Friday, August 30, 2013


There is something profoundly unsettling about the raft of political pundits and play-callers who seem absolutely sure of themselves as to what the Obama administration and the US Government more broadly should do about Syria.  Polls show that the American people, by and large, do not support military intervention in Syria and that a large majority want Obama to seek the approval of Congress before undertaking any use of force.

At least that latter point is one that we can all agree upon.  The recent leaks about the US intelligence apparatus in conjunction with the lingering memories of the Bush Administration's fabrication of a casus belli for the Iraq war have left Americans justifiably skittish of a hawkish President.  

So Obama should go before Congress... and then what?

Syria is a tremendously complicated geopolitical hairball in the midst of an open civil war.  To pretend that we consumers of what sparse media reports make it out of the country have even the foggiest notion of what's going on there is absurd.  

We do know that Assad's regime faces real and significant opposition though the extent to which that opposition can actually threaten the Syrian government (as opposed to merely engage with its army) remains to be seen.  Assad's position looks militarily sound at the moment though, of course, that could change at a moment's notice.  

The Syrian rebels aren't people that the United States would generally be terribly friendly with and if the last 30 years or so have taught Americans anything it is that we ought be careful who we help.  Images of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein and James Bond - yes, that James Bond - enlisting the help of the Taliban in The Living Daylights illustrate vividly how friend can become foe in short order.  

And yet there are serious questions on the table.  Reports of chemical weapons use in Syria put the issue of intervention in a whole new light and raises other painful memories from decades gone by.  The United States stood by and did nothing as the Tutsi were butchered in Rwanda.  A genocide unfolded and the supposedly moral government of the United States did nothing.  Now Assad may be exterminating his own people like insects - hosing them down the with the equivalent of Raid for humans.  

Or maybe he's not.  Assad appears in a good position militarily and the Obama administration has been quite verbose about the unacceptability of the use of chemical weapons.  Why would Assad - who has time and money on his side - risk involving the United States in his regional war?  What could he hope to gain from the use of chemical weapons?  US intelligence intercepts point the finger back at the Syrian government for the attack and while it is in vogue to distrust those institutions at the moment, the US has nothing to gain from strikes on Syria right now either.  

At best it gives Obama a temporary bump in the polls but even that seems unlikely given the massive public opposition to intervention in the first place.

The axiom that has served me best in my erstwhile career as a political writer has been one I picked up in Latin class back in high school.  "Cui bono?"  Literally: as a benefit to whom?  Who benefits from the Syrian chemical weapons attack?  

Not Assad - he has no military reason to resort to the use of chemical weapons and no reason to want the US involved in his civil war, particularly if that involvement means US jets bombing him.

Not the US Government - war is expensive and we already have Iraq under our thumb and access to plenty of air-strips and ports in Syria's neck of the woods.  What's more, Syrian ties to Russia make the prospect of entering into a shooting war more than a little bit daunting.  As US relations with Russia continue to deteriorate, Syria could prove to be a flashpoint.

Not the US military industrial complex - with attention already focused on data and telecommunications intercepts the last thing the Pentagon would want to do is draw attention to those actions by using them as the basis for an unpopular war.

Not the Obama administration - military intervention in Syria, if it happens, will be unpopular and potentially messy.  Even a limited bombing campaign will become a budgetary cudgel with which the House Republicans can beat the White House.

The only possible beneficiary then is the Syrian Rebels themselves.  False flag theories generally get those who write them lumped in squarely among the crazies and tin-foil-hat set but despite all of that, the Rebels - once you discount the actually being gassed with Sarin part - have a fair bit to gain from the attack.  Bringing in US airpower would level the playing field against Assad who has thus far enjoyed almost uncontested control of the skies.  

Crazy?  Perhaps, but as Doyle's Sherlock Holmes once said, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Or maybe it's not.  Maybe the whole Syrian situation is just insane.

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