As Obama decides whether to strike Syria over alleged use of chemical weapons, a rising swell of voices here and abroad is questioning such an attack, often citing the bad intelligence in Iraq and the danger of unleashing a wider conflict.
Here is a wrapup of some of those voices and concerns.
Surprisingly, even the AP is casting doubt on the intelligence re the chemical attacks and holding up the Iraq experience.
However, multiple U.S. officials used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe the intelligence picture — a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” — intelligence that turned out to be wrong.
A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria is thick with caveats. It builds a case that Assad’s forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture. Relevant congressional committees were to be briefed on that evidence by teleconference call on Thursday, U.S. officials and congressional aides said.
The complicated intelligence picture raises questions about the White House’s full-steam-ahead approach to the Aug. 21 attack on a rebel-held Damascus suburb, with worries that the attack could be tied to al-Qaida-backed rebels later.
The AP hints that Obama has morphed into the Cheney-Bush role. Note these remarks:
Administration officials said Wednesday that neither the UN Security Council, which is deciding whether to weigh in, or allies’ concerns would affect their plans….
On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said it didn’t really matter whether the administration knew those details with total certainty.
“We ultimately, of course, hold President Assad responsible for the use of chemical weapons by his regime against his own people, regardless of where the command and control lies,” Harf said.
In today’s House of Commons debate in England, even British Prime Minister David Cameron, urging action, conceded that the public well of opinion had been polluted by the false intelligence leading to the Iraq War. He was being pressed by Labor M.P.’s to provide more reliable intelligence than just that provided by the U.S.– a debate seconded by Steve Walt: “Radical idea: UK will acquire facts & conduct parliamentary debate before going to war. You know: acting like a democracy!”
The Nation has come out squarely against intervention, warning that Syria will disintegrate and only cause regional conflict:
Although the American public is, with good reason, overwhelmingly opposed to military involvement in Syria’s chaotic civil war, much of the pundit and political classes have been calling for a US attack on Syrian military targets. Their rationale is not only that Assad must be punished for committing an atrocity but that US “credibility” is at stake—that, having declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line,” Obama will not be taken seriously if he doesn’t order military action. But any credibility Washington had in the region was lost long ago—if not in its war against Iraq based on false WMD allegations, then certainly in the chaos that resulted from the Libyan intervention…
The initial airstrikes could thus easily suck Washington into what Middle East scholar Fawaz Gerges has called “a playground for the merchants of death.” It would make the United States a direct participant in what has become a regional sectarian conflict, further destabilizing Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, all of which are now parties to the Syrian maelstrom. It would draw Washington closer to, and strengthen, a chaotic rebel front now dominated by jihadi extremists closely connected to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and it would increase the chances of direct conflict between the United States and Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, all of whom are determined to prevent the fall of Assad.
…American airstrikes could worsen what is already a disastrous refugee crisis. In fact, one of the most constructive things America could do to relieve the suffering of Syrians would be to vastly increase aid to the 1.9 million refugees who have flooded across the country’s borders.
Instead of bombing Syria, the United States should join Russia in its effort to renew the Geneva negotiations.
A German publication, Focus, has reported that senior Israeli security officials supplied the US with evidence that Assad is responsible for the gas attack in Damascus. As Harriet Sherwood reports in the Guardian:
The bulk of evidence proving the Assad regime’s deployment of chemical weapons – which would provide legal grounds essential to justify any western military action – has been provided by Israeli military intelligence, the German magazine Focus has reported.
The 8200 unit of the Israeli Defence Forces, which specialises in electronic surveillance, intercepted a conversation between Syrian officials regarding the use of chemical weapons, an unnamed former Mossad official told Focus. The content of the conversation was relayed to the US, the ex-official said.
The 8200 unit collects and analyses electronic data, including wiretapped telephone calls and emails. It is the largest unit in the IDF.
..Senior Israeli security officials arrived in Washington on Monday to share the latest results of intelligence-gathering, and to review the Syrian crisis with national security adviser Susan Rice.
Meantime, a group of experts gathered by the neoconservative Weekly Standard is urging missile strikes on Syria and then goes on to– here we go again, regime change: “the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime.”
Many of the signatories will be familiar from the Iraq war runup, when we were urged to invade Iraq by neoconservative groups organized by Bill Kristol with the Project for the New American Century. Among the previous and latest supporters of action: Lawrence Kaplan, Kristol, Paul Berman, Robert Kagan, Nick Eberstadt, Fouad Ajami, Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Bernard-Henri Levy, Marty Peretz, Leon Wieseltier, former Governor Tim Pawlenty, Elliott Abrams, and former senators Norm Coleman and Joe Lieberman.
Scott McConnell of the American Conservative last night raised the concern (in conversation) that these hawks are playing an Iran game. They want an encounter with Iran, specifically so that the warming trend that President Hassan Rouhani represents for western liberals who imagine detente with Iran will come to an end. “Who is Obama talking to?” McConnell asked.
Surely UN Ambassador Samantha Power, for one. She is a no-doubter about what is happening in Syria. From her twitter feed on August 26:
We’re reviewing response options & consulting w/allies & partners in NY & around the world. Widespread outrage & desire for accountability.
Haunting images of entire families dead in their beds. Verdict is clear: Assad has used CWs against civilians in violation of int’l norm.
Mr. Obama has yet to make clear how military strikes — which officials say will last one to two days and target military units that carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the artillery that have launched the attacks — will actually deter chemical attacks without further inflaming a region in turmoil and miring the United States in the Syrian civil war.
Though Nick Kristof is for intervention, on somewhat confused terms — “Look, Syria is going to be a mess, whatever we do”– and Roger Cohen is more assertive. In “Make Assad Pay,” he says “the Assad clan’s gassings cannot go unanswered” calls for “the firm military assertion of U.S. credibility.” He seems to think that Iran will help out.
Rouhani’s Iran, handled right, can help hasten a Syrian endgame.
But Iranian President Rouhani warns against a strike here. At Tablet David Makovsky says that though Israelis are mixed about an attack, and even may want Assad around, some favor US action– again because of the Iran angle.
In the public mind, the US reluctance to intervene in a crisis that has so far claimed more than 100,000 lives has raised questions about the reliability of American commitments going forward, despite the overwhelming support the US has provided Israel for decades. As the US becomes more involved in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians—including the possibility of US military involvement in security arrangements—this is a dangerous perception.
As one of Israel’s top officials told me last week, “when the US puts forward a red line, it has to mean it. The issue goes beyond Syria. It is a matter of credibility with reverberations for US policy towards Iran.” Amid speculation and skepticism about the depth of American commitment in preventing a nuclear Iran, enforcing red lines in Syria would at least send out a broader message that words do have meaning.
And Reuters has published an interview with an Iranian commander saying that a US strike on Syria would embroil the U.S. in another Vietnam.
Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said in an interview late on Wednesday with the Tasnim news agency that a U.S. strike on Syria would not help Israel.
“An attack on Syria will mean the imminent destruction of Israel,” Jafari said, according to Tasnim.
The interview was widely picked up by Iranian media on Thursday. Tasnim, which launched in 2012, says on its website that it is devoted to “defending the Islamic Revolution against negative media propaganda”.
Jafari, as quoted by Tasnim, also warned the United States that it risked embroilment in a costly and protracted struggle if it intervened in Syria.
“Syria will turn into a more dangerous and deadly battlefield than the Vietnam War, and in fact, Syria will become the second Vietnam for the United States,” he said.
The Russians are warning of destructive consequences across the Middle East.
Russian officials are now comparing the possible use of force against Syria to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which was vehemently opposed by Moscow as based on flawed intelligence that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“Deja-vu,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee wrote on Twitter.
That view is underlined by Ayssar Midani, a Syrian-French scientist associated with Nosstia, a group of expatriate Syrian scientists dedicated to improving the country’s standard of living. In this video she speaks in French, but according to Nicholas Wibberley’s translation, makes the following point:
Russia’s ambassador in the UN Security Council, Vitaly Churkin, presented conclusive evidence – based on documents and Russian satellite images – of two rockets carrying toxic chemicals, fired from Douma, controlled by the Syrian “rebels”, and landing on East Ghouta. Hundreds of “rebels”, as well as civilians – including those children on the cover of Western corporate media papers – were killed.
Hans Blix, the former UN weapons inspector, calls for international political conference to create an interim authority in Syria and end the moral horrors of the civil war. But he writes in the Guardian that the US should not act as a global policeman:
do we want the US or Nato or “alliances of willing states” as global policemen…? Unlike George Bush in 2003, the Obama administration is not trigger-happy and contemptuous of the United Nations and the rules of its charter, which allow the use of armed force only in self-defence or with an authorisation from the security council. Yet Obama, like Bush and Blair, seems ready to ignore the council and order armed strikes on Syria with political support from only the UK, France and some others.
Such action could not be “in self-defence” or “retaliation”, as the US, the UK and France have not been attacked. To punish the Assad government for using chemical weapons would be the action of self-appointed global policemen – action that, in my view, would be very unwise.
Finally, an indication that Americans are not as keen for another conflict as our leaders: The Drudge Report is tougher on Syria and more skeptical than the left-liberal MSM. Their headlines at 2:44 PM:
Syrian PM warns country will become a ‘graveyard for invaders’…
UN: ‘Give peace a chance’…
DOES OBAMA KNOW HE’S FIGHTING ON AL QAEDA’S SIDE?
Strikes ‘likely to trigger terrorists acts against USA, Israel’…
ISRAEL CALLS UP RESERVISTS AFTER THREATS…
REPORT: Calls intercepted ‘prove’ nerve gas…
Jordan: We won’t help…
CLAIM: Al Qaeda-linked group behind Benghazi trains jihadists for Syria…
UN: Wait 4 Days…
Update. That view is reflected by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic, who bewails the tiny group that is driving the push for military action. He raises the moral hazard issue involved in armchair warriors making decisions about others’ fates. “How an Insular Beltway Elite Makes Wars of Choice More Likely.”
What I’d like is if news accounts on pressure to intervene in Syria made it clear that the “growing calls … for forceful action” aren’t coming from the people, or Congressional majorities, or an expert consensus. The pressure is being applied by a tiny, insular elite that mostly lives in Washington, D.C., and isn’t bothered by the idea of committing America to military action that most Americans oppose.
Update. More mainstream voices against intervention. Jeffrey Goldberg moves into the against column. Yesterday he sorta called for regime change, not missile strikes:
A better idea would be to commit the U.S. fully to the removal of the Assad regime. This doesn’t require direct American military action. It requires the formulation of a long-term, complicated and obviously precarious program that would do what should have been done all along: Build up the non-jihadi branches of the Syrian opposition while working with our allies to marginalize the jihadis.
Today he mocks Obama’s lack of any real plan:
If this is indeed the goal of the Obama administration — to look tough without being tough, to avoid threatening the existence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and to avoid angering Iran and Russia — then, really, let’s not bother with this attack at all. For other reasons, I’m opposed to this sort of attack on Syria — please see yesterday’s post on the subject. But if the goal is merely to save face in light of President Barack Obama’s (morally and politically appropriate) drawing of a chemical-weapons red line, then this forthcoming attack is a very, very bad idea.