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“This Is A War Crime”: The U.N.’s Syria Report Strengthens President Obama’s Hand

United Nations inspectors confirmed Monday that hundreds of Syrians who died in an Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus were killed with sarin nerve gas.

The highly anticipated U.N. report marks the first official conclusion by independent scientists that the victims had been gassed. “The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale,” Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said. “This is a war crime.”

Neither Ban nor the U.N. inspectors would say who committed the atrocity — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels fighting to topple him have accused each other.

The Obama administration and its allies, however, jumped on the findings, saying that only Assad forces had the capacity to carry out such a massive attack with chemical weapons — bolstering their push for a strong U.N. resolution to quickly seize and destroy Syria’s stockpile of deadly gases.

“The regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told CNN.

The U.N. inspectors, who visited the scene of the attack, also found rocket fragments indicating that the nerve gas had been delivered with two types of artillery-launched rocket — the M14 and the 330mm. Assad’s military has these big guns; the rebels don’t.

Furthermore, arms experts doubt that opposition fighters have the expertise to use these rocket launchers effectively, even if they have captured some from Assad’s army. “It’s hard to say with certainty that the rebels don’t have access to these delivery systems,” Dina Esfandiary, a chemical weapons expert, tells Britain’s Telegraph. “But even if they do, using them in such a way as to ensure that the attack was successful is the bit the rebels won’t know how to do.”

The timing of the U.N.’s assessment works in President Obama’s favor. The U.S. has just reached an agreement with Russia for the international community to take control of Assad’s stockpile — estimated at 1,000 tons of sarin, mustard gas, and other poisons — by the middle of next year. Secretary of State John Kerry is demanding a U.N. resolution that will leave open the option of using force if Assad doesn’t fulfill his promise to hand over his chemical arsenal, and the U.N. report will make it easier to rally other nations behind a get-tough approach.

If the Security Council fails to reach a deal, and Assad doesn’t hand over his chemical weapons, the issue could be thrust back into the hands of Congress, which was debating whether to authorize Obama to order missile strikes against Syria when the unexpected diplomatic push put military action on hold. The U.N. report gives Obama outside evidence to present to reluctant lawmakers to back up his accusations against Assad.

 

By: Harold Maass, The Week, September 16, 2013

September 17, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reflex Pacifism”: Why Peace Sometimes Needs Force

I have worked as a war reporter since 1993, when I sent myself to Bosnia with a backpack, a sleeping bag and a stack of notebooks. The first dead body I saw in a war zone was a teenage girl who was sprawled naked outside the Kosovar town of Suha Reka, having been gang-raped by Serbian paramilitaries toward the end of the war in 1999. After they finished with her, they cut her throat and left her in a field to die; when I saw her, the only way to know she was female — or indeed human — was the red nail polish on her hands.

I grew up in an extremely liberal family during the Vietnam War, and yet I found it hard not to be cheered by the thought that the men who raped and killed that girl might have died during the 78-day NATO bombardment that eventually brought independence to Kosovo.

Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation. That track record should force even peace advocates to consider that military action is required to bring some wars to an end.

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.

Of course, even the most ardent pacifist can’t deny that the credible threat of U.S. force is what made the Syrian regime at all receptive to a Russian proposal that it relinquish control of its stockpiles of nerve agents. If the deal falls apart or proves to be a stalling tactic, military strikes, or at least the threat of them, will again be needed. Already, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s denials have been troubling. His suggestion that the rebels turned nerve gas on themselves to garner the world’s sympathy reminds me of the Serb authorities who said the people of Sarajevo were mortaring themselves; it was just as unconvincing then as it is now.

The most common objection to strikes is that the United States is not the world’s policeman; we have poured our resources and blood into two long wars over the past decade, and it’s time for someone else to take care of those duties.

That is a very tempting position, but it does not hold water. The reality is that we have staked our military and economic security on making sure that no other country — including our longtime allies — has anywhere close to the military capabilities that we do. We are safe in our borders because we are the only nation that can park a ship in international waters and rain cruise missiles down on specific street addresses in a foreign city for weeks on end. And we enjoy extraordinary wealth because our foreign trade and oil imports are protected by the world’s most powerful navy. I find it almost offensive that anyone in this country could imagine they are truly pacifist while accepting the protection and benefit of all that armament. If you have a bumper sticker that says “No Blood For Oil,” it had better be on your bike.

The United States is in a special position in the world, and that leads many people to espouse a broad American exceptionalism in foreign affairs. Even if they’re correct, those extra rights invariably come with extra obligations. Precisely because we claim such a privileged position, it falls to us to uphold the international laws that benefit humanity in general and our nation in particular.

Iraq hangs heavy over the American psyche and contributes to the war­weariness, but the 2003 invasion was not an intervention to stop an ongoing conflict. It was an unpopular intrusion into the affairs of a country that was troubled but very much at peace. In that sense, it was fundamentally different from other Western military interventions.

The ethnic slaughter in Bosnia was stopped by a two-week NATO bombardment after well over 100,000 civilians died. Not a single NATO soldier was killed. After Kosovo came Sierra Leone, where a grotesquely brutal civil war was ended by several hundred British SAS troops in a two-week ground operation in the jungles outside Freetown. They lost one man. In 2003, the Liberian civil war was easily ended by a contingent of U.S. Marines that came ashore after every single faction — the rebels, the government and the civilians — begged for intervention. Not a shot was fired.

The civilian casualties where there were strikes were terribly unfortunate, but they constituted a small fraction of casualties in the wars themselves.

Finally, there is the problem — the pacifist problem — of having no effective response to the use of nerve gas by a government against its citizens. To one degree or another, every person has an obligation to uphold human dignity in whatever small way he or she can. It is this concept of dignity that has given rise to international laws protecting human rights, to campaigns for prison reform, to boycotts against apartheid. In this context, doing nothing in the face of evil becomes the equivalent of actively supporting evil; morally speaking, there is no middle ground.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people essentially one person at a time, which is clearly an abomination, but it is not defined as a crime against humanity. The mass use of nerve agents against civilians is a crime against humanity, however. As such, it is a crime against every single person on this planet.

President Obama is not arguing for an action that decimates the Assad regime and allows rebel forces to take over. He is not saying that we are going to put our troops at risk on the ground in Syria, or that it will be a long and costly endeavor, or even that it will be particularly effective. He is saying that he does not want us to live in a world where nerve gas can be used against civilians without consequences of any kind. If killing 1,400 people with nerve gas is okay, then killing 14,000 becomes imaginable. When we have gotten used to that, killing 14 million may be next.

At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death, and isolationism becomes a form of genocide. It’s not a matter of how we’re going to explain this to the Syrians. It’s a matter of how we’re going to explain this to our kids.

 

By: Sebastian Junger, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 13, 2013

September 16, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Beginning Of An Exceptional Friendship”: The American People’s Reply To Comrade Vladimir Putin

Dear President Putin,

Thank you so much for your letter to the American people! I am an American person, and when I learned on Thursday from the official Russian news agency, the New York Times, that you wanted “to speak directly to the American people,” I thought: How sweet!

I know I speak for many American people when I congratulate you on your English. It was flawless, with none of those dropped articles that plague so many of your countrymen. Please don’t be offended, but I have to ask: Did Edward Snowden help you with your letter?

It’s not just your English that impressed me. Your geopolitical points were smart — da bomb, as we American people like to say. (This is not the kind that would be used in Syria.) You were so thoughtful to bring up those memories of our days long ago as allies, and your references to “mutual trust” and “shared success” make me think that maybe we could be friends again. Your favorable mentions of Israel and the Pope remind me that we have so much in common.

Although some of us think it’s a good idea to have the U.S. military strike Syria, most of the American people agree with you that it would be a bad idea. (President Obama, you may have heard, is on both sides of the issue.) Your arguments against attack were creative, which is why it’s such a shame that, at the very end, you kind of stepped in it. When you told us that Americans are not “exceptional” — well, that hurts all of us American people.

I was surprised by this lapse because I think you really “get” Americans. When we saw photos of you shirtless in Siberia, you brought to mind one of our most celebrated American lawmakers, Anthony Weiner. When we watched you navigate around Russian laws to stay in power, you brought to mind another quintessentially American figure, Rod Blagojevich. The Harley-Davidson, the black clothing, the mistress half your age — you are practically American yourself.

This makes your crack about “American exceptionalism” all the more perplexing. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” you wrote. “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” (Thank you for the considerate mention of God, by the way; American people respond well to that.) But I’m guessing what went wrong here is your translators let you down when they defined exceptional for you as luchshyy (better) rather than razlichnyy (different).

Americans do not believe they are better than other peoples. If you doubt this, you need only look at Congress. If we really thought we were superior, is there any chance we would choose them to represent us? There are exceptions — we think we are better than Canadians, for example, but please don’t tell them, because they’re awfully nice — but generally we accept that all countries have their strengths. We know, for example, that Russians are better than us at producing delicacies such as caviar and dioxin. (Kidding!)

When we say we are exceptional, what we really are saying is we are different. With few exceptions, we are all strangers to our land; our families came from all corners of the world and brought all of its colors, religions and languages. We believe this mixing, together with our free society, has produced generations of creative energy and ingenuity, from the Declaration of Independence to Facebook, from Thomas Jefferson to Miley Cyrus. There is no other country quite like that.

Americans aren’t better than others, but our American experience is unique — exceptional — and it has created the world’s most powerful economy and military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world. When you question American exceptionalism, you will find little support from any of us, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, doves or hawks.

I hope you won’t take this criticism badly, because I offer it in friendship. I was in Slovenia that day in 2001 when President George W. Bush looked into your soul and liked what he saw. And had your ancestors not chased my ancestors out of Eastern Europe, I would not be here today, participating in the American experiment.

Anyway, it was such a pleasure to get your letter. Please write again soon. I think this is the beginning of an exceptional friendship.

 

By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 12, 2013

September 15, 2013 Posted by | Democracy, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Coherent”: The Right Works Backwards To Make Their Thesis Of Putin Look More Impressive

The Hill published a curious piece this morning with a provocative headline, “Putin gets his revenge on Obama.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the United States in the op-ed pages of Thursday’s New York Times was a revenge of sorts on President Obama. […]

The op-ed was the latest salvo in an open feud between Obama and Putin — one which the Russian appeared this week to take an upper hand when a last-second diplomatic proposal from Russia led Obama to ask Congress to call off votes authorizing strikes against Syria.

I’ll concede I’m not an expert in the nuances of international diplomacy, but the notion that the Russian president has exacted “revenge” on President Obama seems odd to me.

Let’s take stock of what happened this week: (1) the United States threatened Syria, a Russian ally, over its use of chemical weapons; (2) Syria then vowed to give up its chemical weapons; and (3) Russia has committed itself to the diplomatic process the United States wants, which is intended to guarantee the success of the Syrian disarmament plan.

So, Obama, at least for now, ended up with what he wanted, which was then followed with more of what he wanted. If this is Putin exacting revenge, I suspect the White House doesn’t mind.

Indeed, the op-ed certainly caused a stir, but let’s not exaggerate its significance. “Putin gets his revenge on Obama” sounds awfully dramatic, but I don’t imagine President Obama was reading the NYT with breakfast yesterday, telling those around him, “Putin wrote a newspaper piece? And it chides the United States? I’ve been foiled by my strategic better! Curses!”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill, “It’s a sorry state when we have to take our leadership from Mr. Putin.” What does this even mean? The U.S. told Russia we intend to do something about the threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons; Russia is now working on helping eliminate that threat. In what way does the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee sees Americans taking our leadership from Putin?

Peggy Noonan wrote of Putin’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning, “He twisted the knife and gloated, which was an odd and self-indulgent thing to do when he was winning.”

The possibility that the Obama White House is actually achieving its strategic goals with these developments is apparently unimportant — Noonan and other Republicans are too overwhelmed by the belief that Putin got his revenge by writing an unpersuasive and inconsequential op-ed in a newspaper.

We’ve talked a couple of times this week about the right’s increasingly creepy affections for Putin, a phenomenon that only seems to be getting worse. This morning, though, I’m beginning to see the elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts — the right decided in advance that Obama’s rival must be impressive because he’s Obama rival, so they work backwards to make their thesis look more impressive.

Just over the last few days, for example, Tucker Carlson heralded Putin for “riding to President Obama’s rescue” while Russia “humiliates the United States.” Charles Krauthammer added that it’s Putin’s government that’s “playing chess here with a set of rank amateurs.”

So, every development is then filtered through the conservative prism that says Putin is President Tough Guy Leadership. The Russian gently rebuked the U.S. in an op-ed? Then conservatives must be right about Putin’s impressiveness!

Again, this might be more persuasive if Obama weren’t getting exactly what he wants right now.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 13, 2013

September 15, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Power Of Words”: Syria Moving To Sign The Chemical Weapons Treaty Is A Win For The U.S.

The Syrian regime today told the United Nations that it intends to sign and abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. This commitment does two things that change the dynamics of the international response to Syria regardless of whether it is implemented.

First, it ends arguments about whether Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has chemical weapons, and whether the concern with his using them is “just” an American preoccupation. Second, it gives the international and intrusive United Nations machinery a real and expanding role in dealing with Syria’s chemical stocks, potentially starting to move Russia off center stage.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein interprets an interview that Assad gave today as a “ransom note”: that Assad will not agree to move forward on chemical weapons destruction unless the U.S. agrees to stop arming his opponents. It’s almost touching to see Assad trying to inflate the importance of recent U.S. arms shipments, even as Syrian rebels continue to say they aren’t getting what they want. But if Assad has that interpretation, it’s a major plus for Washington. Here’s why every step toward getting Syria’s name on the Chemical Weapons Convention is a plus for Washington:

Implementation is no longer in Russia’s hands alone. As American politics takes a detour into obsessing with Vladimir Putin and his Thursday op-ed, Assad’s move to the U.N. actually begins the process of pushing Russia back out of the spotlight. Rather than foresee a future in which Assad hands chemicals straight to Russia, Assad’s signal of intent to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention kicks off a process that should put the U.N. out front in moving quickly to get Assad’s signature and establish what will comprise ratification. (You can see Assad claiming rebel attacks make it hard for the Syrian People’s Council, elected last year during the civil war, to meet. But its speaker has been sending fan letters to anti-war Western politicians without difficulty.)

As soon as that happens – or before, if Syria were to announce that it will begin abiding by the Convention, as Russia should be asked to pressure it to do – Syria becomes liable for declaring all of its weapons and production sites within 30 days, allowing 100 percent of them to be inspected by trained international inspectors affiliated with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and destroyed in a manner that can be verified by the OPCW. The Russians have apparently suggested to Washington that a model for how Syrian stocks are verifiably destroyed could be the joint U.S.-Russian destruction of old Soviet stocks carried out under the provisions of the Nunn-Lugar Agreement. Phones over at Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, which on its own has overseen removal of nuclear materials from some dicey places, should be ringing off the hook about now.

The standard for success becomes clearer. Pundits weighed in faster than a senator to a camera on the difficulty of destroying all of Syria’s chemical stocks. That’s the wrong standard. 16 years after the U.S. and Russia joined the treaty, we’ve destroyed 90 percent of our stocks and Russia 65 percent of its. What’s the right standard? Every pound destroyed is a pound that can’t be used by Assad, can’t fall into the hands of extremist groups and doesn’t swell the target list for possible military intervention.

Assad puts himself on the line internationally. The treaty text is simple, committing its signatories “never … to use chemical weapons” and “to destroy chemical weapons it owns or possesses.” The treaty also foresees a compliance mechanism – a soft one, but one much-discussed in recent days: “the Conference shall, in cases of particular gravity, bring the issue, including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.” The use of “shall” is important. The treaty doesn’t say that treaty members vote on whether or not to refer to the Security Council, or that they “may” refer serious noncompliance to the Security Council. It says that they will. So one of Russia’s prior avenues for vetoing Security Council consideration would be removed.

Most important, Assad runs the risk, if his regime uses chemical weapons again, that Washington’s strike plans will be right back on the table, with considerably more international support. The rebels know this, and are likely to push him as hard as they can. Which hardly adds up to a win for Assad. It does, however, add up to the chance for a big win for the U.N., the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and the power of … words.

 

By: Heather Hurlburt, U. S. News and World Report, September 12, 2013

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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