Driving Blind: Syria’s Rebels and a Brief History of Chemical Weapons
Last week’s Driving Blind was completely devoted to the Syrian issue as well, but because events are unfolding in real time, and Congress will actually have to debate and decide on authorization for military intervention, I think it’s worth staying on point. Especially since today’s selection includes some truly invaluable reads.
Aliyah Frumin at MSNBC calls attention to just how little we in the United States know about the rebels in Syria. “While many are operating under the umbrella group of the Free Syrian Army, they don’t necessarily agree on what kind of government should emerge after Assad. U.S. intelligence says there could be as many as 1,200 groups, with some even having links to al Qaeda. It is not hard to imagine many of these groups turning on each other in the scramble for power that would surely follow an ouster of Assad.” The threat of spiraling sectarian violence is a very real one, and the fact that so many proponents of intervention speak of the opposition in Syria in generalized, monolithic terms is extremely troubling.
Greg Shupak at Jacobin looks back at the West’s intervention in Libya two years ago in a review of Maximilian Forte’s book, Slouching Towards Sirte. Examining the propaganda campaign waged by interventionist hawks and the geopolitical context surrounding Libya at the time, Shupak concludes, “As NATO’s war in Libyan played out, it was primarily understood within two narratives – a humanitarian one, as well as that of the so-called Arab Spring. Both conceptions suffer from their lack of understanding of the war’s African contexts, which suggest that the continent is at risk of again becoming a global hotspot over which foreign powers battle.”
Garrett Epps at The Atlantic considers the legal basis on which President Obama claims not to need Congressional authorization to act in Syria. He finds it severely inadequate, “To sum up: U.S. citizens and military personnel are not under attack. It is not a split-second emergency. The President does not face a request from the Security Council, NATO, the Arab League or even the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. This is precisely the kind of situation for which the Framers of our Constitution designed its division of authority between President and Congress. Sending our missiles against Syria is an act of war. If it is to be done, Congress, not the president, should approve.”
Also writing at The Atlantic, James Fallows re-posts William R. Polk analysis of the Syrian issue in full. It’s long, thorough, and absolutely indispensible. On the subject of the norms surrounding the use of chemical weapons, Polk writes, “America used various chemical agents including white phosphorus in Vietnam (where it was known as “Willie Pete”) and in Fallujah (Iraq) in 2005. We encouraged or at least did not object to the use of chemical agents, although we later blamed him for so doing, by Saddam Husain. Just revealed documents show that the Reagan administration knew of the Iraqi use in the Iraq-Iran war of the same poison gas (Sarin) as was used a few days ago in Syria and Tabun (also a nerve gas). According to the US military attaché working with the Iraqi army at the time, the US government either turned a blind eye or approved its use (see the summary of the documents in Shane Harris and Matthew Aid, “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013) We were horrified when Saddam Husain used poison gas against the Kurdish villagers of Halabja in 1988 (killing perhaps 4-5 thousand people) but by that time we had dropped our support for the Iraqi government. Finally, Israel is believed to have used poison gas in Lebanon and certainly used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008. I cite this history not to justify the use of gas – I agree with Secretary Kerry that use of gas is a “moral obscenity” — but to show that its use is by no means uncommon. It is stockpiled by most states in huge quantities and is constantly being produced in special factories almost everywhere despite having been legally banned since the Geneva Protocol of June 17, 1925.”
Finally, a humanizing piece from Shane Bauer at Mother Jones in which he reflects on Syria before the civil war, “Even after we moved across the city to Yarmouk, I would come back sometimes to go up on Mount Qasioun and look out over the city at night. The last time I went up there, Sarah, some friends, and I climbed up just above the line of houses. We wanted to go farther, but we stopped short when we saw what looked to be a military base. I couldn’t have imagined rockets flying down from that spot and waking people before dawn, making them choke and kick and scream, shrinking their pupils down to needlepoints. I don’t know for certain that chemical weapons were launched from there, as some have reported—the US is now saying some were shot from another base. What I do know now is that the base we came upon when we climbed that night was a station of the Republican Guard and that it is one of several sites that witnesses said they saw rockets raining down on Ghouta the night of the chemical attack.”
[Image: view from Mount Qasioun.]