Red Lines and Bombing in Syria: A Really Bad Idea

Here we go again.

Polls suggest the American people are fed up after two full-bore wars and the killing of an ambassador in Benghazi following our commitment to regime change in Libya. Yet, the Obama administration seems poised to launch another war in Syria.

“We can’t do a third war in 12 years!”

This exasperated response was not from a leftist peace activist ready to do civil disobedience; it was from Colonel David Hunt on the Bill O’Reilly Show. Like many Americans, Hunt is not sure who let loose chemical weapons in a section of Damascus. He knows that canisters of chemical weapons can be delivered to a place in any number of ways from any number of sources. He says we need to ask, “Who benefits” from such an attack?

This is, of course, a very good question, since the Assad regime is currently winning the civil war in Syria and, thus, would not seem to have much of an incentive to use chemical weapons so blatantly and so foolishly.  Since President Obama went out of his way to make chemical weapons use a “red line,” a chemical attack in Damascus is the perfect bloody shirt for those interested in promoting a US attack on Syria.

Hunt was joined on the O’Reilly Show by the usually bloodthirsty right-wing militarist Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters, who agreed with Hunt that an attack on Syria was a terrible idea. “In Syria now our enemies are killing each other,” he said. “We should let them continue.” Peters was referring to the Assad regime and the most powerful rebel elements linked with al Qaeda. Forces loyal to the United States and Israel are by far the weakest element in the rebel matrix.

What this means is the logic for a US military attack would be to bolster that losing, non al Qaeda element, and, we must presume, hope for the best as far as who might be able to take over once we prevail — or, more likely, leave with egg all over our faces and with US power and respect diminished even more.

Over on MSNBC, veteran war correspondent Richard Engel gave a report heavily burdened with caution and doubt. He suggested the US wants to “send a message” but not get involved in the civil war. This seemed to him not very realistic. “Once you drop bombs on Syria you are involved in the war.” A US military attack on Syria mean opening an immensely provocation Pandora’s Box that our leaders don’t seem to give much thought to.

Joe Biden was sent out to work up a war fever with an impassioned speech citing the horror of chemical weapon victims and assuring everyone that the monster Assad had to be “held accountable.” The only thing he lacked was a real bloody shirt to wave around in the air.

In the end, Bill O’Reilly — who likes to tell his audience, “I’m a simple man” — cut to the chase and told the two ironically un-warlike retired colonels, “There’s got to be some moral authority in the world.” He cited “American Exceptionism” as that moral authority. Back on MSNBC, Chris Matthews told us an attack on Syria was planned for Thursday. This is Tuesday night. In two days, the US could be engaged in another hot war in the Middle East.

I feel I’ve lived this movie too many times. I want to open my window and scream obscenities into the air like Howard Beal in the film Network. I see the White House team of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, at best, as liberal fools tripping over their good intentions and, at worst, in cahoots with desperate demands of the state of Israel, which must find a growing civil war in Syria existentially troubling.

As a nation — or empire — we seem to have moved beyond declaring war in any legal sense. That’s just too naïve to even consider any more. As in the past, US Law and International Law will be finessed. The only law that will apply to a US military attack on Syria, whether or not the Obama White House wants to recognize it, is The Law of Unintended Consequences. That one we can count on.

I recall back in the days of Ronald Reagan when the US felt a need to retaliate against a state-sponsor-of-terrorism in the Middle East for a specific terrorist crime, it was often uncertain whether the source of the terrorist act was Libya or Syria. So what did the US do? It attacked Libya — since an attack on Syria would have been a very serious, risky matter. An attack on Muammar Gaddafi, on the other hand, was a much less risky, but still satisfying, act of vengeance. The fact was, it really didn’t matter if the correct culprit was bombed — just so someone was bombed. One will recall in that period the US mounted an invasion of Grenada in the Caribbean a few days after the humiliation of 244 Marines blown up in Lebanon. As an acquaintance said to me at the time, “We had to show them.”

Now we’re planning to bomb Syria while the Middle East is in an unprecedented state of upheaval — the equivalent of hosing gasoline on a raging fire. The Obama administration passed up the option of bombing the Egyptian military for their outrageous and flagrant killing of 1500 citizens in the street, many of them teenagers shot in the head and heart. Lots of bloody shirts there. But for some reason, here, we insisted on continuing to send $1.5 billion in military aid for more weapons. Why? So we would not lose our influence with the Egyptian military.

Everything we do (big bucks or bombs) seems to be fueling a larger war in the Middle East. Going into Syria with cruise missiles, jet bombers and god-knows what else blazing can only incite further killing and violence. That should be clear. It should also be clear the Law of Unintended Consequences could easily go very badly for the United States — especially since we don’t seem to have a clue what our intended consequences really are other than being the good guy in our own exceptional minds.

Iran, which is linked with Syria, just elected a new reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, who appointed as foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, an English-speaking moderate. These men are, of course, beholden to the ayatollahs, but they nevertheless are a most positive shift from the volatile Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It would seem the perfect moment to sit down with Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel and the rebels and hash this mess out. The point would be to bypass the need for war and killing and to negotiate some kind of real-politic regional power arrangement. Given the realities of an escalating civil war in Syria, that’s what will most likely happen years down the road anyway — after everybody becomes fed up with all the horrific destruction and death.

Why not wise up and bypass all the death and destruction and start with serious talks? Those too simple to understand that such talks will be very frustrating before they are fruitful, will just have to be engaged with in an educative mode. The point is, why can’t we use the good diplomatic offices of the United States of America to ratchet down violence in Syria instead of going in guns-blazing to fuel more violence?

Tragically, we know the answer to this kind of question:

One, the US has spent too much international political capital making its intentions of regime change known to change course now without embarrassment. The US may be tragically doomed to follow through on its lofty, good-guy rhetoric and the Obama red lines.

And, two, to sit down to talk with Iran seriously would require too much self-critique and humility for nations so self obsessed with their own exceptionalism and chosen qualities.

About John Grant

John Grant is a veteran, a writer and a photographer. At age 19, he was a radio direction finder in Vietnam, working in the mountains west of Pleiku to locate enemy radio operators. He returned to the US and, then, read and learned what the war was really about; he has been a member of Veterans For Peace since 1985. He did documentary photography in Central America during the wars there and has traveled twice to the war zone in Iraq, as well as to numerous other places around the world. He has taught creative writing in a Philadelphia prison for ten years.


  1. Ed Hart says:

    Right on, John!

    Well reasoned, well presented.


  2. Mike Woloshin says:

    John, the forces allied with the U.S. are weak, but none of those are allied with Israel. Israel “has no dog in this fight!”. Most Israelis would agree with Lt. Col. Peters; the more Hezbollah and al-Nusra forces kill each other and destroy Syrian infrastructure, the more Israel benefits, as a chaotic and disorganized Syria becomes a much less significant a threat. Let the bloodbath continue, but keep the U.S. out of it!

    Let Hezbollah and the al-Qaida linked Jabhat al-Nusra combatants kill as many of each other as possible. There is no sense in attacking Syria, even though the evidence convincingly concludes that the Assad regime is responsible for the gas attack on its own citizens. There is no way a strike can be accomplished without giving the al-Qaida linked forces an unfair advantage.

  3. John Grant says:

    Mike, whether or not Israel actually favors any of the rebel factions in Syria it does obviously have “a dog in this fight,” even if, as you suggest, Israel supports all the dogs killing each other. It would be interesting if, in the spirit of your comment, Israel clearly and unambiguously expressed opposition to a US military attack on Syria. I think Israel will not do that because it is just fine with a US attack, since it will not diminish the mutual killings by Assad and al Qaeda elements so relished by Israel; it will be seen as effectively bolstering the non-al Qaeda rebels and, thus, increasing the violence and killing — as in hosing gasoline on a fire doesn’t lessen the fire already there.

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