The Syria Problem

I know I’m a bit behind in posting these thoughts, but my schedule has been pretty tight so I’m still getting through my backlog of posts. There are a lot of questions and bad situations, so I’ll try to cover the different points in a simple Q&A.

Should President Obama seek Congressional Approval?

Yes, of course he should.

Is he Constitutionally required to do so?

No, actually, because the War Powers Resolution gives the President limited powers of war-making as long as the actions take less than 60 days (with an additional 30 days for withdrawl). I think the War Powers Resolution should be repealed, personally, because it creates far too much grey area allowing a single branch of government to make military strikes against other countries. 

If he doesn’t need approval, why is he asking? 

I think he’s asking for several reasons. First, I think he’s trying to reinstate the policy that stood through the majority of our history which is that the Congress declares war and then the President executes that war. Secondly, I think he’s asking because this whole situation is awful. I think he knows that every option he has to choose from is a shitty option and so he doesn’t want 100% of the responsibility for it.

The Republicans in Congress have attacked him for not intervening in Libya, then he intervened in Libya and they attacked him for intervening in Libya. They’ve been attacking him for not intervening in Syria and if he attacks without them involved, those same Republicans will attack him for intervening… because seriously, they just want to attack him for anything they can. So, he wants them on the line as well. If they don’t vote for it, then it once again makes them hypocrites, if they do vote for it, then it is harder for them to attack him for intervening. Thirdly, I don’t think Obama actually wants to get involved. I think he’s smart enough to realize this is a lose-lose situation, but they’ve crossed the “red line” so he has to do something. He has to play the part for diplomatic and foreign relations reasons, but he knows that Congress will deny it and he was banking on it.

He had already delayed attacking once, doesn’t asking Congress and delaying the attack again make him look weak? 

I’ve heard this question repeated a stupid number of times on various media channels, but I hate it. We should all want a leader who strives to follow the Constitutional arrangement for declarations of War and we should all want a leader who will delay action until the evidence is appropriately collected and analyzed. I think it’s the 24-hour news cycle bullshit which causes politicians and media to beat their chests saying, “Why isn’t he doing something about Syria?” and then they immediately pivot to “It’s going to be Iraq all over again, we’ve heard this WMDs story before!” and then once again immediately pivot to “His lack of action shows weakness.” It can make you insane, but most people don’t listen to the news all the time. They will often hear only one of those positions and agree, not realizing that those media personalities or politicians said the exact opposite thing just a week before.

All of that aside, what do you think? Attack or no?

Map of SyriaI do see and understand the need to police bad actors in the world in order to discourage those bad actions. Ideally, I do not want to do that unilaterally and would prefer the UN to be the official actor (even if we’d be carrying the majority of the weight). If we were being directly threatened, then I don’t really care what the UN thinks, but since this isn’t a direct threat I think it’s important to work together on it. 

In principle, I might be willing to intervene, even though I really never want to intervene in general.. but the specifics of Syria make it a LOT more complicated.

If we intervene against Assad, then we end up taking the rebels side. Even if we don’t really take the rebels side, that is certainly how it will be perceived as well as providing real, if indirect, support for the rebels… and many of the rebels aren’t good people either. While the primary rebel forces in Syria are actually ex-Syrian military who refused to accept orders to kill Syria citizens who protested the Assad government, the rebels are a mix of lots of different groups including an Al Qaeda affiliate. Now, even though the rebels aren’t all Al Qaeda, they clearly aren’t good guys either, so who do you help? It’s like seeing the KKK fighting a bunch of child molesters… but one of the groups starts using inhumane weapons… yeah, we don’t want people using inhumane weapons, but we don’t really want to help the KKK or the child molesters. It’s an all-lose situation. 


That being said, the news outlets which attempt to paint all of the Syria rebels as members of Al Qaeda are simply agenda-driven liars. Absolutely no legitimate journalist could look at the rebel situation in Syria and conclude that the rebels are all Islamist members of Al Qaeda. If the news media you watch is telling you that, stop watching them and find a new channel, website, podcast, whatever. 

Let’s also be clear about “inhumane weapons.” The complaint at hand isn’t really about “inhumane” weapons, it’s about one specific type of inhumane weapon. Assad has been using clusterbombs against his citizens as well, but no one pushed for airstrikes then. For those who aren’t familiar with the concepts and problems of clusterbombs, when the main clusterbomb explodes, it breaks apart into a myriad of smaller little bombs which scatter all over an area and then explode after a period of time. Due to manufacturing defects or damage during the landing and crashing around, that explosion might be delayed hours or days later, in which case the kids walking by get a face full of shrapnel. These clusterbombs are also condemned by the majority of the globe, but they aren’t technically WMD so they don’t get included in the “red line.”

So… when it comes down to it, I don’t want us to intervene. It’s probably the right thing to strike Assad to discourage the use of chemical weapons (I’m not the kind of person to stand by while people are abused), and I think Obama is smart enough to control a limited (and remote) engagement… but I fear the risk of getting involved in their civil war, effectively creating even more enemies without much benefit to us along with all the negatives of being at war again (and still). The only argument I can find to support a fight in Syria is a moral argument, but I don’t think supporting either side of the conflict is the moral thing to do. 

I heard people talking about Russia and Vladimir Putin? What’s going on there?

Syria is a Russian ally and has an important naval military base for Russia. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, has been blocking or threatening to block UN action against Syria which is one of the reasons Obama was considering direct action instead of getting a UN resolution. Any UN resolution about Syria would have to go through the UN Security Council where it would be vetoed by Russia.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked in a press conference is there was anything Assad could do to avoid a US military strike. Kerry gave an off the cuff answer which he clearly considered to be a ridiculous situation which would never happen. He said, (paraphrased), “Assad could hand over every bit of his chemical weapons for destruction and let the UN verify all of his chemical weapons were gone and he’d have to do it this week, so it’s not something that could happen.” 

Then suddenly… Russia saw an out. Assad is likely to be able to supress the rebellion and stay in power through brutal, but conventional, means and Russia would rather keep the US out of the picture so it can keep their control over Assad and Syria. So, Russia is pressuring Syria to give up their chemical weapons. It remains to be seen if this is a stalling tactic or if Syria will really comply. Even if Syria does comply, the only change will be the removal of chemical weapons. Assad is still going to continue slaugthering his citizens with his conventional military. 

Doesn’t that make Obama look weak again? Putin could do what Obama couldn’t.

No, but Fox News desperately wants you to think so. If anything, I think Obama has played the part of the big military power. Putin was afraid to lose power in Syria, so Putin was willing to weaken his own ally to keep us out of the equation (because he thinks the weakened Assad will still be strong enough to win against the rebels). I could easily make the argument that Obama has played a brilliant foreign policy hand by balancing the strong military approach coupled with the soft diplomatic approach… but it’s hard to say how much of this was orchestrated and how much was luck. I really think Obama would have been hailed as a smart leader if this whole thing had happened before the 24-hour news cycle, because before the first news report hit the airwaves they would have had a larger time window of context and be able to portray the story fully. But in the era of the 24-hour news cycle they have to keep talking and talking about every new development from minute to minute and all we receive is the myopic story of “It’s been two minutes since we checked in on Syria, why hasn’t Obama fixed everything yet? Next up: Fascist Michelle Obama forces everyone to drink water?!” (Yes, that’s a real link to a real person who is really stupid.)

Header image from BostInno