Syria War Moving Outward, Obama Looks Inward

The civil war in Syria is already expanding beyond the borders, with regional and potentially global consequences.

Even as the U.S. and Russia continue collaborating on plans for a Syrian peace conference to be held some time in late June, arms shipments on all sides continue to threaten even greater escalation. Arms flows to Syrian rebel forces from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey and Jordan continue, Britain and France forced the European Union to end its prohibition on sending arms to the opposition, the United States cheered the EU decision, Russia announced in response it intends to send Damascus advanced anti-aircraft missiles, and Israel made clear it would bomb those missiles if they arrive in Syria. And the Obama administration has reportedly requested the Pentagon to prepare plans for imposing a "no-fly" zone in Syria in support of rebel fighters and even for direct multilateral military engagement inside Syria.

Senator John McCain's highly-publicized visit to rebel-held territory inside Syria, accompanied by top leaders of the fractious rebel alliance, also appears timed directly to scuttle any potential for Washington's and Moscow's efforts to establish the new peace conference for Syria. I talked about McCain's visit, the necessity for a diplomatic rather than military solution, and the futility of trying for a military victory on The Real News a couple of days ago.

Syria - and the region in which it sits - are in serious trouble. Pressures on the Obama administration to engage even more directly in Syria, establishing a "no-fly" zone, creating "safe corridors" for the rebel forces, sending heavy weapons to the U.S.-identified "good guys" among the rebels, training even more than the 200 CIA agents in Jordan are training now... all are on the wish list of the We-Want-To-Attack-Syria-And-We-Want-You-To-Do-It-Now caucus.

Most, though not all, of the calls for intervention come from the same people who led the calls for invading Iraq - neo-cons and other hard-line militarists, pundits and Congressmembers, mainly Republicans but plenty of Democrats too, including the "humanitarian hawks," those who never saw a human rights crisis that didn't require US military involvement to solve. It's not a coincidence that many of the loudest voices - people like Republican Senator and defeated presidential contender John McCain and others - have been calling for direct intervention and regime change for more than two years now, starting way before any allegations of chemical weapons ever surfaced.
The bi-partisan support for militarism remains. At least as far back as President Johnson in the 1960s, too many liberal Democrats believed they could only advance a domestic social agenda of civil rights, health care, education, etc., if they were prepared to out-macho the Republicans. They reversed the lesson Martin Luther King taught us, of the need to link civil rights to the struggle for peace if either is to have any chance. And what we've seen instead is a pattern of Democrats in government who still act on the belief that a hawkish, militarized foreign policy is necessary to advance any social policy that benefits anyone beyond the 1%.

The drumbeat is spreading. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller, reprising his 2003 "reluctant" support for the Iraq war, once again supports US armed intervention in Syria. Why will this time be better? Well this time, unlike Iraq ten years ago, Syria represents a
"genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region."

Guess he hasn't looked very carefully at Iraq today. His point about what happens if Syria collapses is true (despite his leaving out the far more dire impact on the Syrian people), but he ignores the crucial point that his description of a future failed Syria if we don't intervene, matches precisely what exists today in Iraq - as a direct result of US intervention. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the exploding Sunni-Shi'a violence across Iraq and over the borders into Syria among other places; today's post-intervention Iraq is precisely what Keller warns of if the US doesn't join the Syrian civil war. He didn't look at Lebanon, where the already-shaky confessional system French colonialists imposed in the 1930s is under renewed strain from the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into the country, as well as the political-military pressure of the Syrian civil war itself. He didn't look at Jordan, where more than 500,000 Syrian refugees have stretched the country's social fabric to a near-breaking point.

Oh yeah, as to his abject years-later apology for getting it wrong on Iraq, a mistake he recently called "humbling"? Not to worry - he's figured it all out. This time will be different - because "getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq." For Keller, and for too many like him, it seems that "getting over Iraq" is today's equivalent of the Iraq-era "getting over Viet Nam." [READ MORE]

That last section is from a major piece I wrote on Syria for a week or so ago - I think you'll find it useful.

Since that piece was published, things are only getting worse. I've been talking quite a bit about Syria these last couple of weeks. On CCTV I discussed the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war. On the Real News I talked last week about how the Israeli attacks on Syria are escalating the pressure on the Obama administration for greater intervention.


President Obama's much-awaited speech on drones, assassination policy and the global war on terror raised critical issues that the administration had previously refused to talk about. What he said was mostly pretty good - however late in coming. He said that the endless borderless limitless "global war on terror" would in fact have to end. At some point. Even if the reason was more to benefit people here than the real victims of the war. Quoting James Madison, the president said "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." That was still pretty impressive.

He admitted that U.S. counter-terrorism strategy had indeed resulted in civilian casualties, acknowledging that "any U.S. military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies" and that "those deaths will haunt us." He conceded that the U.S. has to address "the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism - from North Africa to South Asia" because "force alone cannot make us safe."

That was all good. The problem, though, as is so often the case, is that the strong statements of principle collapsed into weak and uncertain policy proposals. Much of the press focused on President Obama seeming to be raising in public the doubts and hesitancy over his policy choices that have been hinted at for years. That would be fine, except that his "conclusions" never actually set the terms of a new policy qualitatively different from his existing strategy. Ultimately, Obama's speech showed his intention to amend, to reform, to narrow his failing war on terror - not to end it.

Obama described what he would like to do, what he would like his legacy to be - close Guantanamo, prefer capture to killing suspected insurgents, kill fewer civilians, limit excessive executive power - while never actually committing himself to specific actions to accomplish any of those goals. He spoke of lifting the moratorium he imposed on allowing Guantanamo's Yemeni prisoners already cleared for release to return home - but only to review them (again!) on a case-by-case basis. But nothing about the other 30 prisoners also cleared for release. And he never acknowledged the dramatic prisoner hunger strike still underway at Guantanamo, with his silence making unmistakably clear that the brutal force-feeding of hunger strikers will continue.

He wants to close Guantanamo, that's great. But what, if anything, does he plan to do differently this time with Congress just as opposed? And beyond the symbolism, what would a closure really mean if the detainees remain imprisoned indefinitely anyway, or face "trial" in military commissions without constitutional protection and without access to appeals in civilian courts?

He wants to capture more and kill fewer "terrorists." Does that mean as commander-in-chief he will be prepared to order troops into harm's way to avoid killing targets and the huge numbers of civilian "collateral damage"? And more important, does it mean that the Tuesday morning meetings at the White House will shift from adding names to the kill list to eliminating that list altogether?

It's great that President Obama is ruminating about the eventual need to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force - the September 2001 law passed in the wake of 9/11 to authorize George W. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and efforts to kill al-Qaeda leaders, but that has been used to legitimize everything from the Iraq war to the entire Global War on Terror. But he has no plan to bring an actual proposal to Congress to overturn the AUMF or to limit in any other way the vastly expanded executive power the Obama administration has taken such advantage of.

The Presidential Policy Guidance that sets out the actual new - or maybe not so new - rules for drone strikes, assassinations, killing those on the kill list, and more, remains classified. The usual frustration with Obama speeches remains - they identify great goals, but so far the president's insistence on bipartisan support and his refusal to fight for his goals, have rendered those goals moot. As the New York Times described it,
"Even as he set new standards, a debate broke out about what they actually meant and what would actually change. For now, officials said, 'signature strikes' targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas. Even as he talked about transparency, he never uttered the word 'CIA' or acknowledged he was redefining its role. He made no mention that a drone strike had killed an American teenager in error. While he pledged again to close the Guantanamo prison, he offered little reason to think he might be more successful this time."


There's little question that much of U.S. policy regarding Syria, as well as Israel-Palestine, Egypt and the Arab Spring, and much more, is grounded in relations with Iran. While the escalating war and new diplomatic efforts in Syria as well as Secretary of State Kerry's recent [and consummately strange] attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks have largely replaced Iran on the front pages, threats of military strikes against Iran remain dangerously high.

The most perilous, more because of what it says about congressional opinion than about what's likely to happen any time soon, was the May 22nd passage of Senate Res. 65 - by a vote of 99 to 0. The sense-of-the-Senate resolution is primarily about increasing sanctions against Iran - dangerous enough, since ratcheting up sanctions into law makes serious negotiations almost impossible. But Res. 65 does something else. It emerged back in March as a key component of AIPAC's lobbying effort for this year. It not only called for stronger anti-Iran sanctions, but went on to urge the president that, "if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide ...diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence." In other words, if Israel decides to go to war, the United States should obediently follow along. (The final language of "legitimate self-defense" was a last-minute amendment - but there is no definition of what might constitute legitimate self-defense, leaving the Senate to apparently accept Israel's determination.)

As Americans for Peace Now's Lara Friedman noted, "the resolution does include a 'rule of construction' stating that the measure shall not be construed as an authorization of the use of force or a declaration of war, it nonetheless represents the furthest Congress has yet been asked to go in approving potential Israeli military action and implicitly committing itself to support such action, either by Israel or the United States. It is difficult to interpret such language as anything other than an implicit Congressional green light for Israeli military action against Iran on the one hand, and, on the other, implicit pressure on the Obama Administration to act forcefully against Iran, before Israel does."

The resolution goes on to state, completely falsely, that "that the policy of the United States is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability and to take such action as may be necessary to implement this policy." That's the Israeli policy. United States policy, for those who may have forgotten, is precisely NOT the same thing; U.S. policy is to prevent Iran from getting an actual nuclear weapon. And remember - this passed 99 to 0.


For a moment, the peripatetic Secretary of State John Kerry made it look like the second term Obama administration intended to try to make good on first-term Obama's claimed commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It never looked like much - reopening the decade-old Arab Peace Initiative retooled to reflect U.S.-Israeli policy priorities, really? And then proposing a shift away from talking about occupation (Don't say that word!) to talking about a new $4 billion investment in the [still-]occupied Palestinian territories? Like that is going to work? Throwing more money at the tiny cohort of wealthy Palestinians with access to business investment, hoping that as they get richer, they - and the far more numerous and much poorer Palestinian population - will somehow decide that living under permanent military occupation is really not so bad?

And of course this was all before the shuttling secretary moved from the Tel Aviv-to-Ramallah shuttle on to Paris, where he was closeted with his Russian counterpart to try to organize the Syria conference.

Wherever he ends up this week, it's virtually certain that Kerry's latest initiatives are going to fail. The Arab initiative originally included some interesting starting possibilities, including the fact that its promise of Arab normalization with Israel was grounded in a "full withdrawal" from all the occupied territories. Kerry, speaking only of the normalization goal, included an off-handed "oh by the way" addition of the favored U.S.-Israeli language, "with swaps" - which means Israel gets to keep its giant city-sized settlements in the West Bank and across Arab East Jerusalem, and that most of the 600,000 or so illegal Jewish settlers get to stay right where they are, in their still-expanding illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land enriched by stolen Palestinian water.

A key question, of course, is why Kerry's sudden new effort, when there is actually no new proposal from the Obama administration? No new recognition that only a solution based on international law and human rights, not one starting from an acceptance of Israeli power and violations, has any hope of succeeding? Certainly the desire for a legacy success in the Middle East, to counteract a first term shaped by war, occupations, and failure in that region. Certainly a recognition that the United States has less influence in the Middle East than any time in the last half-century. Certainly a hope that an Israeli-Palestinian resolution might help stave off possibilities of more direct and dangerous Israeli intervention in Syria, and/or the threat of an Israeli assault on Iran. Hard to know - on this one, the reflecting, deliberating, considering president isn't telling us very much.

So far, Kerry's trip amounts only to talks about talking. And at the moment, whatever machinations the leaders go through, there's no support for talks going nowhere on any side of the occupier-occupied divide.


The good news on Palestine, as is so often the case, comes not from the potential for new versions of the same failed diplomacy, but from the initiatives of Palestinian and global civil society, in this case the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The latest to join the academic and cultural boycott of Israel is the eminent cosmologist and physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking. Scheduled to address an elite political conference in Israel, Hawking changed his mind and announced his refusal to participate based on his "independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there."

I discussed the significance of Hawking's decision on the Real News - its importance cannot be overestimated. Hawking is perhaps the most well-known and respected scientist in the world. And science and scientific accomplishment are fundamental to Israelis' self-identity. This act parallels the emergence of the international sports boycott against apartheid South Africa - something that struck the heart of ordinary sports-obsessed Afrikaaners and showed them the price they would pay for their apartheid privilege. It was one of the turning points in the internal anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Ordinary Jewish Israelis proudly identify with the Israeli narrative that says their country is a scientific and cultural beacon, respected by scientists and cultural workers around the world. Hawking is making them rethink that narrative. Jewish Israelis have paid little or no price for their decades of occupation- and apartheid-created privilege. Professor Hawking's action may signal a turning point for them as well.

It's a moment we should celebrate - and use it as a basis to continue our work to broaden the BDS movement, as well as, here in the United States, our challenge to U.S. military aid to Israel.

We have a lot of work to do.

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