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In the next few days everybody’s expecting an attack on Syria to begin, likely led by Obama. After last week’s devastating chemical weapons attack, many now feel they now have the justification they need to enter the civil war which has now claimed somewhere in the neighbourhood of a hundred thousand lives. So far, both Canada and the UK have bowed out (among many others), and Russia and China are issuing stern warnings, prompting fears that this might kick-off a third World War.

Admittedly, intervention, at this point, is pretty tempting. The Syrian situation has become a bloodbath, and whichever side one wants to blame, there’s pretty universal agreement that it needs to end. The question is: will “intervention” improve the situation? After the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it’s become hard to take the optimists seriously in these matters – while such an intervention sounds wonderful in theory, it’s never quite so simple in practice.

At times like this, much of the West starts to think of itself as a sort of superhero. Possessing both a “superior” moral philosophy and weapons technology, we imagine ourselves as having a responsibility to help regions who aren’t as “developed”. Unfortunately, in these situations, the lines between hero and villain are never quite as clear as in the cartoons. It wasn’t so long ago that Assad and his torture chambers were a vital part of the “War on Terror”, especially the “rendition” program, which abducted, imprisoned and tortured individuals like Maher Arar. As for the dreaded Al Qaeda, they’ve been fighting Assad’s forces in Syria for quite a while now as a well-acknowledged part of the rebel forces. This pattern of shifting alliances has been a characteristic part of America’s foreign policy blunders since at least the Second World War. From their support for insurgents like Ho Chi Minh in their war with the Japanese to the now-legendary support for the Afghani Mujahadeen, these friends have an uncanny knack of coming back a generation later as enemies.

The Lybian conflict showed how quickly these tables can turn in the post-Arab Spring terrain. No sooner had Gaddafi (himself, armed by the West) fallen than stories started flooding out about the brutality of rebel forces. Worse, the rebels themselves, many with strong Islamic beliefs, began to leaving the country as well, and took with them many of the weapons which the West generously supplied (either to them or Gaddafi). This led to attacks and insurgencies in countries like Nigeria, Mali and Syria, and at least one more intervention (not counting Syria). There’s every reason to expect a very similar result from the fall of Assad, made all the more terrifying by the fact that this might be the first of these conflicts where WMDs are actually present.

As far as who let off the sarin gas cloud on August 22, that’s still not entirely clear. It may well have been Assad, or somebody from his side – so far they’ve shown little regard for mass civilian casualties and a steady appetite for escalation using increasingly powerful military hardware. On the other hand, claims that rebels had managed to get their hands on chemical weapons go back months before the attack, coming both from rebels themselves and others. There were even a few attacks last winter in which rebels allegedly struck with (low-quality) gas. Tying these all together is the obvious question of motive, for which Assad had very little (his side has been doing pretty well with conventional weapons) and the rebels had plenty.

America’s Evidence
Allegations against rebels/Saudis
Discussion

Whoever used these weapons, their introduction only goes to show how desperate the situation has become, and this is something for which Assad can’t escape responsibility. Like Saddam and Gaddafi, I will shed no tears when he meets his inevitable bad end. That doesn’t mean, however, that I support an intervention – just that I have very little time for tyrants of any stripe. There’s a tendency in situations like this to ‘take a side’ and blame the other for every atrocity. The peace movement, in particular, has long been notorious for apologist depiction of leaders like Milosovic and Saddam – a natural reaction to their demonization in propaganda, perhaps, but also a fairly shameful public display. The choice between Obama and Assad, like Bush and Saddam, is a false dichotomy. It makes no more sense than stating that “if you don’t like the Bloods, you must support the Crips” – sometimes “neither” is a very valid option.

In the months leading up to the Iraq War, what little debate there was centered largely around this question. What makes the debate over Syria so fascinating (aside from the fact that it’s actually happening) is that people seem to be catching onto this ploy. Some of the most high-profile cautions have come from figures like Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, as well as large numbers of America’s soldiers and veterans. After more than a decade of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody’s eager to get into the same kind of “quagmire” (clusterfuck) again. The exceptions, of course, being Obama and France (oh, the irony).

That so many veteran ‘hawks’ oppose this action highlights the hopeless naivety implicit in the notion of humanitarian bombings. You can’t blow up a social relationship, even with Tomahawks and Predator Drones. No matter how advanced the weapons, things will escalate and Obama will be forced to choose between “boots on the ground” and watching the situation deteriorate from afar, or essentially, the choice between repeating their misadventures in Iraq or Libya. A ground invasion would unseat Assad but as Iraq proved, three weeks of “combat operations” can easily become ten years of bitter occupation. On the other hand, sticking (primarily) to aerial bombardment meant that much of Libya fell into the hands of incredibly brutal rebel factions, and flooded the region with heavy weapons and wandering insurgents. Given Syria’s location and substantial military capability, this is a terrifying possibility. What would happen if Al Quaeda veterans, armed with military-grade chemical weapons capabilities, were let loose in the heart of the Middle East?

Afghanistan was a failed state and Iraq had been under blockade for a decade and at war for a decade before that – as brutal and large as their armies were, they weren’t a lot more sophisticated than some drug cartels. Syria has a relatively modern air force, navy and extensive air-defence system (including, allegedly, a “worrying” number of MANPADS). America’s forces are tired and stretched. Actual intelligence is sorely lacking. This will not be an “easy” war, and if they think it’s hard to avoid civilians with airstrikes in the Afghan/Pakistan borderlands, just wait till they get to Damascus.

Barack: do yourself a favour and don’t. Just don’t. Find another way. You’re already sitting at your lowest approval ratings ever and this ain’t gonna bring them back up. It didn’t work for George W. and it won’t work for you. If you go to Syria, you will burn what little is left of your empire’s credibility and unleash destructive forces in ways we can’t possibly predict. The War on Terror is a failure, let it go before you start WW3.

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