Monday, February 27, 2012

Crowd-Sourcing Help for Syria

Here’s some good places to start:

“It may be good politics to want to go after the bad guy, but folks are acting as if the past decade never happened.”
- Chuck Colson, on calls for military intervention into Syria

My dad sent me the link to this article by Chuck Colson, one of the best prominent Christian public intellectuals in the States, after he and my Mom and I talked about the Syria problem on Skype yesterday.

Chuck’s piece is great. He says what I was trying to say in my last post my more clearly, namely:

“Civil war is the most likely result of Western intervention. Even if Assad could be persuaded to quit Syria, the rest of Syria’s 3.5 million Alawites have nowhere to go. They would be facing the prospect of reprisals. Since they control the Army and security apparatus, they would of course fight. Caught in the middle of all this destruction, loss, and instability would be Syria’s Christian minority, which constitutes about ten percent of the population.”

In Libya, the UN Security Council authorized member states to use military force to protect the civilian population. By the end of the war, NATO was bombing Qaddafi’s SUV as he fled for his life, “to reduce the threat toward the civilian population,” as one NATO official put it, while pro-Qaddafi civilians in Sirte were massacred by rebels and their bodies quietly hidden. Military force is far too blunt an instrument to protect only civilians and target only war criminals. After Milosevic was defeated in Kosovo, the one million Albanian refugees NATO went to war to save returned home, and forced over 100,000 Serbs out of their homes in a kind of reverse-ethnic cleansing. War by its very nature demands winners and losers. In Syria, the losers will be over one-fifth of the population.

Is it worth putting all their lives in danger to save the people of Homs? Who knows? Certainly not us. There is One who does know. Dare we assume his place?

In his e-mail, my dad writes, “But Syria still needs a third option… have you come up with anything yet?”

A Third Option. What an awesome choice of words!

Only once (unless I’m forgetting something) in the gospels do we see Jesus react to an imminent threat of violence against another person – the woman accused of adultery in John 8. There seem to be only two options: let her die, or defend her at the risk of (correctly) being accused of compromising the Law.

Both of those options suck. So Jesus does something totally different.

He starts writing in the sand with his finger.

After he writes for a while, the crowd gets fed up with the act, and demands that he render judgment on the woman. He stands up, says, “If any one of you is without sin, let him throw the first stone,” and then goes back to writing in the dirt.

What was he writing? The Bible doesn’t say. My college philosophy professor thinks he was just trying to buy time. Obviously, I don’t know, and John probably didn’t either. But I like the idea of rejecting the either/or situation of violence altogether, and introducing something totally unexpected into the situation.

So, Dad, and friends – here’s what I’ve come up with as a U.S. government strategy for dealing with Syria:

1. Apologize for the deaths from the U.S. military’s October 2008 assault on the Syrian town of Abu Kamel. Announce that a State Department team is on its way to Abu Kamel identify and compensate survivors.

2. Apologize for the U.S.’s role in the 2007 attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zour. Affirm Syria’s right to nuclear energy, and announce that American construction teams are on their way to repair it.

3. Announce that, with the exception of the arms ban, all U.S. sanctions on Syria are being lifted immediately.

4. Forswear any military or covert intervention in Syrian political affairs. Retract President Obama’s call for Assad to step down. Announce that the Syrian people must decide their future, and that the U.S.’s only interest is in seeing an end to the violence.

5. Announce that all U.S. military aid to the Middle East region, including to Israel, is being suspended immediately.

6. Announce that the first Syrian government elected through transparent, internationally-monitored and approved elections, will receive development loans conditioned only on anti-corruption standards, and compensation for absorbing millions of Iraqi refugees displaced by the American attack on Iraq in 2003.

7. Fully condemn terrorist attacks from the Syrian opposition.

8. Airdrop thousands of Qur’ans into the area around Homs. (If you’re scratching your head at this, just think of how the typical Syrian soldier would react.)

9. Airdrop food and medical supplies into Homs and Deraa.

10. Jam all radio and television frequencies in combat zones; replace with broadcasts of biblical, Quranic and Arab nationalist injunctions against fratricide.

11. Dedicate one presidential press conference per day to telling the story of a victim of the regime’s crackdown. Obama should hold up a picture of the victim.

12. Stand back and see what happens.

What else should go on this list?  Add your suggestions to the comments section.

Caveats: Yes, this is mostly a mental exercise. Sometimes, the adulterous woman simply cannot be saved. Not in this temporal life, anyway. That’s all the more reason to call unto God for help in this situation, and not rely on our own strength.

"The Lord forbid that I should lift my hand against the Lord's anointed." - I Samuel 24:6

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Preemptive Antiwar Argument

Note to readers: I know I keep promising a blog post about my trip to South Sudan.  It's coming, I promise.  This post, however, seemed timelier.


The United States will attack the government of Syria this year.

I base this prediction on three premises:
1) U.S. foreign policy interests require that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, is removed from power.
2) The Syrian demonstrators, rebels, and now, yes, terrorist groups, are not strong enough on their own to make him go.
3) The longer we wait, the bloodier the Syrian civil war will become, and the greater the chance of the Syrian resistance becoming radicalized (as in, Al Qaeda-ized.)

For decades now, the Arab states have been divided into two camps: the American camp and the Iranian camp. On the American side – that is, the side of peace with Israel (in practice if not always in treaty form), fighting Islamic terrorism, and keeping Middle East oil flowing peacefully and securely to the rest of the world, are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. On the Iranian side – that is, the side of armed conflict against the Zionists and general resistance to American power – is Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and various Iraqi insurgent groups.

During the Bush years, Sudan and Libya were added to the American side of the ledger (the horrifying dictators who ruled those countries notwithstanding). The battlegrounds were Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. In each of these countries, American- and Iranian-supported forces slaughtered each other in interminable battles for dominance.

Syria is the linchpin of the Iranian-led anti-American alliance. Iran lavishes arms and money on Hamas and Hezbollah; those arms and money get to Lebanon and Palestine through Syria. For decades, the holy grail of American Middle East policy has been to get the Assad regime to “flip” – make peace with Israel and stop supporting terrorism, in exchange for a generous American aid package and the return of the Golan Heights, a tiny but beautiful and water-filled tract of Syrian land that Israel has occupied since 1967. The Assads never accepted the flip, because the political benefits of being the last Arab country standing were always more attractive than American aid.

The Syrian revolution presented an alternative way to get Syria to flip. If the U.S. supported the revolution, the government that replaced Assad might join the American camp and cripple Iran’s influence in the Arab world. Still, Obama did not totally write off hope of friendship with Assad until August, when he called on the Syrian president to step down. At that point, after five months of constant protest, Assad looked weak, and the Obama administration hoped that a small shove would be enough to topple him.

Obama miscalculated. It’s February, and Bashar is still here.

Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that the Syrian revolution has stalemated. All of Bashar’s brutality cannot persuade the protestors to stop protesting or the rebels to stop fighting; if anything, it has only dumped fuel on the fire. But Bashar retains the loyalty of his elite military units, whose commanders must surely know they face certain death if the revolution succeeds, and Syria’s minority communities – Christians, Alawite Muslims, Shiites, and to a lesser extent, Druze and Kurds – all of whom rightly fear a Sunni Islamist takeover of Syria. Because Bashar retains this core of support, he cannot be toppled by massive protests and scattered rebel attacks. This is a prescription for a very long and bloody conflict.

The U.S. has burned all its bridges with the Assad regime. Damascus used to host cordial visits from everyone from Henry Kissinger to Nancy Pelosi and Rick Warren of Purpose-Driven Life fame. (Seriously.) No more. The only way to get Syria to flip sides in the Great Game is to force Assad out.

At this stage in its cold war with Iran, the U.S. desperately needs Syria to flip sides. It’s increasingly clear that, since our troop withdrawal, Iraq has joined Iran’s team. Diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program has hit a dead end, Iran is making outlandish threats and attempting terror attacks from Washington D.C. to Bangkok, and Israel is making a lot of noise about an attack on Iran. (More than usual, that is.)

If Syria flips, Iran loses nearly all its influence in the Arab world, and with it, a large part of its ability to retaliate against an Israeli attack. That might convince them to come back to the negotiating table. If it doesn’t, it’ll make an Israeli attack a much easier task.

In addition, the longer the Syrian civil war continues, and the more it turns into a Sunnis-vs.-everyone else affair, the greater the odds of large parts of the Syrian revolution being coopted by al Qaeda. Since December 23, there have been five suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, which have killed almost a hundred people. U.S. officials believe these are the work of operatives from al Qaeda in Iraq. And why not? Brave Sunnis standing up to a secular, heretical, bloodthirsty dictatorship – this is literally the fight al Qaeda was created for.

Obama took a lot of flak for teaming up with Islamist rebels in Libya, some of whom had ties to al Qaeda. This was actually a pretty sound tactical move. Presuming that Qaddafi’s days were numbered, Obama clearly preferred to have the rebels ushered into power with U.S. help, instead of the rebels succeeding on their own power and owing the U.S. nothing. It’s also safe to assume the Libyan civil war ended much sooner and with fewer casualties thanks to U.S. help.

So: the downfall of Assad is a vital U.S. interest. Assad will not fall by himself. The longer we wait, the worse it will be.

Of course, the U.S. will never get the UN’s (read: China and Russia’s) approval for an attack. So it will probably be a NATO-led action, like the war in Kosovo.

It’s all very rational.

So don’t be surprised when CNN reports that the Pentagon has begun reviewing military options for Syria.


Is this a good idea?

Heck no.

The coming U.S. war on Syria is a logical corollary to our cold war with Iran, which is a logical extension of our half-century quest to keep the Middle East, with its strategic location and oil fields, stable and secure.

The wars with Iraq, far from being “wars of choice” or “dumb,” as Illinois state senator Barack Obama put it in 2002, were also logical and necessary outcomes of long-established U.S. policy in the Middle East.

They also cost well over a hundred thousand people their lives, and made permanent refugees out of millions more.

Start with a bad premise, and you will get a bad conclusion. The premise that it is the job of the United States to maintain order in the Middle East is a very, very, VERY bad premise. And as scary as an Iranian power might be to our policymakers, it’s difficult to imagine that it will lead to more deaths than the Iraq War, (or the Lebanese civil war, or the Algerian civil war) or more hatred than the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or more dictatorships than the Arab world has now. And all of those things are direct consequences of American policy.

War is unpredictable. Iraq was many times worse than we anticipated. Libya was a sweeping triumph in retrospect. What will the Syrian war look like? Who knows? Best case scenario is regime collapse followed by liberal democracy and economic development. Worst-case scenario is massive civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide of minorities, followed by Islamic theocracy. That’s a pretty big margin of error, and one that no nation has the right to take responsibility for.

Make no mistake – my loyalty is firmly with the brave Syrian liberals who started this revolution. Bashar is a monster, and there will be no justice and no peace as long as he’s around. But thanks largely to his atrocities, the Syrian revolution, in my analysis, has twisted into the worst of possible outcomes - a zero-sum power struggle along largely ethnic lines. Peace is not on the horizon because both the Sunni rebels and the regime and its loyal minority groups rightly see themselves as fighting for their lives.

If there’s one thing that could make this worse, it’s American bombs.

So. I have made my prediction. If I’m wrong, as my roommate Matt thinks (he has a better sense for domestic politics than I), I will happily run around with egg on my face. If I’m right, we need to be ready to fight to stop this war from happening. We owe it to the Syrians to stay the frick out of it.

“The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be still.”
- Exodus 14:14

"Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD."
- Psalm 27:3, 14