The Disintegration of Syria, and Obama’s Very Quiet Atrocities Prevention Board
President Obama, speaking at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., April 23, 2012:
Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing. In this sense, “never again” is a challenge to us all — to pause and to look within.
Is ‘never again’ really a challenge to us all to pause and to look within? Isn’t it a challenge to those with the authority to prevent, interrupt, impede or stop mass killings to do something about it?
He declared in that speech, “Last year, in the first-ever presidential directive on this challenge, I made it clear that ‘preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.’”
That presidential directive came on August 4, 2011; four months into the Syrian conflict, where the brutal tactics of the Assad regime were clear.
It was at that 2012 event that President Obama announced he was forming a “new Atrocities Prevention Board, to bring together senior officials from across our government to focus on this critical mission.” (Because there’s nothing like a board of senior officials to prevent an atrocity.) Obama emphasized, “This is not an afterthought. This is not a sideline in our foreign policy.”
Here’s a list of what the board has done in the past year. I’m pleased to learn that “the intelligence community is finalizing the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the Global Risks of Mass Atrocities and Prospects for International Response, which will provide a rigorous analytical framework for anticipating and preparing for mass atrocities over the coming years.” It will make fascinating reading for our foreign policy professionals.
Back in college in the mid-90s, I remember some colleague on the school paper expressing incredulity that so many Americans in the 1930s remained oblivious to the threat of Hitler’s Germany and the horrors it was perpetuating. In true progressive fashion, he remarked how much more aware and moral “we” were now. I asked if he had followed the news in the Balkans lately. This was, I’m pretty sure, before we learned about Rwanda.
Above: what happened in Rwanda.
We say “never again”… and then the “ethnic cleansing” of the Balkans occurs (estimated 40,000 civilians killed). And then we see what happens in Rwanda (500,000 dead). And then Darfur, Sudan (between 178,258 and 461,520 dead, mostly from disease).
And now Syria, 70,000 to 94,000 dead, depending upon who you ask.
We say, “never again,” but the evidence of history is “again and again and again and again, each time in slightly different ways, as long as they’re relatively far away.”
We’re all supposed to tip-toe around how things really are, aren’t we? We talk a good game about how much we would have opposed those horrible massacres of the past, but we’re not often that motivated the next time one comes around. The administration, and the vast majority of the American people, want nothing to do with the maelstrom that is what’s left of Syria. That may be even be the wise course considering how neither side appears to be aligned with our interests and both sides have proven capable of brutality.
But polling indicates that public opinion shifts if chemical weapons get used: Support for involving the U.S. military in general rises to 63 percent if Syria’s government uses chemical weapons on its own people. If the Syrian government lost control of their stockpile of chemical weapons — known to be among the world’s largest — 70 percent would support U.S. military action.
So a whole lot rides on whether or not the Western public sees evidence that the Assad regime uses chemical weapons.
Now, in Syria, France says sarin has been used:
“These results show the presence of sarin in the samples that are in our possession,” Fabius said. “In view of these elements, France now has the certainty that the sarin gas was used in Syria several times and in a localized manner.”
The announcement did not say when, where or by whom it may have been used in Syria, where rebels have been fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war.
The announcement coincided with the release of a draft report posted on the website of the U.N. Human Rights Council that concludes: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons. The precise agents, delivery systems or perpetrators could not be identified.”
The administration says, “well, we’re not quite sure.” Maybe that “red line” is still intact and the president doesn’t have to do anything.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the United States was working with the French and other allies as well as the Syrian opposition to determine those answers.
“We need to expand the evidence we have,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We need to make it reviewable; we need to have it corroborated before we make any decisions based on the clear violation that use of chemical weapons would represent by the Syrian regime. So, we will continue in that effort.”
Asked how long that might take, he said, “I don’t have a timetable for you.”
Let’s not kid ourselves about what’s happening here. Assad’s regime is periodically using chemical weapons, but not on a large scale, and testing to see what the U.S. reaction is. Our government is looking for any thin reed of plausible deniability, any gray area, any way to avoid acknowledging that the “red line” is getting crossed more frequently than a crosswalk in Times Square.
By avoiding any action beyond garden variety sanctions and nonlethal aid to the rebels — does anyone think a regime willing to use sarin will be deterred by sanctions? — we’re declaring to every leader, present and future, that you can use chemical weapons against your opponents as long as you don’t use them too broadly. The world hasn’t changed that much since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
We’ll tell ourselves that this won’t come to bite us at some point in the future. We’ll tell ourselves that “blowback” only comes from action, not from inaction.
What should be obvious today is that we are at the dawn of a much wider Shiite-Sunni war, the one that nearly materialized in Iraq in 2006 but didn’t because the U.S. was there, militarily and diplomatically, to stop it. But now the U.S. isn’t there. What’s left to figure out is whether this megawar isn’t, from a Western point of view, a very good thing.
The theory is simple and superficially compelling: If al Qaeda fighters want to murder Hezbollah fighters and Hezbollah fighters want to return the favor, who in their right mind would want to stand in the way? Of course it isn’t just Islamist radicals of one stripe or another who are dying in Syria, but also little children and aging grandparents and every other innocent and helpless bystander to the butchery.
But here comes the whispered suggestion: If one branch of Islam wants to be at war with another branch for a few years — or decades — so much the better for the non-Islamic world. Mass civilian casualties in Aleppo or Homs is their tragedy, not ours. It does not implicate us morally. And it probably benefits us strategically, not least by redirecting jihadist energies away from the West.
Wrong on every count.
He cites the Iran-Iraq war as the most recent comparable large-scale Sunni-Shia bloodbath:
. . . the 1980s were the years of the tanker wars in the Gulf, including Iraq’s attack on the USS Stark; the hostage-taking in Lebanon; and the birth of Hezbollah, with its suicide bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut. Iraq invaded Kuwait less than two years after the war’s end. Iran emerged with its revolutionary fervors intact — along with a rekindled interest in developing nuclear weapons.
In short, a long intra-Islamic war left nobody safer, wealthier or wiser.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how that Atrocities Prevention Board was working out…
Wanting to ascertain whether the board was actually doing anything to help prevent crimes against humanity, some 60 scholars of genocide studies and human-rights activists from across the globe sent a letter to Samantha Power, then-chair of the board, in December. Power never responded. They sent her a second letter in January, and again received no response.
When Power resigned in late February, they sent a letter to Steven Pomper, who assumed Power’s position as senior director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. He, too, never replied. On March 28, a letter was sent to another member of the board, Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator of USAID. Again, no response. In early April the scholars wrote to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice about this situation. To date, she has not responded…
. . . the board does not have a website, a Twitter account or even list email addresses for its main office or its members.