The hearings on Syria did not answer every reasonable question about a possible U.S. punitive strike, but they exposed some questions as unreasonable.
I watched the hearings because I hoped to separate the political stories that dominate our media coverage from the diplomatic and military conditions in Syria and the potential effects – for good and for ill – of a U.S. punitive strike.
Of course I couldn’t entirely avoid political spin. From Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) playing iPhone poker during the hearings to Sen. Rand Paul (R-TN) preening for 2016 by presuming to lecture Secretary of State and Vietnam War veteran John Kerry on the risks of war, there was plenty of fodder for punditry. And as the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank wrote, the debate is at least in part about the GOP’s reflexive opposition to the president:
Republicans don’t like what Obama is doing in Syria – whatever it is.
Some protested when Obama threatened to bomb Syria without congressional approval; others then criticized him for seeking congressional approval. They complain that Obama’s use-of-force resolution is too broad; they argue that it would amount to only a “pinprick.” They assert that he should have intervened long ago; they say that he has not yet made the case for intervening. They told him not to go to the United Nations; they scolded him for not pursuing multilateral action. They told him to arm the rebels and, when he did, they said he had done it too late and with insufficient firepower.
Genuine disagreements within the GOP can explain some of the contradictions. And it’s a fair criticism to say that Obama waited too long to act, even if there was never a consensus for action. But the one thing that seems to unite the opposition is the belief that Obama is wrong, no matter what.
But the decision to commit our military, even in the limited, punitive strike the administration has proposed, must not hinge on mindless opposition to – or support for – President Obama.
The “London 11”
In response to a question by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) about the makeup of the Syrian opposition forces, Secretary Kerry discussed the progress of the London 11:
Well, Senator, it’s a – it’s a worthy and important question. I have had a number of different meetings with the opposition over the course of the months now since I came in in February, beginning with a meeting in Rome and subsequently, in Istanbul and in Amman, Jordan. And the opposition – one has to remember that as little as a year ago, there was no great clarity to the structure of that opposition or to who they were, and they certainly had had no experience in this kind of an endeavor.
Over the course of that year, they have evolved, I would say, significantly. Are they where they need to be? Not completely. But they have changed markedly over the course of the last few months.
At our insistence – and when I say “our” insistence, the insistence of all of their supporters, the so-called London 11 – they reached out and expanded significantly their base within Syria. They elected new leadership. They brought in a much broader base of Syria representation, including women, including minorities, Christians, others. And so they’ve built up a much more competent leadership[.]
You may be wondering who the London 11 are, and for good reason. Apart from one CNN story in June, there’s been almost no U.S. media coverage of this international effort to support moderate, secular, popular Syrian resistance movement and eventual government. You can find plenty of stories about Al Qaeda in Syria, including some fringe conspiracy theories about President Obama’s secret plan to expand Islamic extremism.
“Moderate opposition forces … continue to lead the fight”
Even if those fringe theories rarely make it into the mainstream discussion, their premise – that the Syrian opposition is now largely Al Qaeda and other extremists and thus toppling the Assad government will simply allow hardcore Islamists to seize control – is often presumed as fact even by progressives like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes:
What Kerry just said about the trajectory of the opposition is in contrast to just about every bit of reporting out of Syria I've read.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) September 3, 2013
During his questioning, Sen. McCain quoted Syrian analyst Dr. Elizabeth Bagy on the makeup and activities of the Syrian opposition:
The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups; this isn’t the case. Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory. Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely or even predominately by dangerous Islamists and al-Qaida die-hards. The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines. Instead, they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern rebel-held areas of the country. Moderate opposition forces – a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army – continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime. While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups. They’ve demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils, and they’ve struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.
Secretary Kerry agreed with Dr. Baby’s assessment and expressly rejected the oft-repeated claim, posed in a question by Sen. Ron Johnson, that extremists increasingly dominate the Syrian resistance:
No, that is – no, that is actually basically not true. It’s basically incorrect. The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria. And that’s very critical.
“Russia does not have an ideological commitment here”
Another common media talking point is that Syria has become proxy war pitting the U.S. against Russia and/or Iran. Secretary Kerry addressed that yesterday:
Let me finish one other comment, because it’s important to the earlier question: Russia does not have an ideological commitment here. This is a geopolitical transactional commitment. And our indications are, in many regards, that that’s the way they view it, there may be more weapons to sell as a result of weapons sold, but it’s not going to elicit some kind of major confrontation.
Now, let me go further: They have condemned the use of chemical weapons, the Russians have. The Iranians have. And as the proof of the use becomes even more clear in the course of this debate, I think it is going to be very difficult for Iran or Russia to decide against all that evidence that there is something worth defending here.
Of course it’s possible that Secretary Kerry is misinformed, or lying. But it’s also possible that our media are fixated on apocalyptic narratives where U.S. punitive strike sparks World War III. In fact both Charles Krauthammer and Fred Kaplan have invoked Barbara Tuchman’s World War I classic The Guns of August.
“Limited, proportional attacks”
Last night Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and ranking member Sen. Corker worked out draft proposal for a vote on Wednesday:
A new use-of-force resolution for Syria sets a 60-day deadline, with one 30-day extension possible, for President Barack Obama to launch military strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad – and it will also bar the involvement of U.S. ground forces in Syria.
Menendez and Corker both support Obama’s call for “limited, proportional” attacks on the Assad regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
Over the last two days, Corker had been insisting on a 30-day deadline for Obama to order any military action against Syria, but Democrats objected to that requirement.
The Tennessee Republican had also sought a flat-out prohibition on the insertion of any American ground forces into Syria.
But Democrats insisted that Obama should be allowed to do so under limited circumstances, such as special-forces operations or to secure stocks of chemical weapons. Corker aides noted the bill includes a prohibition on using American ground forces for “combat operations,” although it is silent on using troops in emergency situations.
A new Pew Research poll found a plurality of Americans oppose punitive strike, even though a majority agree that the Syrian government used chemical weapons. Senators and representatives should weigh public opinion in deciding whether to authorize military force. They should also weigh the military and diplomatic situation in Syria, and their own informed estimates on whether a U.S. punitive strike would risk more harm than good.
What they – and we – must not do is base our decisions on party politics or breathless but factually groundless tales about “another Iraq” or “World War III.” The Syrian people deserve to be considered in light of the conditions that exist now, in their country … and not the conditions in 2003 Iraq or 1914 Europe.
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