The underpinning problem with most of the reporting of the civil war in Syria–and with it the understanding of that war by the American people–is that the media over-simplifies the situation. And by reporting, I mean not only the popular media, but the intelligence agencies responsible for briefing the President. Now, whether they do so because they actually believe their simplified version of reality or because, being the intellectually-crippled cretins they are, they cannot comprehend a more complex situation, or because the President is a morally bankrupt and ethically challenged cretin in his own right, is a topic for another rant. People paying close attention to Barack Obama will readily notice that he is too prone to fall back on a dualist explanation for most of the topics on which he touches vis-a-vis Syria–Side A and Side B, or Alternative A or Alternative B, etc. All the pieces are there for him to be able to present a much more effective picture of the Syrian civil war, but he seems to be more intent on reducing his explanations and decision-making rationale to the level of a rather slow 8th-grader–in other words, his level of thinking when deprived of a teleprompter.
Obama begins with the same premise that most Westerners accept as a given: that Islam is resolutely duolithic, divided only into Shi’ite and Sunni factions. The truth is that Islam is as splintered as Judaism–or, for that matter, the Baptists. He then reduces the civil war in Syria to a simplistic two-part equation: the rebels vs. the Assad regime. He then tries to further reduce that into a Sunni (rebels) vs. Shi’ite (government) sectarian conflict. Obama will frequently refer to “sectarian violence” but leaves it at that, creating the impression that the distinctions are pretty clear-cut. What he rarely mentions is that this is NOT a simple two-way civil war–it’s not even a three-way civil war: there are almost as many sides in this as there are Islamic sects with in both Shi’a and Sunni dogmas. What most Western “journalists” and intelligence agencies either do not perceive, or perhaps cannot understand, or worse, refuse to report (although it is being covered in the Arab media) is that the rebels are NOT some unified popular uprising making common cause against Assad’s regime. There is as much fighting–and slaughter–going on within the rebel movement as there is between the rebels and the government forces. You have the Muslim Brotherhood trying to become primus inter pares within the rebel movement; Wahhabists (who are so conservative they make the Muslim Brotherhood look like Bolsheviks) who are don’t give a damn about any concept of popular government, hoping to supplant the Assad regime–and merrily blowing away anyone who gets in the way (for more on Wahhabism, see The First Jihad–the Battle for Khartoum and the Dawn of Militant Islam by (surprise!) Daniel Allen Butler; Casemate, 2006); then you have the Shi’ite population of Syria (about a fifth of the people living there) who aren’t particularly fond of the Alawis, a branch of Shi’ite Islam which the Assad family has traditionally embraced; and you have the Druze, who are hoping to re-create the Jabal ad-Druze, the Druze state that existed briefly (1921-1925) in the wake of the collapse of the Ottman Empire in 1918. (For more on that bit, see Shadow of the Sultan’s Realm–The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by (surprise again!) Daniel Allen Butler; Potomac, 2011.) This listing of factions is far from comprehensive, but you get the picture: there are a lot of people fighting over how big a piece of the pie they are going to get.
Obama also makes the mistake, and in doing so further misleads the American public, of insisting that the rebellion in Syria did not simply follow in the wake of the “Arab Spring” of 2011 but that it was inspired and given impetus by it, and that the revolt remains some sort of popular uprising against a repressive and authoritarian regime–because that regime WAS repressive and authoritarian. Again, this is wishful thinking on the part of Obama: he assumes, though he should clearly know better, that the rebellion broke out in the hope that the Assad regime would be replaced by a more responsible, possibly even representative government. It has been widely–and erroneously–reported that the rebellion started in April 2011 in an idealistic response to the killing of peaceful protesters, who were inspired by earlier revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and who spontaneously rose up to challenge the Assad dictatorship. The sad truth is that the more violent ethnic and sectarian factions resident in Syria saw the government’s repression of the early protests as an opportunity to de-stabilize the regime and fill the resulting power-vacuum, in much the same way the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt. This in no way denies that the Syrian government forces are guilty of killing, kidnapping, rape, torture, and mutilation of Syrians of both genders and all ages. But Obama has attempted to play on the sometimes too-sympathetic nature of the American people to garner support for his proposed intervention: to people living in Western societies, the sort of brutality as described is unconscionable, and would be regarded as legitimate grounds for a revolution if it were ever done by Western government, hence the Syrian rebels would appear to be justified. However, we are not talking about a Western society here, we are talking about an Arab society. The tragedy experience by Syria even as you are reading this is part of a larger Arab tragedy, a product of the Arabs’ unfortunate history.
For four thousand years, the Levant or Middle East or whatever you want to call it, has been the breeding ground, battleground, and homeland to constant procession of empires. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs (yes, briefly!), Seljuks, Ottomans, French and British have in succession conquered then occupied part or all of what is modern Syria. For all of that time the people who would eventually morph into the Arabs knew no other form of governance but oppression and represssion–the Arabs have, by dint of centuries of experience, assimilated that to be the natural order. The rule of the strong, and their right to rule as a consequence of their strength, became–and continues to be–the cultural norm for the Arab world. Even where the nominal trappings of a representative government exist or have existed, there has always been a strongman at the top, with absolute or near-absolute power available to him, whether or not he ever chose to exercise it. And lest anyone try to point to Egypt as the exception to that rule, I would point out that while Gamal Nassr and Anwar Sadat were popular, they ruled as dictators, using the fictions of a democratic process. (The best historical example of how this works would be Caesar Augustus, whom though he had been granted absolute power by the Senate, continued to pretend that the Senate actually ruled Rome, though mostly it simply rubber-stamped his wishes into law. So Nassr, Sadat, and Mubarik.) This is the form of governance that culturally the Arabs have come to accept and expect–loyalties are not given to the nation by people who have no history or sense of nationhood: prior to 1946, Syria had never existed as a sovereign nation, so its people have never having a sense of long-standing “national” identity. Loyalty in Arab culture is given to individuals, whether they be hereditary national rulers, prominent religious figures, or tribal authorities. The Arab culture is one of the few still extant where tribal loyalty can, and often does, trump governmental authority. Hence the rebellion in Syria is not an attempt on the part of the Syrian people to remove and dismantle an oligarchical system of government, but rather an effort by parties (groups, factions, however you want to style them) within Syria to supplant the existing oligarchy. Portraying it as a simple “Us vs. Them–and we want to be free!” scenario is wildly misleading, even deceptive. The Syrians aren’t fighting a civil war as it would be understood in the framework of a Western culture, but then the Syrians aren’t a Western culture, and attempting to impose Western cultural standards on them does both the Syrians and the West a grave moral disservice.
This is not to say that the Syrians, and by extension the Arabs, are not cultured. But Arab culture is mostly incongruent with Western culture, and attempting to impose either one on the other is a recipe for disaster. Always has been, always will be. (And please, let’s not have anybody bring up the Turks as an exception to this rule–the Turks are, as any Turk will, with fierce pride, point out to you, not Arabs.) The attempt on the part of Barack Obama to impose by force the Western standards of conduct in warfare, then, is an act of not merely political hubris, but also a demonstration of cultural ignorance. Which brings us to the core question of this entire debacle: by what right does Barack Obama presume that America ought to intervene in the Syrian civil war because the Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons against the rebels?
There were two attempts in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods to codify, by means of international treaty, what had long been traditions and understandings between nations at war. These were the two Hague Conventions, 1899 and 1907 (which for some reason most people mistakenly refer to as “the Geneva Convention”), which were later modified at a conference held in Geneva in 1925. It was in that conference that prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons were first proposed. That was only after the Great War, when the Germans had pushed–and burst–the envelope of what was permissible under international law (exhibiting that peculiarly German fondness for asserting that whatever is de jure legal is de facto moral) and introduced in succession tear gas, mustard gas, and phosgene gas on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Suddenly everybody began using chemical weapons, all the while shouting “Well, THEY started it!” as though that was some sort of justification. The world powers, having recognized that lines had been drawn–and pretty much adhered to–in the past, decided that a new set of lines needed to be drawn for the new weapons introduced in the First World War. Hence the international proscription on the use of chemical weapons. The first proscriptions were codified in the 1925 Geneva Protocol to the 1907 Hague Convention; further proscriptions were written into the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. It is under the provisions of these two documents that Barack Obama believes there is legal and moral justification for whatever action he proposes be taken against Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
Unfortunately for Obama, he either conveniently ignores, or, equally convenient, is utterly ignorant of, the contents of the 1925 Geneva Protocol to the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Both documents address the use of biochemical weapons against foreign armed forces and foreign civilian populations by a combatant nation; neither of them clarifies the question of the legality of the use of chemical weapons by a government against its own population. Moreover, Syria was not signatory to either (it didn’t exist as a sovereign state in 1925, and Hafez al-Assad refused to sign the 1993 instrument), and so it can be argued that the Assad regime isn’t bound by the restrictions of either in any case. Not only that, but no mechanism is in place in either document allowing for intervention by outside powers in the event that a government uses chemical weapons against its own citizens. (Let me add, literally parenthetically, for those who are tempted to protest otherwise, that simply exclaiming “It’s the right thing to do!” doesn’t work: it is de facto if not always de jure (again) that what one nation does to another tacitly permits the same to be done to itself. Hence, by presuming to act against the regime in Syria because we disapprove of its actions within its own borders, Obsama is admitting to the right of foreign regimes to intervene by force in American domestic issues if they believe they have the moral justification to do so and the strength to back it up. That has always been the flaw in the logic of regime change–a nation cannot simply reserve a right solely to itself because it presumes to arrogate a morally superior position. Think about it: “I can hit you, but you’re not allowed to hit me back!” didn’t work too well at recess in 3rd Grade, did it? And when you get right down to it, if history proves anything about international relations, it’s that they have all the subtle dynamics of an elementary school playground.)
As for the weeping, wailing, hand-wringing “Somebody’s gotta do something!” set that try to justify US intervention on the grounds that if some sort of action isn’t taken against him, as Assad’s position deteriorates, he will employ even more chemical weapons, that sort of rationalization collapses under the weight of its own stupidity. A successful American attack on the government forces will only worsen their position, which will only increase, according to this line of reasoning, Assad’s willingness to further use chemical weapons. The whole rationale for intervention thus becomes counter-productive, inducing the exact result the intervention was meant to preempt. The historical precedent–and international law is shaped as much by precedent as it is by international consensus–has always been that what a nation’s ruling regime does within its own borders is that regime’s business, not the world’s, no matter how unpleasant that conduct may be. Adolf Hitler didn’t become an international criminal until the spring of 1938, when he took his act outside of Germany’s borders and essentially coerced Austria into an Anschluss with Germany, then did the same thing later with the Sudetenland. Saddam Hussein didn’t become an international criminal until he invaded Kuwait. It may not be pretty, and it may not seem fair, but guess what? Life isn’t always pretty–and life is never fair, it just “is.” Those are two self-evident truths that Barack Obama, living in his narcissistic fantasyland, appears to habitually fail to grasp: the whole of the situation with the Syrian civil war and the Administration’s desired response to it smacks of being one where Barack Obama feels that he must, because of the position he occupies, respond in some way, and is unable to formulate a response which is both effective and personally satisfying. He sees this as a circumstance in which he must act in order to appear a strong, resolute leader, when in truth he is incapable or understanding that such a leader would strongly resolve to do nothing, because that is what the circumstance truly warrants and deserves. If Barack Obama wants to lash out in anger against a regime that conducts itself internally in a way with which he disagrees, fine, he may do so–but he should know better than to pretend to the American people, let alone the rest of the world, that self-righteous indignation provides immunity from retaliation, and he has no business trying to use international law as a figleaf in his attempt to conceal that the real reason for his desire for action is anger at his own perceived impotence.