The Syrian Catastrophe, the British Parliamentary Vote and the Growing Risks of Regional and Global War*
Though the world dodged a bullet with the British parliamentary vote Thursday against going to war, it also brought with it great dangers, notably that of complacency, today being registered in various places. Though the tactical victory in England over the parliamentary vote is important, it arguably makes the very short term dangers possibly greater, not less. The screaming front page massive headlines in the New York Times, "Obama Set for Limited Strike on Syria as British Vote No: Seeking Allies – Another Ship Moves In," the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. Prepares for Solo Strikes on Syria After Britain Balks," and Washington Post, "Obama Can Go it Alone on Syria: Lawmakers Clamor for a vote," in today’s morning papers say it all. One hopes against hope that one is wrong on this, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. US Secretary of State John Kerry invoked the catastrophe of World War I but seemed to understand none of its lessons about the dangers of using military force in a region already boiling over from ethnic and religious conflict, tension and violence, including by outside powers. The danger is that an already brutal internationalized Syrian civil war will become the flashpoint for even larger regional and global conflict. The stakes are enormous for as former US National Security Advisor and Dean of the American Foreign Policy Establishment Zbigniew Brzezinski states in a Wednesday, August 28, 2013 Financial Times op-ed, "The Steps That Obama Must Now Take On Syria,"
"In a worst-case scenario, this crisis could become reminiscent of the initially trivial violence in the Balkans a century ago."
What is being referred to here is of course the regional sectarian and ethnic conflict that led to one of the seminal catastrophes of the 20th century, from which many others, including World War II flowed, namely World War I.
Here are the dangers, at least as they appear to this observer. The US was willing to wait to get the British on board, plus the weapons inspectors are still in Syria, complicating things and giving the world precious time. Now that the British look like they are out, the US has perverse incentives to move faster with an attack, rather than slower, before more opposition builds in the US, already gathering in Congress; especially because for President Obama and others, they fear that the deterrent and compellent value of their threats to use violence will be degraded if they do not make good on their stated intention to use military force. The ultimate target here is, in this sense, not so much Syria but Iran. While there has been rare momentum in Congress – little known – with the Iranian elections, for a negotiated settlement with Iran, with some 131 Congresspersons signing a letter calling for a diplomatic solution, there are many in the Establishment who oppose this.
I heard a woman from Syria say tonight: “the world has failed us” and she is absolutely correct. The world has failed the Syrian people, standing by while the great and lesser powers have actively aided the slaughter, as during the Iran-Iraq war, which in turn led to the massive buildup by the Western powers of Iraq and the recurrent US-led wars with Iraq, culminating in the 2003 US-led invasion, which has now greatly added to the sectarian forces tearing Syria and the wider Middle Eastern region apart. The situation is dire and getting worse, with escalation the name of the game.
Unless internationalists come up with concrete proposals, we will veer from crisis to crisis, as Syria and the larger region is ripped apart, with consequences that are incalculable. As many have said, this is the time for tough diplomacy, to get the great powers and their allies together to press for a negotiated solution to the conflict; it is time, in other words, for the opposite of complacency, for what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the fierce urgency of now. We must do everything we can to take advantage of the world’s attention and press for an end to the slaughter, and towards a national and regional solution to this horrible internationalized civil war. Now is the moment to press full court for a diplomatic solution; some sort of negotiated peace conference and transition at Geneva, working closely with the UN, with the cooperation of the US, the great powers and key regional and national players, as Brzezinski has intimated (above) and as former President Jimmy Carter has just suggested. (See also John Steinbruner, “Realism, Strategic Interest, and Moral Responsibility Regarding Iran“, CISSM Policy Brief, September 2012). This could be accompanied by a General Assembly resolution, as has been suggested, condemning the use of chemical weapons without apportioning blame at the moment, as part of efforts to keep the world’s attention and seek a negotiated solution to the internationalized civil war in Syria, as part of a broader regional settlement, one that includes direct negotiations between the US and Iran, not only on nuclear issues, but also with regards to settling the Syrian conflict. It’s time for a grand bargain, in which Russia, Syria, the Arab League and Iran are brought to the table, along with larger issues of Middle Eastern peace. The future of the humanity and the Arab Spring – now falling to counterrevolution – is at stake, not to mention global governance and regional and global peace and justice as a whole. Now is the time to at least try to move forward here, including by pushing forward the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians based on internationally recognized rights of the Palestinians to self-determination and the ending of the US-funded and supported illegal Israeli occupation, replete with the elimination of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, based first and foremost on UN Resolution 242 and a two-state solution.
The first priority for US citizens is to immediately demand that Congress be called back to session by the House and Senate leadership to discuss and debate a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the crisis and to make it clear to President Obama as well over a 100 Congresspersons have already done, that any Presidential attack on Syria would be in violation of the US Constitution, not to mention international law and the UN Charter.
In essence, now is no time to let up the pressure; it is time to step it up, with more determined energy than ever, for the Syrian people, the wider region and all those concerned with peace and justice, lest this horrible tragedy be must a mere prelude to a wider regional and global conflagration from which few may escape.
*See this earlier article.
Tom Reifer is currently Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego and publishes widely on global peace and social justice issues. He has also been a long-time activist in the anti-nuclear movement as well as a rank and file trade union activist. His specialty is the study of large-scale, long-term social change and world-systems analysis. He is an Associate Fellow at the Transnational Institute.