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Syria's Chemical Weapons...Iraq Redux?

News from the Middle East is growing more dire by the day. And unfortunately, most of the news from our own officials and influential sources continues to move in a direction that can only make that bad news worse.

(Photo: Javier Manzano / AFP)A slight bit of good news first – President Obama's announcement that he will re-open his long-abandoned effort to close Guantanamo is a great reflection of the power of consistent, long-term mobilization. The power of the hunger strikers is reaching the White House – the Obama administration is clearly worried about the consequences if one or more of the hunger strikers should die. One might think they would at least consider preventing that by dealing with the crisis that led to the hunger strike in the first place – release the 86 prisoners who have already been cleared by top US military officials, and set trial dates for the rest. But instead, they've brought in military medics to force-feed 21 of the prisoners twice a day. (Not doctors – the World Medical Association has determined that participating in forced feeding is a violation of medical ethics – it's physical torture, and it denies the patient the inherent right to deny any medical intervention.)

The strikers' supporters, those who have protested, dressed in orange jump suits and black hoods, who have petitioned, marched, written letters, filed lawsuits – our friends from the Center for Constitutional Rights, from Witness Against Torture and so many more – have forced those in power to pay attention. It probably isn't a coincidence that this year has seen such a rise in public attention to hunger strikers both in Guantanamo and among Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, who are also demanding an end to indefinite detention. Whether Obama's new effort really results in the closing of the notorious prison, and more important, whether it leads to the actual release of these illegally and unjustly held prisoners and trial for those facing actual charges, we still don't know. But it's a step towards that victory – made possible by the hunger-strikers' courage and the consistent work of their supporters – that the issue is once again on the front pages.

SYRIA: BAD TO EVEN WORSE?

But back to the bad news. The allegations of chemical weapons being used in Syria have given rise to a whole escalating campaign for direct US military intervention. That's a very dangerous problem.

First, even though this issue is usually relegated to secondary or even tertiary consideration, let's start with the "even if" argument. Use of chemical weapons is certainly a war crime; there are separate international laws prohibiting such weapons, and any use is undoubtedly illegal. But just what would be accomplished by escalating the rest of the war with more arms to the opposition side, or creation of a Libya-style US (or US-NATO) "no-fly zone," widely understood as a way towards regime change? First step in imposing a no-fly zone, in the words of Robert Gates, then secretary of defense during the US-NATO Libya intervention, is an act of war. This time around, that means bombing Syria to destroy its anti-aircraft system. How many civilians would die in that bombing campaign, given the widespread presence of anti-aircraft batteries across the country?

And when the first US pilot is shot down (no, drones won't be able to do all of this one…), and special forces units are sent in to rescue him, what happens then to the "no boots on the ground" rule? Ignore it because the special forces guys wear sneakers instead of boots? Do we really want to claim that killing a bunch more Syrians with conventional bombs, to prevent the potential use of alleged chemical weapons, is a legitimate "humanitarian" effort? (And note, this is all besides the hot-button question of just who these rebels really are, anyway…)

Second, we should note that even the US government officials themselves acknowledge they don't have solid evidence chemical weapons were used at all. And even if they were (which is certainly a possibility), they appear to have no evidence of who used them. Footage circulating on the internet shows several ill people whose symptoms appear to include dilated pupils and a bit of foaming from their mouths, but no evidence of who and where they are, when or where they were injured or got sick. A Syrian doctor who treated them tells al-Jazeera that since they showed no sign of bombing or other trauma, no broken limbs or shrapnel, than it must be chemical weapons – but he provides no evidence of why it might not be one or more of the myriad of other diseases and poisons (including several common fertilizers) that a quick internet search indicates can cause those same symptoms. In a hugely complicated civil war, where the fighters on one side include many defectors and weapons from the other side, that means there's simply no evidence of what side, if any, may have used chemical weapons at all.

That's an awful lot of "no evidence" on which to base a new threat of a massive military escalation. And of course, it sounds way too familiar. Who among us has forgotten the certainty of George Bush's lying claims of WMDs in Iraq – yellowcake uranium from Niger, aluminum tubes from China, and of course the ubiquitous Curveball, the source of all that secret information…?

Third, this is now a partisan issue. Certainly there are Democratic hawks, including supporters of so-called "humanitarian intervention," who never saw a human rights crisis that didn't need a military response. But it's also being used for partisan attacks on Obama – see John McCain telling the Sunday morning talk shows that Obama needs to do now "what we've been demanding for more than two years" – escalate US intervention in Syria. Actually a fascinating confession that McCain's concern isn't with alleged chemical weapons – it's the same regime change he's demanded since Syria's edition of the Arab Spring erupted more than two years ago, when no such chemical weapons allegations were on the table.

So what should the US do?

The first thing is to de-escalate the fighting – initially, stopping the arms shipments to all sides. And that means negotiating directly with Russia, on a quid pro quo to stop US and allied training and arms shipments to the rebels, in return for an end to Russian and allied shipments to the Syrian government. And it means supporting a broad UN mandate for a truly internationally credible inspection team authorized and empowered to investigate all claims of chemical weapons use, by any side in the conflict. (Accountability for any violations of the chemical weapons prohibition must be imposed, but the timing of achieving such justice may have to wait for an end to the fighting.)

With an arms embargo in place, the parties on the ground and their supporters must be brought into serious negotiations to end the whole set of wars (national, regional, sectarian, global) now being waged in Syria, and resolve the conflict on some kind of political basis. Any such negotiations will have to include the government of Syria, the armed rebels, and the components of the still-struggling non-violent democratic opposition movement that first launched the Syrian spring. They will have to involve the backers of all sides as well – Iran and Russia, and the US, France and Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The United Nations will have to take the lead, and problematic as it is in so many ways, the Arab League will probably need to be there as well.

To have any hope of long-term viability, those negotiations must be grounded in the context of broader efforts towards creation of a WMD-free zone throughout the Middle East. That means that once and for all the UN goal set out in back in 1991 must finally be implemented. When the Security Council passed resolution 687 to end the first Gulf War, Article 14 called for "establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons." No exceptions. That means Israel's unacknowledged arsenal of 200-400 high-density nuclear bombs in its Dimona plant would have to go, it means neither Iran nor anyone else in the region would ever be able to create a nuclear weapon any time in the future, and it means all the existing chemical and biological stockpiles, the poor countries' WMDs, would be identified and destroyed. The US drafted and supported that resolution 22 years ago. It's time it moved to implement it.

That's the context within which a Syrian arms embargo would really begin to mean something. None of this will be easy. But proposing military escalation as a response to fuzzy, uncertain allegations of chemical weapons use by unknown actors, let alone the threat of military force to overthrow a regime, is a far too dangerous road. We've been there before.

President Obama needs to get out in front and say "We will not allow ourselves to be bamboozled into war by vague claims of WMDs. We will not allow supporters of regime change to hide their intentions in the anodyne language of 'humanitarianism.' We have learned the lessons of our dumb war in Iraq. We will not go to war." So far, he refuses to say anything so definitive. That puts the obligation squarely on our shoulders – we have to raise the political cost of a new war in the Middle East so high, that it stays off the table for good.

IRAQ COLLAPSING INTO RENEWED SECTARIANISM

In the meantime, just over Syria's border, Iraq is facing a new crisis of escalating violence. Rooted in the sectarian political system the US imposed from the beginning of its 2003 occupation, the struggles for power and against corruption have taken on an increasingly sectarian form.

Certainly not all of the social movements rising in Iraq, and challenging the government's corruption and incompetence are religious or sect-based – popular social movements, such as trade unions and environmental organizations, are also on the rise, challenging the sectarianism that is wreaking such havoc on Iraqi society. (For those of you in DC, on May 7th I'll be joining Gene Bruskin of US Labor Against the War to discuss his recent trip to Iraq, where he met leaders of the oil workers union, activists working to reclaim southern Iraq's marshes which had been turned to desert during the years of war, and many more. Part of our discussion will focus on what our obligations, as a US peace movement, are in response to the continuing crisis in Iraq now that the US troops and mercenaries are mostly gone.)

Much of the civil society activism is challenging the corruption of the US-backed (though largely Iran-oriented) government of Nuri al-Maliki. But the rise of violence is directly linked to the sectarianism that has infected Iraqi society throughout the years of US occupation and continues to affect it today. I discussed this with Iraqi analysts on al-Jazeera's "Inside Story" last week. What the US imposed is not unlike the confessional system France left behind in Lebanon in the 1930s, in which top positions of power – president, prime minister, parliamentary leader – are reserved for Maronites, Sunnis and Shi'a, and power devolves on the basis of religion as determined in a faulty census of more than 80 years ago. This is the "democracy" that ten years of US war and occupation left behind in Iraq.