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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/21/13

Intervention in Syria: Iraq Redux?

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In a sickening reminder of what happened during the lead-up to the Iraq War, reporters and members of Congress are failing to ask the tough questions about why the U.S. is getting involved in Syria.

The administration of President Barack Obama announced recently that the U.S. is planning on sending military weapons to opposition forces fighting against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The administration claims that Syria used chemical weapons against the "rebel" forces, and thereby crossed a "red line" to a level of force the U.S. finds unacceptable.

"The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, as reported in The Washington Post. Rhodes said U.S. intelligence had determined with "high certainty" that Syrian government forces have "used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year." Intelligence agencies had estimated that 100 to 150 people died as a result of chemical weapons use, Rhodes said.

Soon after the administration announcement, members of Congress from both political parties rushed to show support for the decision to send arms to the Syrian opposition, and even pushed for bolder action.

"The U.S. should move swiftly to shift the balance on the ground in Syria by considering grounding the Syrian air force with stand-off weapons and protecting a safe zone in northern Syria with Patriot missiles in Turkey," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., as reported in the Post.

Media coverage of the surge of support for the rebels has been soft. Reporters have steered away from posing uncomfortable questions to the administration about links between the rebels and al-Qaeda, the illegality of sending arms to opposition forces, or the evidence alleged to prove the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons.

All this acquiescence to a building war fever is eerily reminiscent of the months leading up to the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. At that time, President Bush and Vice President Cheney were making bold assertions about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and warning of grave consequences if nothing was done to eliminate them. Even in the face of evidence that the administration claims were wrong, few people in Congress or in the mainstream media had the courage to stand up and voice any concerns. Many in the press were cheerleaders for an invasion of Iraq.

As a consequence, the country got into a war that lasted seven years and had disastrous results. The conflict devastated the infrastructure of Iraq, once one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East; it led to the deaths of more than 4500 American military personnel; it killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and displaced millions more; and it wasted nearly $1 trillion in taxpayer dollars. And for all that, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

Yet, despite the lessons to be learned by the terrible toll of destruction in Iraq (and also in Afghanistan), the President's announcement last week of increased assistance to the Syrian rebels may herald yet a new war in the Middle East, this time in Syria. We're just sending aid to the rebels now. But that may lead to a no-fly zone, like the one set up in Libya two years ago. Then what? Boots on the ground?

Unlike the case in Libya, a war in Syria has the potential for getting much bigger. Both Russia and Iran are allies of Syria, and may step up their involvement with the Assad government as America sends aid to the rebels.

We Need To Ask Penetrating Questions and Demand Good Answers

Before the next build-up to war gets out of hand, we better start asking questions and demand good answers. Here are a few suggestions: 

Question Number 1: Just who are the people who constitute the opposition in Syria, and why should we side with them? Are they simply "freedom-loving rebels" (as Ronald Reagan once called the drug-running contra fighters in Nicaragua), who just want the Syrian people to be free of the dictator Assad? Or are they something else, not so glorious?

The truth is that the opposition forces today are dominated by two groups, one of them being a faction called al-Nusra, which is openly affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic-Sunni extremists. In the beginning of the Syrian revolt, there were genuine independence fighters among the rebels, committed to freeing their country of the despotic Assad. But those people are no longer in the forefront of the opposition. Al Nusra and the Sunni extremists are.

Al-Qaeda is supposedly America's sworn enemy, the terrorist group that, according to the official account, attacked us on 9/11. Why would we send arms to a coalition that includes an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, as well as Islamic fundamentalists?

Moreover, UN investigators on a commission of inquiry have said that, while it appears chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict, it's not clear who used them. It may be that both sides have used sarin gas. In fact, one member of the UN commission of inquiry on Syria said in May, prior to the full commission report, that she believed the rebels had used sarin gas.

I'd like to know why it is that American intelligence can be so categorical in saying that the government used poison gas, while a UN team has said it's an open question? It brings to mind former CIA Director George Tenet's famous line about whether there was enough evidence to prove there were WMDs in Iraq. He said that the conclusion to be drawn from the evidence constituted "a slam dunk." Of course, WMDs were ultimately never found, but we had already gone to war anyway.

This brings up Question Number 2: Doesn't the UN Charter, a treaty which the U.S. signed and is bound by, prohibit one country from making war on another country, unless it is acting in self-defense or has Security Council authorization? The answer is, Yes, the UN Charter does have such a prohibition. We will be breaking international law by sending military aid to a group trying to overthrow a foreign government. It won't make it any more legal if the aid is filtered through allies like Turkey, or done in conjunction with NATO allies like Britain and France (former colonial powers in the Middle East ). We will still be war criminals.

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Reginald Johnson is a free-lance writer based in Bridgeport, Ct. His work has appeared in The New York Times, BBC-Online, the Connecticut Post, his web magazine, The Pequonnock, and Reading Between the Lines, a web magazine affiliated with the (more...)
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