressed no such moral outrage when Israel indisputably used chemical weapons in Gaza, showering a defenceless civilian population with white phosphorous. It is also unlikely that any American journalist will ask President Obama what justifies moral outrage from the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons against civilians; one that bathed Vietnam and Fallujah in Agent Orange and depleted uranium munitions, respectively; one that used biological warfare to erase the indigenous people of these lands; and one that supplied and encouraged the use of chemical weapons to other nations.

Although a conclusive report from the UN investigation has yet to be completed, Obama has made up his mind that Assad is the culprit and that the US must punish him, with or without UN or congressional approval, if necessary.

It should be noted that many former US military and intelligence officials have made it clear that they do not believe Assad was behind the chemical attack. It appears that the intelligence implicating Assad was obtained from Israel, and it is worth noting that Israel also contributed “intelligence” that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which spurred the US into that terrible disaster.

Indeed, it is Israel and its supporters, who, along with the Saudis, are the most vociferous promoters of this war, with AIPAC deploying hundreds of lobbyists to push for an attack on Syria, just as they pushed for war against Iraq. Let us not forget the 1996 “Clean Break” advisory report, written by pro-Israeli think tanks for Netanyahu, and which called for programmes to overthrow, “contain, destabilise, and roll-back” various Middle Eastern countries – including Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon – rather than pursue a “comprehensive peace” initiative with Arab nations.

Syria’s turn

It is now Syria’s turn. Those misguided enough to believe an attack on Syria is meant to protect civilians, need only consider the likely consequences of such an attack. According to Obama, intervention would be limited in scope and duration and would not involve troops on the ground, yet. It could consist of an intense bombardment from air and sea, using Air Force bombers, five warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, cruise missiles, air-to-surface missiles, strikes from the Red Sea where the US has an aircraft carrier group, including a cruiser and three destroyers. The result will be to render Syria nearly defenceless, opening the possibility of far greater bloodletting than what we have so far seen.

What will follow then is precisely the reason for this attack, and it was most honestly articulated by Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York. He said, “You need both teams to lose … you don’t want one to win – we’ll settle for a tie. Let them both bleed, haemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here.”

Another major argument put forth for intervention is that the US will look weak if it does not attack Syria – because the president already said the US intends to take military action. Such schoolyard politics are being discussed in the halls of power as if it were rational – as if affirming that the fact that the US has the biggest stick in town is a legitimate reason to plunge Syria into further darkness and bloodshed.

Whether the latest diplomacy effort came about from a blundered remark by the secretary of state or not, it is at least worth something that a deal, however temporary, may provide space for diplomatic efforts. The region cannot afford to see another Arab nation disemboweled. We need cool heads to prevail – to push back the bullies, save lives, and carve out a viable path towards stability and national reconciliation in Syria.

This is not an impossible feat. A difficult one, surely – but not impossible, and certainly the most promising if preserving life is truly the objective.

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian thinker, essayist, and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.

Follow her on Twitter: @sjabulhawa