My Turn: On Syria, whose lying eyes are you going to trust?
FILE - This Thursday, Aug.1, 2013 file photo posted on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, purports to show Syrian President Bashar Assad talking with soldiers with during Syrian Arab Army day in Darya, Syria. As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, the regime in Damascus is hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of bases into civilian areas. (AP Photo/Syrian Presidency via Facebook, File)
First, weep for Syria.
Then, weep for the children.
Then, weep for the victims, the dispossessed, the innocent.
Then, after your tears are exhausted and your vision clears remember:
You can handle the truth.
Remember, we have yet to see convincing evidence that Syria used chemical weapons on its civilian population.
Yes, there is horrifying video and photo evidence. Yes, witness and victim testimony is compelling. Yes, there is incontrovertible evidence that someone used chemical weapons with genocidal intent, with terrifying consequences.
But I don’t know who. Neither do you.
The New York Times recently wrote, “If the Obama administration has such evidence, it should make it public immediately. Given America’s gross failure in Iraq – when the Bush administration went to war over nonexistent nuclear weapons – the standard of proof is now unquestionably higher.”
And, as Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent, “If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qaida.”
It’s not as though the Bashar al-Assad regime are the bad guys and the Syrian opposition forces are the good guys. If only it were that simple.
Among the opposition, the secularists are outnumbered and outgunned by jihadist elements alongside whom they sometimes fight – and against whom they sometimes find themselves pitted.
The opposition has come to be dominated by jihadists, including al-Qaida, Al Nusra and other Salafist elements whose objective is not just to overthrow Assad but also to make sure that democracy does not find a foothold in a re-emergent Syria. Their goal is to impose an Islamist state against the wishes of the majority of Syria’s citizens.
These opposition elements have as little regard for the sanctity of innocent life as does Assad, and they are willing to take extreme measures to accomplish their goals. In their calculus, 1,000 victims is a small price to pay if they can suck the West into attacking the Syrian military.
I supported the Afghan war but I opposed an Iraqi intervention, not because Saddam Hussein was a nice guy but because I believed, rightly as it turns out, that the United States and coalition forces hadn’t made the case for weapons of mass destruction. Further, there was no evidence that tied Iraq to the war on terror, and I believed that we had no right to put American lives at risk based on the wishes of a war-hungry cabal of neo-cons supported by an unquestioning, subservient media.
Remember Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and Jessica Lynch in Iraq?
Remember Abu Ghraib? Remember how we trusted those government and media lying eyes?
I don’t see a path where we can intervene on behalf of the victims without taking the side of one of two odious choices – and given how unpalatable those choices are, the bottom line is to try and assess what is in America’s best interest.
First, we need to see the evidence.
According to the German magazine Focus, it appears that much of the evidence implicating Assad’s use of chemical weapons has come from Israel, which is not surprising as it has the most sophisticated signals intelligence in the region. And, as America and Israel often cooperate on intelligence matters, it is no surprise that Israel shared its intel with us. But because Israel’s strategic interests don’t always align with ours, we need to be careful.
We need to see the evidence.
As the maelstrom swirls in Syria sucking all into its malevolent stream, as millions of Syrians have either become displaced or become refugees, ask – what advantage is gained by this criminal provocation?
It’s not numbers: More than 100,000 people have been killed since the civil war started so, in that context, an attack that kills about 1,000, in geopolitical terms, is small.
It’s not that Assad was losing: his forces have been gaining territory and strength in the past few months. His military is winning – why would he risk incurring retaliatory strikes by Western forces?
It’s not that no one would notice: UN inspectors were already in Syria, not far from where the attack happened.
Absent a political solution there will be endless war.
President Obama needs to take a long view – and do nothing. I cannot imagine what America gains by unilaterally attacking another Muslim country. The United States, which went to Iraq on the false claim of WMDs, which is known to have assisted Sadaam Hussein in using chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, which uses drones against nations that we are not at war with, cannot make itself safer by bombing Syria, no matter how strategically and surgically focused the attacks.
However, if America can bring itself to think beyond conventional wisdom, the Syria crisis presents America with a creative geo-strategic opening: This crisis presents an opportunity for détente with Iran.
Knowing that Iran refused to introduce chemical weapons in its war with Iraq, in part for theological reasons, and seizing upon the results of its recent elections, Obama could move toward an understanding with Tehran that includes offering to reduce sanctions while Iran agrees to recalibrate its nuclear power ambitions. Iran could emerge with enhanced global prestige and influence.
Détente with Iran would isolate Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, create some counter-balance against Salafist-leaning Arab states and diminish any perceived strategic risks to Israel.
Iran could not resist an American gambit that would gradually wean it away from those commitments while reaffirming its status as an economic and Persian Gulf power.
In conclusion, absent any moral authority, absent the willingness of the international community to act together in Syria, and absent any military certainty that we can affect change to our benefit, any strike on Syria could have profound unintended and unexpected consequences on our own security.
Until I know whose lying eyes to trust, I’ll trust my own.
(Robert Azzi is a writer and photographer living in Exeter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .)