An alleged chemical attack in a Damascus suburb occurred on Wednesday. Despite the fact that there is no real confirmation that the chemical attack came from the Syrian government and not some “rebel force,” the US and other countries have appeared as if they are moving closer to escalating intervention to a point where air strikes are being launched against Syria.
According to The Independent‘s Oliver Wright, “Western countries, including Britain, are planning to take unilateral military action against the Assad regime within two weeks in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria.” Wright reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed “launching missile strikes against key regime targets during a 40-minute telephone call with President Barack Obama on Saturday night and also with the French President François Hollande on Sunday.”
United Nations inspectors, who were supposed to be allowed to access “any site of a purported chemical weapons attack” were fired upon by snipers on August 26. It was apparently impossible to tell if they were affiliated with the Syrian government or a “rebel force.” The Syrian government also has broadcasted images of “chemical agents” on state television that were allegedly “discovered by their soldiers in tunnels used by rebel forces.” Doctors without Borders has said “more than 3,000 people were hospitalized in Syria Wednesday with what it called ‘neuro-toxic’ symptoms,” according to CBS News. “About 355 of them died.” Whether the attack came from the Syrian government or “rebel forces” is still unclear at the moment (and may never be clear).
Several US media organizations since the alleged chemical attack on Wednesday have published editorials calling for some kind of punishment of whichever force was behind the attack. The Washington Post Editorial Board urged, if the Syrian opposition’s reports of chemical attack were accurate, “Mr. Obama should deliver on his vow not to tolerate such crimes — by ordering direct US retaliation against the Syrian military forces responsible and by adopting a plan to protect civilians in southern Syria with a no-fly zone.”
The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board called for the “red line” Obama had drawn to be enforced. Though acknowledging that they had shared Obama’s aversion to military intervention, the editorial stated, “If the reports are confirmed by the UN inspectors or otherwise, this atrocity should be met with measured military action.” The editorial concluded, “The Syrian government must not be allowed to cross that line with impunity.”
The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board rhetorically asked, “If the Syrian government launched this chemical attack, will it be held accountable, not just by the U.S. but by countries in the Arab world and elsewhere? Will France, Turkey and other countries outraged by the attack impose a no-fly zone in Syria, along the lines of the NATO coalition that helped topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011? Or will world leaders shrug, await Assad’s next outrage, and debate the meaning of ‘red line’?”
The New York Times Editorial Board was one of the few editorial boards to call for a punishment strike against those responsible regardless of whether it had come from Assad’s forces or not. In an editorial titled, “The Corpses in Syria,” the Board declared, “Chemical weapons would be a chilling escalation. The White House insisted again on Wednesday that those responsible for using them ‘must be held accountable.’ At some point, those words have to mean something, whether the culprit is the Syrian government or the rebels.”
The editorial board for Bloomberg published “Punish Assad’s Chemical Weapons Use with Airstrikes,” despite no clear proof Assad had been behind the recent chemical attack. The board aggressively stated:
Israel has shown that it’s possible to launch targeted strikes in Syria without destroying air defenses beforehand — a daunting task that General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he’s reluctant to undertake. Planners at the Pentagon are, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, refining military options that would primarily involve weapons launched from afar such as cruise missiles. That would be the right level of force. The operation must be designed — and seen to be designed — not to topple Assad but to show him and everybody else that use of chemical weapons is a war crime that won’t go unpunished. [emphasis added]
The Christian Science Monitor Editorial Board reacted, “The time for the US administration to work closely with America’s allies to fashion a measured but ever-escalating response until Assad is forced out. It is a strategy not without risks, but the stakes now are too high for the world to ignore a crossing of the red line.” (The Board also decried the fact that arms from the US were reportedly not reaching rebel groups.)
What the editorials have in common are “questions” aimed at bolstering support for a military responses, which are really statements reflecting the media organizations’ views toward Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. That is not to condone Assad’s brutal regime and all the deaths his regime has caused in the past couple of years. Rather, it is to note that most US media outlets, like NATO countries, appear to be more than willing to use the recent chemical attack as a pretext to escalate violence regardless of whether it can be proven Syria’s government was behind the alleged chemical attack.
This is further proven by the round of reports in US media yesterday, which granted an Obama administration official anonymity to say there was “very little doubt” that chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian regime against civilians. Such a statement could easily help increase public and political support for military action yet the media did not force the person to go on the record and give his or her name if the administration wanted such a statement to be published.
McClatchy stood above the pack—as the media organization also did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003—and properly characterized what could happen if a military response occurred:
…[A]ny strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime would occur over the misgivings of a majority of Americans, according to a new poll, and with only limited support from Congress. The fallout from such action includes likely retaliation from Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah – Assad’s three chief foreign patrons – and could draw the United States deeply into a new Middle East conflict after years of entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan…
The calls for a punishment strike by US media build off a prior round of endorsements for arming the “rebels” from Times columnist and former executive editor, Bill Keller, and Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Former State Department official and liberal professor, Anne Marie-Slaughter, also argued in an editorial against the restraint the Obama administration had chosen to display. (And, Washington Post editors have consistently called for greater intervention from the US in Syria, even citing the Iraq War to justify military action.)
Increased support also coincides with politicians, who have become more and more supportive of allowing the Obama administration to take military action. Over the weekend, Democratic Representative Eliot Engel and Republican Representative Bob Corker both expressed support for a forceful response. (Corker and Engel both suggested bombings could begin before Congress authorized such action and the administration could come back after to get approval for continued use of force, which would be an abdication of duty to check the power of the Executive Branch.)
Pentagon officials have previously acknowledged that intervening in Syria would be risky. In March 2012, unnamed senior Pentagon officials warned “military intervention would be a daunting and protracted operation, requiring at least weeks of exclusively American airstrikes, with the potential for killing vast numbers of civilians and plunging the country closer to civil war.”
About a year and a half later, would Pentagon officials give the same assessment of any planned intervention?
Strikes are likely to be NATO-backed, but there should be no illusions about how the bombing of targets in Syria would simply be “punishment” strikes that could be undertaken and then forces could pull back and wait for Assad to make a move. Obviously, mission creep would occur, as it inevitably did in Libya, and eventually Assad’s regime would be toppled by lethal force. In the vacuum, “rebel forces” would clamor against each other for control of the country. Remnants of Assad’s regime would also be fighting to regain control of the country as well.
As The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson recently wrote about the aftermath of the NATO-backed intervention in Libya:
With no further need for war and with Western powers fussing over what was being vaunted as the oil-rich nation’s new democracy, Libya should have once again achieved peace and stability. Instead, the country, of more than six million people, seems to have been fatally destabilized by the war to remove its dictator, and it is increasingly out of control. Militias that arose on various regional battlefronts found themselves in possession of vast arsenals and large swaths of territory. Despite the orchestration of parliamentary elections and the assumption of nominal rule by civilian politicians in Tripoli, those militias have not stood down; instead, they have used their force and their firepower to try to effect change in the capital, even, on several occasions, besieging government buildings. They have also fought one another over long-held regional enmities; the most recent such battle occurred last month. [emphasis added]
Anderson also wrote, “Libya lacks the ability to police its borders, not to mention its armories, and Al Qaeda thrives in any vacuum of influence.” It is well known that fighters with ties to al Qaeda have been entering Syria to fight. That has been one of the key problems with sending arms to the “rebels.”
No one in the Obama administration wants al Qaeda fighters to get their hands on weapons being funneled into Syria but it is impossible to ensure that does not happen.
“Punishing” Assad is not likely to help the innocent civilians of Syria, who have been caught up in this ugly conflict for far too long. It will only create the kind of quagmire that the US created in Iraq and breed more and more sectarianism that will be prevalent in the country once NATO-backed forces withdraw.