By Aijaz Zaka Syed
September 05, 2013
Humanity at stake in Syria Wimp. That’s what pundits in the west and Middle East seem to think about President Barack Obama following his ‘flip-flop’ over Syria. Even those opposed to western interference in the Middle East or anywhere else seem to agree. Many Middle East watchers worry that the west's ‘inaction’ days after its loud threats to punish Bashar al-Assad could damage its global standing.
Robert Fisk, who has covered and reported from the Middle East for the past three decades like no one has, agrees. “Once Lebanon, Syria and Egypt trembled when Washington spoke. Now they laugh," Fisk wrote in The Independent. “No One In The Middle East Takes America Seriously Anymore.”
Some suggest that with his ‘muddled thinking’ and apparent aversion to making tough calls, Obama risks ending up like Jimmy Carter. America’s allies in the region too have made no secret of their frustration with Obama’s last minute decision to take the Congress’ nod on Syria.
But aren’t Obama’s Hamletian dilemmas better than the smug certitude of his predecessor, sending a million people to their death for a lie? In Churchill’s words, ‘to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war’. A vacillating, self-doubting wimp is any day better than someone who dodged the Vietnam draft and then destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan to show he was man enough.
This president may have done the smartest thing by approaching the Congress. As Linda Heard puts it, the course Obama has chosen is a win-win. If he receives a green light, he will be vindicated. If not, he can lay the blame for inaction on lily-livered lawmakers.
In the end though, I think, Obama may decide to go ahead with the strike on Syria. Having set the so-called red lines over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he cannot wriggle out of it now.
Obama’s decision to seek the Congress’ blessings may have also been forced by the fact that in an unprecedented move, British lawmakers, including 30 from the ruling party, rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to join the cousins from across the pond in Syria. It wasn’t merely a stinging rebuke to Cameron personally; it’s also a huge setback to the so-called special relationship. Clearly, the poodle isn’t ready to jump on the lap all over again.
Besides, there have been huge anti-war demonstrations in Europe and across the US. Opinion polls suggest that a third US war in the region is the last thing the recession-weary western public opinion wants right now. A survey by The Independent, conducted after the Commons vote, suggests that two-thirds of the British are opposed to any strikes on Syria sans UN approval.
Having repeatedly been fed barefaced lies by their governments over Iraq and Afghanistan, people in the west have inevitably seen through this cynical game. Besides, western nations are in no position to lecture Assad or anyone else for that matter on the use of chemical weapons or other deadly equivalents. Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? More recently in Vietnam, Agent Orange, a deadly defoliant, was used to kill thousands. The US is still facing legal claims over birth defects caused by the chemical in thousands of cases.
Western nations have a history of not just inventing and manufacturing these deadly chemicals, they have helped with their supply and production when offered the right opportunity and price. In fact, Israeli peace activist, Gilad Atzmon claims that British firms, defying EU sanctions, sold chemical components needed for production of nerve gas to the Syrians, after the beginning of the popular uprising.
Not only did western nations aid Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in setting up those infamous plants to produce chemical death, the CIA actually helped him gas thousands of Iranian troops during the eight-year-long catastrophic war that claimed nearly a million lives.
The Americans also looked the other way when Saddam gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988. Under Reagan, Rumsfeld – who later brought ‘shock and awe’ to Iraq – even visited and advised Baghdad during the conflict with Iran. And who could forget what Israel unleashed on the Palestinians in full view of the world in the last blitz on Gaza, using white phosphorus and cluster bombs? The world didn’t see any red lines there.
In any case, chemicals weapons, abominable as they are, have had a minor role to play in Israel’s long war on a defenceless, incarcerated people using brute force and conventional weapons. Russia, steadfast in its protection of Moscow’s last remaining pocket of influence in the region, nearly wiped out an entire population in Chechnya using the same good old means.
You can turn a quiet, peaceful piece of land into a living hell for its people using conventional firepower, as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are discovering. Ask those living along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border what they think of those mean machines in the sky efficiently raining death on demand. So it’s rather interesting to see western powers get all sanctimonious about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
That said, though, can there be any justification or defence of what the Syrian regime has unleashed on its own people over the past three years – and even before that? Who in his right mind would and could defend the coldblooded, bloodthirsty regime in Damascus which has destroyed one Syrian city after another along with its people? Red lines have indeed been crossed in Syria – and repeatedly.
Of course, the anti-war sentiment in the west and outrage of liberals and human rights activists around the world is noble and laudable. They prove that global conscience hasn’t totally gone to sleep. However, one doesn’t see what the alternative to international intervention is – unpleasant and unpalatable as it is – to end the reign of terror in Syria. What is the other way of liberating and rescuing the helpless, hopelessly entrapped people of Syria?
I am no apologist of the west and its self-centered, selective, hegemonic worldview. I hate to say this but given the utter hopelessness of the situation in Syria and the appalling, endless suffering of its people over the past three years, external intervention appears to be the only way to end this nightmare. Every option has been tried and exhausted.
Ideally, it would have been great if the Arab and Muslim nations had sorted out this mess on their own. But thanks to their inherent weaknesses and disunity in their ranks, they have spectacularly failed. Assad wouldn’t give two hoots to all the Arab League and OIC resolutions. The UN has, not surprisingly, been proved equally ineffective. Russia has repeatedly thwarted, just as Washington has in Israel’s case, moves to discipline Damascus. Endless negotiations and international diplomatic efforts for a peaceful resolution of the conflict haven’t borne any fruit either.
Meanwhile Syrians continue to die. A Syrian friend, Maher, has seen his entire extended family and neighbourhood in Aleppo wiped out in the past three years. And there are tens of thousands of Mahers out there. Who will come to their rescue? More than a hundred thousand people are dead and four million homeless. Isn’t that a red line enough? What is the world waiting for?
As Yvonne Ridley argues, “this is no longer about presidential or political egos, red lines, special friendships, uneasy alliances, revolution, democracy, dictatorships or saving face; this is about saving lives.”
This isn’t a proxy battle of interests and egos between the Arabs and Iran and Sunnis and Shias either, as some see it. This is about humanity and that is what matters or should matter in the end.
Syria is burning and it needs to be saved. Now. And it doesn’t matter who comes to its rescue and what their motives are as long as precious lives are saved. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Syria. The world can no longer stand and stare. It’s time to put an end to this disastrous, all-consuming conflict.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.