Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for September, 2013

Obama and the Syrian Fight Club

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 2 September 2013 15:26

Here are a few thoughts about the intensified debate regarding foreign military intervention in Iraq’s western neighbour, Syria.

The controversy about the use of chemical weapons has essentially forced the Obama administration to present a condensed version of what it will do and what it won’t do in terms of intervening in Syria. In statements related to possible action, it has become clear that the Obama administration views chemical weapons use as the sole possible justification for intervention, and that such intervention does not aim at changing the balance of power between the warring parties or unseating the Assad regime. The only clearly articulated goal seems to be to punish Assad in a way that does not support one side in Syria over the other.

That seemingly surgical goal should in itself warrant some suspicion. If the plan is to strike at command and control centres rather than the chemical weapons themselves (which would be even more dangerous), how can this not affect the balance of power in Syria which is already so fragile that every little village is fought for as if they constituted some kind of Stalingrad in their own right? Additionally, with the ample advance warning provided, the Americans would be very lucky to avoid any attempt by Al-Qaeda to perform attacks against Assad scheduled to coincide to with the American attacks, which inevitably would give Islamist hardliners an unintended boost in the conflict.

More fundamentally, it seems contradictive in the extreme to perform this kind of attack if the ulterior motive is precisely to not affect the balance of power in Syria. Because that approach means that the main strategy remains diplomacy, doesn’t it? Surely, diplomacy will be collateral damage in any American attack, since the Assad regime, Iran and Russia alike will see no reason to soften their position following what will be perceived as an American provocation. That in turn means that the net outcome of any American attack, even if performed precisely according to the American ideas about pinpointed strikes, will be a setback for diplomatic efforts and hence mean a prolongation of the Syrian conflict.

From this point of view, President Obama seems to be about to shoot himself in the foot with his attacks. Maybe he understands it himself, and that is why he is almost reversing American constitutional order by turning so surprisingly to Congress? Unless, of course, the United States views Syria as some kind of Middle Eastern version of Fight Club, in which shirts and shoes are OK but no chemical weapons please. Go on, just slug it out with your “ancient sectarian hatreds”; we will stand by and remain intensely seized by the matter without doing anything at all, not even diplomatically. That is a view of international politics which fetishizes the difference between killing with chemical weapons and killing with other means, but then again it is also what has enabled American allies in Israel, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to continue repressing and killing their own citizens for decades without attracting much in the way of scrutiny by the US Congress.

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