Posts Tagged ‘Red lines’

CHEMICAL ATTACKS AND CRUISE MISSILES

Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad’s April 4 Sarin gas attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun drew a quick response from President Trump. U.S. naval forces rained down 59 cruise missiles on Shayrat air base, destroying or damaging 23 Syrian planes. Many Republicans—far-right conservatives were opposed—Democrats and allied governments found the action intoxicating. It’s time to sober up.

I neither support nor condemn Mr. Trump’s decision. But I caution that the matter is far from simple—and far from over. Mr. Trump’s response certainly stands in contrast to Barack Obama’s setting a red line regarding chemical attacks, looking to Congress for approval to take military action, finding none then accepting an offer by Russia’s Vladimir Putin to negotiate the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Some of which apparently were held back.

Mr. Obama’s mistake was not withholding American force, which may or may not have accomplished much while possibly igniting a political firestorm at home. It was declaring a red line publicly rather than privately notifying Assad, Putin and Iran that using chemical weapons could provoke a U.S. military response.

Mr. Trump chose to make a “statement.” Despite the initial chest-thumping, it likely will prove meaningless. After our cruise missile delivery, several of Assad’s planes took off from Shayrat—whose runways were left untouched—to again bomb Khan Sheikhoun. Assad made his own statement. While feeble, it was backed by Russia’s military presence in Syria.

Frederic C. Hof, a Syria policy maven at the State Department under Mr. Obama, who later became an Obama administration critic, stated that Assad “now counts on the West again to leave him free to kill as long as he does so without chemicals” (The New York Times, 4-9-17). The Pentagon later suggested that barrel bombs may cross another “line.” So what?

Take Mr. Trump’s mention that “many lines had been crossed” by Assad’s latest chemical attack. Apparently, no lines were crossed when Mr. Trump assumed the presidency ten weeks earlier. Syrian helicopters continued dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods. Syrian and Russian artillery, mortars and conventional bombs maintained the slaughter. The mass killing of civilians seemingly crossed no lines for Mr. Obama, as well. The Syrian death toll reportedly stands at or near 500,000.

Are we going to war? Despite the brutality, many Americans, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, exhibit no desire for the U.S. to get deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, particularly given the risk of a miscalculation with Russian forces. This represents not cynicism but pragmatism (see Iraq: Invasion of).

Referencing Frederic Hof, is it wrong to kill 87 civilians with Sarin gas but okay to kill 150 with run-of-the-mill ordnance? If half-a-million deaths doesn’t cross a line spurring concerted United Nations action—impossible with a Russian veto—is a line demarcated at 600,000 deaths? A million?

I’ve written that violence in the Middle East will continue for years and probably decades until the people of the region—not America—have had enough or totally exhausted themselves. While that position jeers at our humanitarian values, it remains valid lacking a truly global will to intervene and the ability to restore not only order to the Middle East but also civility. Honesty, no matter how gut-wrenching, will guide us more wisely than political showmanship.

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RED LINES

It used to be called drawing a line in the sand. You can go this far someone would say, and no farther. Political negotiations for territory produced maps and lines in red to mark borders. This is mine. That is yours. Today, establishing a red line equates to warning other nations or groups not to undertake certain actions—or else. But such a statement produces difficult questions like: Or else what?

The revolution in Syria has taken 93,000 lives—a figure of the verified dead according to the United Nations. For the White House, lives were an issue in the Syrian civil war but not the issue. President Obama drew his own red line some time ago. If the Assad government used chemical weapons, then the U.S. would be forced to intervene. Claims of chemical weapon use surfaced. The White House determined the evidence insufficient and let the matter lie—at least publicly. Ultimately, proof came. So now?

We’ll provide the rebels with small arms and ammunition. Anti-tank weapons, too, I imagine. At least, that’s the public position. Britain and France also will provide light arms. The Saudis, fighting a proxy war against Iran, have supplied shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles

More difficult questions remain: Who will end up with all this materiel? Can the West buy the loyalty of any group we support with weaponry? And will the next step be the establishment of a no-fly zone to keep Assad’s air force grounded—a move that Mr. Obama currently rejects and the Russians oppose?

Having backed themselves into a corner, President Obama and his advisors are flying blind. Whatever strategy they settle upon may work. Or not. An old Yiddish proverb comes to mind: Man plans and God laughs. We’re talking, after all, about the Middle East.

Speaking of God, former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested—and the satirical intent doesn’t go unnoticed—“Let Allah sort it out.” Fatalism plays a large role in the Muslim psyche. Inshallah one hears frequently. God willing. What does God will? Sunni and Shiite extremists believe God wills the destruction of the other. Many Americans, I suspect, will be glad to let sectarian forces savage each other. Of course, much innocent blood will be spilled in the process.

One of the perks of writing a blog is the freedom to tell the world how it should act. Regarding Syria, I’ll pass. But this I do know. Talking about red lines works only until one is crossed. Without a real consequence, the red line bleeds into the sand along with a government’s credibility.

It’s very possible that Mr. Obama’s strategy will mirror Mrs. Palin’s. We’ll do the minimum to protect some Syrian civilians while keeping Assad and Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces off balance. At the same time, we’ll attempt to minimize the buildup of too much power by Sunni rebels and the al-Qaeda Islamists who make up much of their effective fighting force. This may be the best we can do.

But we might also consider that publicly declaring a red line risks creating a straight line to disaster.

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