Thinking about the Somethings to be done about Syria

With breathtaking paternalism, the Obama Administration has decided ‘something must be done’ in Syria.  The “something” it has in mind is the dropping of dozens of Raytheon’s BGM-109 bombs (aka the Tomahawk cruise missile) throughout Syria, particularly around its capital, Damascus.

Everyone agrees that this will not end Assad’s hold on the country, it will not improve the lot of Syrians, and “it doesn’t, obviously end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria.”

None of this is their intention. Their intention is to spank Assad using a spectacular and display of tactically useless military violence that risks Syrian lives and protects American ones, all while pretending such violence somehow does not constitute “involvement in the civil war in Syria, [which] would not help the situation on the ground.”

John Kerry’s statement on Friday built the case for bombing Syria based largely on allaying American (and Australian and French) fear about how history would judge them for “turning a blind eye” to “the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror” of this violation of “international norms.”  A selfish fear based on a false dichotomy between “doing nothing” and thereby “creat[ing] impunity” and exercising military violence now, the only “something” that it thinks will count.

If only the risk was merely one of ‘too little too late’.

The bombs (well, the weapon delivery system in which they are contained) are 21 feet long and 20 inches wide and carry 700-1000 lb warheads (you can find details here).  They are launched by ship or submarine, conveniently not requiring someone else’s sovereign soil. They cannot be launched by air.  If media chatter conjures images of fighter jets darting in tight formation over the already largely ruined country, please put aside that technophilic Top Gun fantasy.

The NYT reports two or three bombs would probably be launched at each target from the Navy’s giant Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, four of which are currently deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. Each carries about three-dozen missiles.

This means, to hit the area around the Damascus, where the most recent chemical weapon attacks were, they will be streaking over the skies of Lebanon first. These are logistical facts we are unlikely to be thinking about here in the United States.

We may have heard that (anti-Assad) Israel is bracing for possible retaliation from (pro-Assad) Iran—about 60% of Israelis have taken advantage of a national program distributing biological weapon protective gear, protections denied to Palestinians, thus exacerbating existing necropolitical distinctions between kinds of lives and accepted forms of deadly exposure, something war is always does.

But we have heard less of how, in its infamously distorted logic of proportionality, Israel would likely respond with increased violence along its northern border with Lebanon—which would, one imagines, be answered in kind—or in Palestine, where daily life is already an exercise in navigating endless duress.  It has already stepped up weaponization throughout the country in anticipation of U.S. strikes and subsequent violence.

Nor do we hear about the way this will affect violence in Lebanon, where recent bombings in Tripoli and the Hezbollah-controlled Beirut suburb of Ruwais are widely acknowledged as tit for tat murders by pro- and anti-Assad groups (whose enmity is also mapped on to other longstanding political cleavages).

Nor do we hear that airports will be closed and curfews imposed, trapping people where they are so they can hold their breath as supplies dwindle, infrastructure to deliver them is destroyed, and their hearts break and bleed at the news of each neighbor, friend, colleague, or fellow traveler killed, imperiled, exiled, vanished or broken by the consequences of America’s utterly stupid and feckless show of force.

Nor do we hear consideration of the old fact of total war: some of the installations of strategic value to Assad’s regime will also be of value to civilians remaining in the country or those who hope to return some day—particularly in the case of ‘command and control’ targets.  In this context, there is no such thing as a purely military target.

This, of course, is by no means an exhaustive list of what America is not thinking about as the Obama Administration sinks deeper into its own neurotic sovereign ecstasy. In fact, it seems to be ignoring the entire complex of local and regional politics and violence of which the U.S. already a part (see here for just one example you might have missed).

In his PBS News Hour interview on Tuesday, President Obama declared, “I have no interest in any kind of open ended conflict in Syria.”  Though presumably intended as a salve for quagmire-weary Americans, the comment expresses the luxury of another kind of disinterest; a disinterest in, and dismissal of, the way U.S. involvement is already and inextricably part of the already ongoing open-ended conflict that cannot be properly understood as “in Syria”, linked as it is by chains of proxy violence and flows of bodies in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine, to name only the most obvious.

And we are supposed to be comforted by the President’s disinterest?

What the Obama Administration is interested in is a sovereign-scale act of corporal punishment: spanking Assad because he used chemical weapons, in violation of the United States’  ‘do what I say, not what I do’ threat.

America’s violence may be wrapped in more expensive machinery, but it is not superior, not qualitatively different, than the violence already underway. This violence will not work some sympathetic magic just because it is launched from an American ship or vested in technology that costs between $500,000 and $1,500,00 per missile.  It will escalate the scale, raise the stakes, and make familiar and navigable local violence more unpredictable, more dangerous, and less contained.

Unfortunately, it is Obama’s sovereign prerogative to pretend that he is acting in the name of father.  But regardless of this conceit, he is participating in the violence of an ongoing regional war. That he thinks his intention not to will travel inside those cruise missiles and, like some magic spell of kinds, make his strike against Assad a violence apart from the civil war that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians and made refugees of 2,000,000 more, is a hubris that wrenches at my gut.

In addition to the Syrians these actions will kill and the further damage this will do to Syria’s infrastructure, this violence will put the worlds of Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis, and others in peril. Its immanence is already starting to do that.

In the last year, I have been lucky enough to cultivate my attention to these issues through my participation in the War and Global Health Working Group, based at the American University of Beirut. Our recent conversations had focused on the social epidemiology of the recent wars in the Middle East, the “therapeutic geographies” (in organizer Omar al-Dewachi’s term) they give rise to, and the moral and social valuation of particular forms of injury and exposure that shift as bodies move across political and geographical contexts.

Many members of the group live and work in and across these same embattled geographies, and others, like me, do not. This distribution enriches the kinds of thinking we can do—individually and collectively.

It was Omar al-Dewachi, for example, who pointed out to me just how the security situation in Lebanon was being made foreign by threatened U.S. bombing in Syria. And when, last week, with great sadness we were forced to reschedule our planned meeting in Beirut, our conversation continued over email.

Rita Giacaman writing from Bizreit University noted the historical echoes of disregarded lives, as she recalled the Israeli government’s refusal to give gas masks to her non-American passport holding family in 1991. And doctor and poet Fouad Mohamoud Fouad, displaced from Aleppo to AUB, noted that the lives of Syrians seem doomed, as in a Greek tragedy, to three hopeless options “endless, brutal dictatorship, or Jihadists, or US stupid intervention.”

In this frustration and tension, our collective thinking continues. And this kind of thinking (I am not the first to insist) is a something that must be done.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about the Somethings to be done about Syria

  1. I am not sure what the Obama administration’s intent is here, except perhaps to scratch the American itch of “something has to be done.” One of the long term consequences, intentional or not, may be a legal reframing of R2P from the regional and multinational approach it was formulated as to that of legal and moral justification for world policing by a single state.

  2. Good point, Mateo. I guess you could read the case the administration seems to be trying to build as a hybrid of a unilateralist bastardization of R2P and the idea of preemptive war so favored by Bush.

    Although, since the suggested strikes wouldn’t stop the violence, the central rationale is about punishment, rather than protection, and the US is avoiding the UN altogether (not that Russia is making that a feasible route), maybe the implications for R2P will be more remote?

  3. Although, since the suggested strikes wouldn’t stop the violence, the central rationale is about punishment, rather than protection, and the US is avoiding the UN altogether (not that Russia is making that a feasible route), maybe the implications for R2P will be more remote?

    I am not a proper legal scholar, but I read the draft AUMF as broader than necessary if the sole purpose is punishment of the Syrian government. I suppose it is possible that the broadness reflects an eye towards the Iranian nuclear program specifically rather than a more general redefinition of the what and how of R2P.

  4. Obama is floundering. First of all, it was foolish in the extreme for him to draw his “red line.” By doing so, he placed himself in an untenable position, handing control of US policy over to Assad. He’s drawn a similar line regarding the debt limit issue, informing the world that his position is “non-negotiable,” as though it were he, rather than the Republicans, who control that outcome. It would make sense for him to take such a position only if he’s prepared to forgo the debt limit increase, which clearly he is not prepared to do. So, unless the Republicans relent (not likely) he’ll be forced to negotiate after all — and we all know that, so who is he trying to kid?

    You draw such lines only when YOU are in the controlling position, NOT when your opponents are. Our President, whom we all hoped would be another Roosevelt, has revealed himself to be the opposite of Roosevelt, i.e. hopelessly weak and inept.

    While it’s nice to think we could safely punish Assad for his many war crimes (not only the gassings, which are only one part of the bloody picture), such a course, whether sanctioned by the UN or not, would clearly be a disaster. First of all, our naval vessels will be sitting ducks for retaliation. This is the 21st Century after all, and very sophisticated weaponry has been available to Syria, Iran and many other Middle Eastern nations for some time. Secondly, Assad is almost sure to retaliate against our allies in the region, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Once that happens we’ll have no choice but to respond, with the predictable escalation into total war. Iraq all over again. And we have no way of knowing what the response of Russia or China might be, which makes any such “limited” effort especially dangerous.

    If you really want to punish Assad for gassing his own people, impose sanctions, prosecute him for war crimes, and hope for the best. Aside from that, there is really very little we or any other nation can do.

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