Tag Archives: Bashar al-Assad

Syria: No One Wants to Own It

A previous post “The Graveyard of Empires” pointed to the number of empires throughout history that bogged down after entry into the Middle East. But the Middle East continues to thrust itself onto the world’s stage, like some black pestilence.

Today, it’s the horrendous deaths in Syria apparently caused by a gas attack on civilians. Most nations are condemning the attacks, and especially Bashar al Assad’s rule there, abetted by Russia.

Perhaps things will change, but as of now, no one appears to know what to do to prevent future attacks. No one wants to own the problem.

Recent interventions to “fix” international problems have often made them worse. Unlike World War II, a powerful alliance working together seems nonexistent. Militarily, an immediate fix might tumble Assad, but where’s the will for another Marshall Plan? That effort, after World War II, used billions in aid, not for war, but to build the economies and governments of post war Europe.

The saying is: “If you break it, you fix it.” And no one wants to risk the cost of fixing Syria.

Shaming Russia

“How can people go sit at a table with a regime that bombs hospitals and drops chlorine gas again and again and again and again and again and again, and acts with impunity? Are you supposed to sit there and have happy talk in Geneva under those circumstances when you’ve signed up to a ceasefire and you don’t adhere to it? What kind of credibility do you have with any of your people?”

–John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, at the United Nations during talks on Syria

The recent talks followed air strikes which killed workers attempting to bring relief supplies to besieged Syrian civilians, despite an agreed upon ceasefire. The United States has blamed Russia, either for the strikes or allowing their Syrian allies to carry them out.

John Kerry is a diplomat’s diplomat. He continually remains civil and courteous even to those who must frustrate him to the point of insanity. This time, however, he could not contain his anger.

Until now, he’s managed civil negotiations with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. He wants Lavrov and his country, in the interests of simple humanity, to reign in their protegé, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s leader. Assad has committed atrocities against his people surely surpassing Russia’s own Ivan the Terrible.

Russians support Assad because they wish to retain their airbase and Mediterranean port in Syria. What to do?

Considering what happened when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, few Americans wish to commit their troops to Syria. The United Nations is hamstrung from acting because of Russia’s veto in the Security Council.

One suggestion is for American planes to bomb Syria’s airfields, preventing planes from using them to bomb civilians. Such actions are an act of war against a country not directly harming us.

Perhaps the heroes are those who come back, yes, again and again to seek a solution. If the atrocities committed in that small country continue, they refuse to allow the world to forget. Let the shaming continue.

It’s Okay to Disagree

Fifty-one diplomats within the U.S. State Department recently signed a document dissenting from the current U.S. policy on Syria. They wish a more activist policy against Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s leader. They believe the U.S. should do more to stop Assad’s brutal treatment of his civilian population by barrel bombs and other atrocities.

The dissent channel of the State Department allows any diplomat to disagree with a current U.S. foreign policy. Retaliation to the dissenter’s career is forbidden.

The dissent channel was established in the 1970’s during the Vietnamese conflict to allow challenges to official policy. The idea is that dissent is not a weakness in a democracy but a strength: all views should be aired. No one person has all knowledge or wisdom. We benefit when different opinions can be expressed, whether we agree or disagree with the dissenter.

In the midst of all our self-criticism, we can be proud that underlings are encouraged to speak their views and not suffer retaliation.

Why Such Hatred in the Middle East?

I don’t remember ever meeting anyone of the Muslim faith when I was growing up in Nashville, Tennessee. I certainly wasn’t aware of the chief division of Islam between Sunni and Shi’a. That division now splinters the Middle East, leading to acts of inhumanity not known since the days of Nazism.

The ancient conflict began over the succession to Islam’s leader, Mohammed, in the seventh century. At Mohammed’s death, some thought he chose his son-in-law Ali to succeed him as leader. They eventually became know as Shi’a. Others thought he chose his companion Abu Bakr as leader of the growing Muslim community. They became known as Sunni.

The majority of Muslims belong to the Sunni tradition, but Shi’a Muslims are a significant presence in several countries. Most Muslims in Iran are Shi’a. A majority of Muslims in Iraq are Shi’a. Yemen is home to large numbers of Shi’a.

A majority of Syria’s Muslims are Sunni, but the al-Assad family, belonging to a Shi’a related group, have reigned as dictators for decades over the Sunni. They have generally been allies of Shi’a Iran, and Iran has supported Bashar al-Assad in his attempt to retain power. The resulting factional struggle has devastated Syria.

The former leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was Sunni. He was a brutal leader whose Sunni government held sway over the majority Iraqi Shi’a. When Saddam was overthrown by the American led coalition in the early 2000’s, Shi’a Iraqis took power away from Sunni Iraqis.

All of the above makes for a potent mix of warring factions.

Recently, conflict in Yemen between Sunni and Shi’a has drawn in Saudi Arabia. Some analysts fear that the Middle East will see a major war between the two groups, a Sunni group led by Saudi Arabia and a Shi’a group led by Iran.

As the United States tries to craft a foreign policy to take us through these minefields, this is not a time for slogans, sound bytes, or political posturing. Let our debates on possible directions be reasoned, respectful, and knowledgeable, not partisan. The Middle East has enough of that.


No Shock and Awe This Time

 I finished a late night visit to a morgue in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in March, 2003, where I was working at the U.S. consulate. For months, the U.S. and its allies had prepared for a war with Iraq, two countries to the north of us. Meanwhile, a lone terrorist had killed an American working in Dhahran, and his identity must be verified to notify next of kin. After my return to the consulate, I phoned the victim’s boss to brief him. He informed me that the air war with Iraq had begun with the bombing of Baghdad. Utterly exhausted, I stood in the desert breeze and hoped the campaign was going to be over with as quickly as the first Gulf war over a decade before.

This one was to be, so we were told, a brief campaign of shock and awe, after which we would conquer Iraq and be greeted as liberators. The war lasted over eight years, and by then, Americans had become increasingly unpopular in Iraq and most of the Middle East.

The current proposal to destroy ISIS appears more realistic. No optimistic blitz. It is anticipated to last beyond the tenure of our current president. Ground fighting will be left to local armies, not U.S. combat forces. Syria, where the conflict began, will be included in the campaign.

Kenneth M. Pollack, at the Brookings Institution, also presented a more sober assessment of any conflict which intends to ultimately defeat Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian dictator’s brutal tactics led to the current situation. Pollack’s observations are found in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs. He proposes American support of a new Syrian army and political structure. It not only would defeat Assad but support the aftermath with the establishment of “a functional, egalitarian system of government.”

If carried out, a big “if” as Pollack realizes, it would overcome the peace that so defeats us in these wars: “a victory by one side, followed by a horrific slaughter of its adversaries . . .”

Do we have enough patience to act as midwife to such a slow birthing?


Syria: Questions To Help Us Think


To attack Syria or not to attack Syria with missile strikes has divided everyone, it seems, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Rather than give my own opinion (which is still evolving), I’m enclosing links to two thoughtful pieces. One is a general question-and-answer piece about Syria. The other is a colunn by Nicholas Kristof, a journalist for The New York Times whom I have always admired:

Question and Answer

Kristof article


Syria: No Good Options


We are weary of our Viet Nams, our Iraqs, our Afghanistans, and our Libyas. We have fought, shed blood, and expended treasure for what we are not sure.

We are cured of our hubris that followed the end of World War II and later the cold war. We know that sending in our military when wrongs are done does not necessarily end the wrongs. As we contemplate the brutal evidence of innocent men, women, and children dying horrible deaths in Syria after a probable gas attack, we know a military response may not stop the brutality.

We should know, if we contemplate action, not to expect a democracy friendly to us or even a democracy at all as a result. It could even encourage another Iranian style theological state, quite hostile to us.

The bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad has not attacked us nor supported al-Qaeda nor Iranian nuclear ambitions. If we should decide to act in Syria, we should do so with the motive of, possibly, shortening this inhumane war. Pure altruism and nothing more. Most likely we shall gain, if anything, only that. No scenes of welcome as liberators. It may be enough—if we take the chance and lives are saved. But it is not a definite nor easy decision to make. We can at least refrain from name-calling the decision makers. Prayer for them, and sympathy, are more in order.

Syria: Do We or Don’t We?


Bachar-al-AssadThe war in Syria is a conundrum, a problem that appears to have no favorable resolution. The opposition, assaulted by a brutal dictator, plead for weapons to unseat Bashar al-Assad. Clinging to power appears to be Assad’s main goal in life, even if he must slaughter civilians to do it. The poorly-armed opposition asks for weapons to equalize the conflict.

Few Americans seriously entertain sending American troops into the Syrian maelstrom, but many question our lack of support for other nations to arm the opposition with weapons to shoot down Assad’s planes that sow such carnage.

The reason for our reluctance is the presence in the opposition of terrorist elements, perhaps a small minority, but we don’t know the extent. We fear that weapons will end up in the hands of the terrorist element. We fear, if they gain the upper hand, that they will replace Assad, not with a republic offering equal protection for all religious and ethnic groups, but with an Islamist republic akin to the theocracy in Iran. In a shooting war which changes daily, picking the good guys from the bad ones is difficult. The mixed results of other Middle Eastern countries who have thrown off dictators give us pause. Minorities in Egypt, for example, fear that the new constitution there may take away their rights.

Sometimes the happy ending, so beloved by Americans, is not possible in the short run. We make adult decisions, some would say moral ones, knowing the risks we take.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons


While Christians in this country celebrate Jesus’ birth, we recoil at the horrors unfolding in the region where he was born. Will Syria’s Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons on his own people? Perhaps creating a tragedy as happened when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on his Kurdish citizens in 1988, killing and maiming thousands? (We ignored this atrocity at the time because Saddam was our ally against Iran.)

Why does Assad not step down? He could find sanctuary. Russia has supported him. Supposedly, he has friends in South America. Why does he insist on this war of brutality against his own people?

Perhaps he fears retribution against his ethnic sect, the Alawites. The Alawites, a minority in Syria that has ruled the Sunni Muslim majority for decades, fear his downfall, sure of a war of revenge against them if he goes.

The use of chemical weapons is “a red line,” so we are told. What then is our response? What are our plans? We are weary of war. Chemical weapons apparently is the one step Assad could take which would bring retribution on him. But will we be able to act effectively?

What will happen to Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world? The apostle Paul was headed there when he experienced a spiritual turnaround so dramatic that the phrase “Damascus Road experience” has become the code for a life altering conversion. We are in need of such today.