The likelihood of peace in Syria remains distant, as the civil war there rages on. But the grim prospect of a U.S. strike has been forestalled, if only temporarily, preventing a catastrophic deepening of the crisis there. The American people stood up for peace, and for once, the politicians listened. Across the political spectrum, citizens in the U.S. weighed in against the planned military strike. Members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, were inundated with calls and emails demanding they vote “no” on any military authorization.
The media credits Russian President Vladimir Putin with extending a lifeline to President Barack Obama, allowing him a diplomatic way to delay his planned attack. But without the mass domestic public outcry against a military strike, Obama would not have needed, nor would he likely have heeded, an alternative to war.
At center stage was Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 4. Anti-war activists from Code Pink sat silently behind him, their hands held high, painted red, symbolizing blood. Kerry asserted: “Now I remember Iraq. ... Secretary Hagel and I both voted in the United States Senate. Both of us are especially sensitive to never again ask any member of Congress to vote on faulty intelligence. And that is why our intelligence community took time, that’s why the president took time to make certain of the facts ... in order to scrub and rescrub the evidence and present the facts to the American people.”
Days earlier, Kerry used the phrase “we know” close to 30 times in his Aug. 30 case for war against Syria. “So now that we know what we know, the question we must all be asking is what we will do,” Kerry said, reminiscent of similar pre-war ramblings of Donald Rumsfeld, who actually said: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time,” Abraham Lincoln famously quipped, “but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” After 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands dead, tens of thousands maimed and trillions of dollars spent, the U.S. public won’t take the rehearsed oratory of an appointed official as sufficient grounds for war. Citizens of the United Kingdom weighed in, pushing their Parliament to vote against a military strike.
What are the facts? The regime of Bashar al-Assad stands accused of a heinous attack using chemical weapons, on August 21, in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. A United Nations chemical-weapons inspection team arrived in Damascus, remarkably, three days before the attack. Its mission was to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use from last spring, in the towns of Khan al-Assal, Sheikh Maqsood and Saraqeb. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon redirected the team to investigate Ghouta, and, after protracted negotiations with the Assad government, the weapons inspectors were allowed to do their work.
In their 40-page report, the inspectors summarize “clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.” They did not say who launched the missiles, but they did examine the remnants of several of the rockets used. The team, directed by Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, performed swift and exacting work under difficult circumstances (they were fired on by a sniper on their way to Ghouta).
A war crime was committed in Ghouta. Kerry says “we know” it was Assad. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov countered, “We have serious grounds to believe that it was a provocation,” suggesting the Syrian rebels staged the attack in order to draw the U.S. military into their fight against the Assad regime.
As a result of this week’s developments, serious progress has been made. Syria has agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control. Iran, which strongly supports the Assad regime, has a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who will come to New York next week to address the United Nations General Assembly. He is expected to speak on the same day as President Obama. More importantly, Rouhani and Obama may actually speak to each other, the first meeting between U.S. and Iranian presidents since 1979.
The terrible, ongoing tragedy in Syria, and the U.S. public’s persistent opposition to a military strike, could possibly create an opening for a much broader peace in the Middle East.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.