Caution Against Intervention Amid Syria Chemical Weapons Fervor

As top military brass warns against strikes, policy experts say armed intervention is no fix for humanitarian crisis

Amid growing media fervor about alleged chemical attacks in Syria, peace advocates and policy experts on Thursday are urging caution as the clamor for Western military intervention intensifies.

Though employing a different set of arguments than progressive analysts, one of the U.S. military's top commanders also expressed caution this week, warning against those calling for an escalation of US military involvement in Syria's civil war.

On Wednesday, Syrian opposition forces accused the government of Bashar al-Assad of launching a chemical weapons attack on suburban areas of Damascus, but even as international condemnation was immediate, details of the incident remained largely unverified.

In an interview with Common Dreams, Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy, warned against a rush towards military intervention, referring to recent events inside Syria as well the illegal US invasion of Iraq and other foreign policy missteps in the region.

"If we learned anything from last ten years, it is slow down, be cautious, let the United Nations take the lead," Naiman said. "We have already dealt with a similar sequence of events surrounding alleged chemical attacks in Syria. When the dust settled, the situation was far more murky than it initially appeared."

Meanwhile, in a letter written to Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs who recently called for limited air strikes against Syria, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey issued a warning that, once entangled in military conflict in Syria, it would be very difficult to exit: "We can destroy the Syrian Air Force. The loss of Assad's Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict."

Further, Dempsey said, "Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides."

And continued, "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."

His voiced reluctance and warning, not the first Dempsey has issued, comes amid a chorus of voices declaring that U.S. intervention would deepen, not alleviate, an already spiraling humanitarian crisis.

In addition, senior fellow at Institute for Policy Studies Phyllis Bennis argues that Dempsey's realpolitik argument against intervention exposes important cracks within elite U.S. political and military circles.

As Bennis told Common Dreams:

This is one more indication of the divide among the elite powers in the United States, in the military and political echelons. The military has been largely opposed to more direct intervention, which is traditionally the case because they understand the risks. They understand when they lose they will be blamed. I think that is what Dempsey's statement reflects. Obama has essentially said the same thing. He says there is no 'good guy' side in the Syrian opposition.

Many of Obama's opponents have a partisan agenda, like Senator John McCain (R--Ariz.) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R--S.C.), and they will oppose anything Obama is for. There is also a real divide. Neoconservatives are divided about whether to militarize the situation further, versus those who say that we should stay out.

Peace movements, as we have been for years, should be using these statements as part of our education work about how further military intervention in Syria--and Egypt and Afghanistan for that matter--is not only illegal and immoral but also won't accomplish what supporters of military intervention want to accomplish.

As Naiman argued, "It is a fact that there is no silver bullet of military action when dealing with chemical weapons, even if that were what we were dealing with. Military intervention is not going to control chemical weapons. "

"We saw that in Libya, intervention didn't control weapons," he said, "it set them free. We need to be working through international diplomacy, through the UN."


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