Facing mass opposition at home and abroad, the Obama administration appears to have backed off its call to target the Syrian regime.
The Obama administration’s march to war in Syria was cut short by a Russian-brokered deal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the plan. “The threat of force [against Syria] remains, the threat is real,” Kerry said, speaking at a joint conference with Netanyahu.
As part of the plan, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was given a week to hand over a list of all the chemical weapons in his government’s possession. The weapons are to be completely dismantled by mid-2014.
Although some 56 percent of Americans oppose intervention against al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, the U.S. once again had found itself on the brink of war in a distant country.
Coupled with the already strife-ridden nature of the ongoing violence in Syria, the mere threat of U.S. intervention further sharpened an already tense regional political climate.
Regional rifts are soaring as wealthy Gulf countries like Qatar provide Syrian rebels with weapons, manpower and financial as well as diplomatic support. Turkey, a close U.S. ally and NATO member, has also played a key role in arming and training opposition fighters.
As a result of foreign participation, genuine cries for revolutionary democracy in Syria have largely faded. Against this backdrop, most Syrian minorities — Kurds, Druze, Christians and Alawites, among others — have mostly pledged their support for al-Assad.
Despite the mass murder inflicted by the Syrian army, a nasty consequence of this turn of events is that al-Assad can now claim with some legitimacy that his authoritarian regime is the protector of secularism and minority rights in the face of reactionary forces of radical Sunni Islamism, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra militia, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Brutal and murderous though al-Assad’s rule may be, does the U.S. really have a moral leg to stand on?
A regional Cold War
The outcome of the Syrian crisis will determine the trajectory of a modern-day Cold War in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s backing of the Syrian rebels seems to be part and parcel of a regional policy that aims to curb the influence of Iran and its regional allies, behind whom stand Russia and China.
“A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path,” Obama said in a press conference last week.
Critics of U.S. foreign policy in the region have pointed out the country’s selective endorsement of Arab uprisings over the last few years.
In Bahrain, for instance, a Sunni-led monarchy has oppressed a 70 percent Shia majority who have demanded authentic democratic representation. Since March 2011, the regime has repeatedly crushed all signs of dissent.
Meanwhile, in response to widespread protests in Morocco, that country’s royal family made cosmetic reforms — also without any condemnation from the U.S administration. As a November 2011 BBC report observed, these reforms mean “the king retains ultimate control and though parliament has more power, [political] parties are weak.”
By contrast, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were given nominal support only once it was unavoidably clear that the dictators were on their way out.
In February 2011, Obama praised the Egyptian revolution and applauded Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down. A few short months later, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces was showering young revolutionaries with American-made tear gas in Tahrir Square, the very same square that had been branded the throbbing heart of Egypt’s struggle for democracy.
The White House as a glass house
Though U.N. estimates put the present death toll in Syria over 100,000 and a recent chemical weapons attack near Damascus reportedly ended hundreds of lives, the U.S. hit a roadblock — outside of Congress, there was virtually no public support for its proposal to strike Syria.
The use of chemical weapons, according to the Obama administration, was a “red line.” Cloaked as always in the rhetoric of liberal humanitarian interventionism, proponents of war were exceedingly vague on what “intervention” was meant to look like.
Although war seems to have been averted for the time being, the affair brought to light the U.S. government’s own history of chemical weapons use as well as the well-documented instances in which it turned a blind eye to chemical weapon attacks on civilians. In this light, Kerry’s concern for Syrian human rights appears opportunistic and hypocritical.
As recently reported at Foreign Policy, former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein used deadly nerve gas on Iranians during the eight-year war between the two countries. “According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials … the U.S. had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983,” explained the FP article, which continued:
At the time, Iran was publicly alleging that illegal chemical attacks were carried out on its forces, and was building a case to present to the United Nations. But it lacked the evidence implicating Iraq, much of which was contained in top secret reports and memoranda sent to the most senior intelligence officials in the U.S. government.
More recently, the 2004 U.S. attack on the city of Fallujah, Iraq — which included the use of depleted uranium-tipped munitions — is reported to have caused of a sharp increase in birth defects among newborn Iraqis. After over 6,000 Iraqis died during the assault, U.S. forces also later admitted that they had used white phosphorous.
A recent survey, as reported at The Independent, found “a four-fold increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14s.”
The survey concluded that Fallujah’s “dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukemia … exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.”
To make matters worse, just ten months after the uprising in Syria began, the U.K. — no enemy of the U.S. — granted chemical export licenses to firms that sold chemicals used to make sarin to the Assad regime. A recent Daily Record report noted that “they were only revoked six months later, when the European Union imposed tough sanctions on Assad’s regime.”
Now that Assad is in discussion with Russian and the U.S on the giving up of chemical weapons, the U.S. is distancing itself from its prior threats — for now.