Washington watch: Syria, who cares?

Those who should have been the most outraged by Assad’s atrocities against their fellow Arabs are the least inclined to help

Obama addresses AIPAC policy conference 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama addresses AIPAC policy conference 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Not long after the 1982 slaughter of upwards of 25,000 Syrians at Hama on orders of then-president Hafez Assad, I asked a top US State Department official why we heard so little outrage from the US or other governments.
He shrugged and told me, “No one cares when Arabs kill Arabs.”
Today Hafez’s son Bashar is making daddy look like a piker, with more than 100,000 of his fellow Syrians killed over the past two-and-ahalf years, most recently 1,400 by poison gas, including over 400 children, in a Damascus suburb last month. Another two million have become refugees.
After several smaller Syrian chemical attacks, an angry American president finally decided to punish Bashar Assad for this crime against humanity by lobbing a few cruise missiles at some Syrian targets, careful to avoid the chemical weapons depots.
But after initial resistance, he decided to seek permission from a Congress he is known to scorn, and where the feeling is mutual among many. That’s when the real trouble began. He faces a humiliating defeat from anti-war Democrats on the left, skeptics in the center and rabidly anti-Obama Republicans, isolationists and xenophobes on the right.
So he turned to two nemeses for help: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Neither has been very good at concealing his disdain for Obama – nor he for them – and each now has an opportunity to put the American president in his debt.
George W. Bush is Obama’s albatross. He took the nation to war based on lies and false intelligence, and today, across the board, the Congress and the public are demanding a higher level of proof before authorizing any military action.
What’s more, they see no clear American security interest at stake.
Obama turned first to Israel and the Jewish community for help in selling his case.
He didn’t just call Netanyahu for help but also enlisted the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups to lobby the Congress. Rather than keep a low profile, AIPAC announced how it was sending 250 citizen lobbyists to the Hill to build support for an Obama policy that it saw as sending a message to Iran not to build a nuclear weapon.
Does anyone in his right mind believe that a couple days of Tomahawk attacks will convince the ayatollahs to shut down their centrifuges and give up their nuclear ambitions? Netanyahu reportedly was even making personal phone calls to friends in Congress, at Obama’s request.
I can’t think of a better way to tell the world that the Jews and Israel are pushing the United States to go to war in Syria. When Mearsheimer and Walt and their band of Israel haters accused Israel and the Jews of pushing us to war against Iraq after 9/11 they were totally wrong, but who can say that this time? If American Jewish leaders think it is vital that the president follow through on his threat to strike Syria so he will have credibility when he threatens to block Iran from getting the bomb, there are better ways to deliver the message than by press releases. Groups like AIPAC have excellent access to lawmakers, both through their lay leaders and their professional lobbyists, and can effectively make their case privately.
Whatever the outcome of this crisis, I fear it will long be remembered as the time when Israel and its friends lobbied the US Congress to go to war with a president who lacks a clear plan to make that war work, and that will overshadow all else. Even if the president gets the votes he wants, which looks increasingly doubtful, they may win his gratitude, but at an extremely high price. And if they fail him, they look weak.
Putin was something of an afterthought. Secretary of State John Kerry last week suggested to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that it might be possible to avoid military action if Assad would agree to give up his chemical weapons stockpile, with an eye toward its eventual destruction. Lavrov quickly took the idea to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and both tentatively endorsed it, but as of this writing there has been no official acceptance from Assad himself, nor any details.
The White House, smelling a possibly humiliating defeat in Congress, latched on even while expressing skepticism, aptly noting Syria’s inclination to stall and its failure to “follow through on commitments.”
Trusting Putin is also problematic. He may simply be stalling to buy time for his client, while continuing to provide political cover at the United Nations and arms at home. A political deal like this could give credibility to Obama’s threats (Iran, are you listening? Russia took him seriously enough to intervene.), cast Putin as a peacemaker and do more to stop the threat of chemical weapons than salvos of cruise missiles. Or if Putin is just delaying the game, it could derail the Obama presidency.
Obama had less success when he turned to Arab leaders for help. The Saudis are the only ones who said they’d support an American military strike, the Qataris were a bit vague and the rest said “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Those who should have been the most outraged by Assad’s atrocities against their fellow Arabs are the least inclined to help. Sure, they bemoan the tragedy, but action is out of the question, especially by the infidel Americans.
After all the billions of dollars worth of planes, tanks, missiles and bombs they’ve been amassing over the years, most of it from us, they’re the ones who should move in to stop the killing.
Maybe too many of those leaders identify with the tyrant Assad, who brought this war on by responding to peaceful demonstrations calling for political and economic reform with violence.
The Arab League professed outrage over the use of poison gas but wimped out of doing anything beyond calling for the international community to take “necessary measures” to avoid repetition.
Most Arab leaders condemn Syria’s use of poison gas and feel the brutal and blood-stained Assad regime must go, but they don’t want a non-Arab to do the job and they lack the will and courage to do it themselves.
And if they don’t care enough to help their brethren why should they expect the rest of the world to care more and do the job for them?
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