What looked like an inevitable drift towards a U.S. attack on Syria may have been halted by, of all things, a gaffe uttered by Secretary of State John Kerry. In an off-the-cuff remark Monday, Kerry stated that Syria could avert a strike if they handed over their chemical weapons stocks. Russia jumped on the proposal, and now Syria says they welcome it.
Adding to the tide against a Syria strike is the spontaneous outpouring of anti-war sentiment across the country. Anti-war activists held vigils across the country Monday night in a bid to drum up further opposition to a Syria strike.
One voice that is also trying to turn the tide against an attack on Syria is Phyllis Bennis, who directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. On Sunday, Lizzy Ratner and I had Bennis on WBAI’s Beyond the Pale–which we co-host once a month–to discuss Syria. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Lizzy Ratner: Phyllis, you have written and spoken extensively about the Obama administration’s push toward war. Can you spell out for our listeners why a U.S. strike on Syria, no matter how “limited,” would be both illegal and dangerous?
Phyllis Bennis: Well, the easy part is illegal. International law is vague on a lot of stuff, but one of the very few things it’s really clear on is when is the use of force legal. It’s only on two occasions–and we don’t meet the criteria either way. Either it’s direct, immediate self-defense–nobody’s claiming that, the U.S. is being attacked by Syria, that doesn’t apply. Or, the Security Council agrees and authorizes the use of force. We’re not seeing that here either, and we hear over and over again, it’s almost whining, “they won’t let us! The Russians are stopping us from using the Security Council.” Well you know what, the Security Council and its powers, problematic as they are in some ways, on this it was designed to be hard. The UN charter was written so it would be really, really difficult to get everybody to agree to use force. That was the whole point. And to just say, “well, we can’t get them to agree, so we’ll just go around them and ignore it,” means we’re in violation of international law. So it would be illegal.
It would be immoral because, however small-scale we think it’s going to be, the Pentagon has already admitted that they can’t completely control cruise missiles, they don’t know exactly where it will land. And the chances of more civilians being killed is very significant. It may not be many, it could be many, but either way, knowing that, it makes it absolutely immoral. Then, the last part: it’s immoral because we have not exhausted the possibilities in terms of diplomacy and negotiations. So it’s immoral for all of those reasons.
And finally, it would be dangerous. It’s illegal, immoral and dangerous, because it’s going to exacerbate the five wars that are already being fought inside Syria. It’s going to destabilize the region even more–and this is already a really unstable region with the aftermath of the U.S.-NATO bombing in Libya leading to shattered borders and weapons and fighters crossing those borders at will, the aftermath of the Iraq War, we’re still seeing huge levels of violence, huge levels of the rise of Islamist forces–and of course inside Syria itself the direct engagement of the U.S. will bring even more Islamist forces that are already coming in from outside to join in the fight against the United States. So this is a disaster anyway we cut it.
Alex Kane: The Obama administration has framed this potential military campaign as the only viable and even moral response to the alleged and heinous use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. But critics like you say there are alternatives, there are ways to condemn the war crime of chemical weapons that don’t involve military action. What are some of those alternatives?
PB: Right, and first of all, we should keep in mind that we still don’t know who carried out this horrific attack. The U.S. can keep claiming all they want that “this is definitive, that we know”–we haven’t seen the evidence. So far it isn’t different than Colin Powell at the UN in 2003 on Iraq. They can say all they want, as Kerry has, as Obama has, “look at who we are, we were the ones who led the attack on the legitimacy of the war in Iraq, we’re not about to make the same mistake,” but if they’re not making the same mistake, they’re not showing us the evidence. We have not seen the evidence.
LR: And there was a stunning and scary piece in the New York Times yesterday published by Alan Grayson about the incredibly skimpy evidence he’s seen as a Congressperson.
PB: Even those coming out of the classified briefings, they’re saying, “we didn’t get anything, we didn’t see anything.” You know, if the Obama administration really believes that they have a “slam dunk” level of evidence–whether they use that term or not they’re certainly acting as if they do–let them support, with the Russians, another UN weapon inspectors team to go in with the specific mandate of determining who is responsible. If they’re so sure, why would they resist having someone else make their case? As it stands now, they’re not telling us where the information comes from.
You know, we saw in the Israeli mass daily Yediot Ahronoth, there was an article quoting three top Israeli intelligence officials sort of chortling, almost bragging, that they were the ones who provided the information to the intelligence people in the U.S. That may or may not be true, but we should have the right to find out about it. Is that true? Is that where the U.S. is getting their evidence? Let’s hear it. Let’s evaluate, if it’s coming from Israel, do we think that makes it more credible, less credible? But at the end of the day, the big question comes back to even if. Even if we knew exactly who did it, does a military response make sense? And I think the answer is no.
First thing, we have to stop the false dichotomy that says, “we either use military force or we do nothing.” This is the old Bush-era, 9/11 notion, “you either go to war, or you let ‘em get away with it.” And of course, nobody wanted to “let ‘em get away with it,” and so people supported war who would’ve ordinarily known better. So that’s where we start. Then we recognize that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime. This isn’t just exaggeration, there’s a specific international law and we should be serious about it.
So, what does that mean? Send a second investigation team, convene a meeting of the signers of the chemical weapons treaty, which involves almost everybody in the world–Syria is one of only 6 countries in the whole world that isn’t a member–convene that group to decide collectively what to do. Recommend that whoever is responsible be brought to justice in the Hague, at the International Criminal Court, but realize at the same time that the timing of that has to be put in the context of any kinds of negotiations that are going on to not undermine those negotiations.
Send human rights monitors, and then crucially, here’s the most important thing–the administration has been telling us over and over again that these strikes are really small, they don’t really have any impact, they’re not going to have any influence on what happens in the war–let’s do something that does have an influence on bringing the war to a halt sooner. That means engaging with the Russians right away, saying we need to move towards, whether they call it Geneva II or call it something else, we need to move towards new talks that will force the two sides to the table. That means the Russians have to be responsible for getting not only Iran to the table, but also the Syrian government. The U.S. needs to be responsible for getting not only the Syrian opposition, however many people it takes to represent them, but also those who are arming and paying the opposition: the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan. They all need to be at the table, and the commitment has to be both an immediate ceasefire an immediate arms embargo, because without one, the other isn’t going to work.
AK: You mentioned the fact that Israeli intelligence may have played a role in making the U.S. case. We’re not sure one way or the other, but what we do know is that Israel, the Israeli government after staying silent on the question of whether the U.S. should intervene, is now saying yes, the U.S. should intervene, not to tip the balance of the civil war but as a way to send a message to Iran. And AIPAC is sending that same message. In fact, this week, most likely on Tuesday, the group will send hundreds of activists to Capitol Hill to push the Administration’s bombing agenda. Can you talk about why AIPAC is pushing US intervention and how it relates to Israel’s larger in the Syrian civil war?
PB: Well, you know the first thing is to understand why Israel had been so reluctant to come out in support of the war in Syria. Traditionally, there was always a sense that Israel never saw an Arab regime that it didn’t want to overthrow. And in some broad way that may be true, but the particularity of Syria is that this regime under both Hafez al-Assad, the father, and Bashar al-Assad, the son, despite all the rhetoric about being the resistance core, the beating heart of Arab nationalism, all this rhetoric, the reality was this was a regime that was pretty damn helpful for the Israelis. They kept the border quiet, they kept the occupied Golan Heights under control and quiet, kept the Palestinians who live in huge numbers in refugee camps in Syria under very tight control. The level of violence was kept very low. This was a very convenient dictator to have on their border, because they could deal with him, they knew what the terms were, everybody was sort of okay with it. All of a sudden, what change was the question of Iran, it came back to this issue of so-called red lines.
As soon as the Obama administration started talking about the use of military force on Syria, not to protect Syrian civilians or end the war, but to send a message to the regime in Damascus that you can’t cross the red line and think you’re going to get away with it. For the Israelis, that immediately became the question of Iran. So of course the Israeli position all along has been, our red line is Iran must be prevented from even having the capability to build nuclear weapons. But it also would pressure the United States, which had a very different red line.
But for the Israelis, this question of going after Bashar al-Assad had everything to do with sending a message, not to Damascus but to Tehran. They don’t care that there’s a new president in Iran, who has made a point of focusing on the need to go back to the negotiation table, to rebuild relations with the whole world, including the West, including the United States. They’re not interested, in fact they’re very much hoping the U.S. will not take advantage of that opportunity, but rather keep the pressure on. If you read the AIPAC statement on Syria, Syria is hardly mentioned. “We need to go war against Syria,” and the rest of it is all about Iran. This is about sending a message to Iran, it’s about making sure Iran doesn’t get the wrong message, it’s all about using the bombing of Syria as a mailbox to send a message to Iran.
AK: Speaking of Iran–in addition to the civil war within Syria, it has turned into this regional proxy conflict with Iran and Russia on one side, and the U.S. on the other. The Syrian civil war is full of outside powers jockeying for their own interests. It’s a very dangerous regional conflict. What would U.S. bombing do to that? Could it lead to further escalation, could it lead to regional conflict?
PB: There’s no question. This could lead to massive escalation. It could happen in a couple of different ways. One is that when the U.S. becomes a direct actor, and they’re already acting–we already know there’s at least 200, some reports say 500–CIA agents training opposition forces in Jordan. The U.S. is collaborating with Turkey on figuring out who to send weapons to. But all of that is relatively covert, no one has to talk about it if they don’t want to. A direct, high-visibility U.S. strike means everybody is talking about the role of the U.S. in this war. So, one, is that encourages people whose agenda is primarily anti-Western, anti-U.S. More people from the region who have that type of agenda will come flooding into Syria to fight against the role of the U.S., meaning potentially to fight on the side of the government. You know, we don’t even know what side they would fight on.
Then there’s the wars going on inside Syria you mentioned. There are at least five separate wars besides the civil war. There’s the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance, then within that there’s a smaller war between Saudi and Qatar about which of the Gulf states is going to be the dominant one. There’s a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia. There’s the war between the U.S. and Russia, and there’s the war between the U.S. and Israel vs. Iran. All of those wars could be exacerbated by this. Russia may feel compelled to play a more direct role, perhaps with direct economic consequences for the U.S. So far, that one has been largely a war of words, but that could change.
The other thing that’s really dangerous is that, while the Obama administration keeps saying over and over again, “this will be really small, this will be a shot across the bow, we’re just sending a message here,” for Syria, they may not take it as just a message. They may take a few dozen or a couple of hundred cruise missile strikes on their cities as an act of war, which of course it would be, and they may decide to retaliate. Now, there’s no evidence necessarily that they would do that, but they would, frankly, be within their rights to do that, unfortunately. And if they did, then the question would be, so what’s the U.S. going to do? This is a target rich environment for Syria or for Iran if either of them chose to retaliate. They have U.S. troops on bases in almost all the regional countries, there’s the CENTCOM in Qatar, there’s the main drone base in Saudi Arabia. You have at least four warships and their associated ships, plus an aircraft carrier group off the coast of Syria. You know you have the possibility of Iran sinking a ship in the Strait of Hormuz and closing oil traffic. They could do all that before breakfast. So if they decide to do any of those things, then what’s the U.S. response? Do we think the U.S. is going to go back and say, “well, this was just a one-off, we’re sending a message, so no, we’re not going to respond.” I don’t think it works that way. I think we would see, at that point, a major U.S. escalation and the possibility of massive escalation across the region.
LR: I want to turn for a moment to what our leaders are thinking. President Obama, in 2002, famously made a speech against the Iraq War, and he called it a rash war. And of course, in 2007, when he was running for president, said that, “the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” And yet this is what could of course happen if he chooses to override a Congressional veto. What on earth is he thinking? What happened to this person who ran on a somewhat anti-war platform?
PB: You know, it’s funny Lizzy, I think in some ways, that President Obama personally is still at best conflicted about this and may in fact not really want to do it. It’s certainly possible that when he decided to go to Congress, a decision that he reportedly made with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, not with his top national security adviser, Susan Rice, presumably because he realized she wouldn’t agree with it, that they decided to go to Congress after losing support in the British Parliament, and suddenly confronting the fact that he would be going to war not only without the UN, but without the Brits, without NATO, without the Arab League, and without any Arab country publically being willing to come out and say that we’re going to be part of this. He would be incredibly isolated. And it may be he decided to go to Congress hoping that Congress would vote no to give him a way out.
Now part of me thinks that’s what he is actually hoping for. On the other hand, it kind of doesn’t matter whether that’s really what he’s hoping for or not. Because what he’s doing, and more importantly what his entire administration is doing, with the hitting all five Sunday talk shows, hitting all five last week, plans for all the major networks to get planned speeches that will all be broadcast Monday night, a speech to the nation Tuesday night–it’s clear this is a no-holds-barred decision they have made to push on all fronts to get an arrangement under way to use military force against Syria. So whether or not Barack Obama the man actually does not want this becomes kind of irrelevant. It’s almost like we’re wasting time worrying about what he wants. It’s what he’s doing that matters.
So all of these people–you see it in Members of Congress who are desperate to support this president, but have their own commitment to stand against war but more important, politically, are hearing 100-1, 1000-1 from their constituents who are saying, don’t do this–they are stuck, they are absolutely stuck, because saying “we know he really doesn’t want to do it” doesn’t help when every word he utters is why we have to do this. You know, one of the things that nobody is talking about, is if President Obama went on television Tuesday night and said to the American people, not just, “there have been 100,000 people killed in this terrible war in Syria, and we have to go after the dictator who is responsible.” If instead of saying that, he said, “there have been 100,000 people killed in this civil war”–43 percent of them, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights–43 percent are government, pro-Syrian government militiamen and 37 percent are civilians, and 17 percent are opposition fighters, would people feel the same way? The implication is always that these are 100,000 innocent civilians, all killed by the regime, when in fact almost half are regime soldiers and militiamen who have been killed by the other side.
So it’s a horrific reality, it’s a civil war, and the question of intervention in a civil war is something that most people in this country have a very understandable opposition to, absent anything else, and President Obama is simply talking around that very fundamental reality.