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On Syria: The U.S. Is No Lone Ranger and Should Put That Six Shooter Away

Posted on Sep 2, 2013
AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

By Juan Cole

(Page 2)

The U.S. makes, stockpiles and sells cluster munitions, which deploy thousands of “bomblets.” These weapons sometimes do not explode, and form a persistent danger to civilian populations in the aftermath. They are inevitably indiscriminate in their impact on noncombatants and have no place in contemporary warfare. Often children will pick them up and play with them, with fatal results. Some 83 countries have banned them, and 31 are currently suffering from the aftereffects of their use. As the 2006 Lebanon War was winding down, the Israeli military used American-supplied cluster munitions on southern Lebanon, dropping an estimated 4 million bomblets. This action was certainly a war crime, since the U.N. Security Council had already called for a cease-fire, which everyone knew would end the war shortly. The bombs had no conceivable military use. They were intended to make it dangerous for Shiite farmers to return to their homes just north of Israel. That is, they were aimed at the civilian population. Some 40 percent of the bomblets failed to explode immediately.

In the year after the war ended, some 200 Lebanese noncombatants were killed by Israeli cluster bombs in south Lebanon. The United States imposed no penalties on Israel for this action, despite its own laws that forbid indiscriminate use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs. Just this summer, the U.S. announced the sale of $630 million worth of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. That country and Israel are among the most vigorous proponents of an attack on Syria because of its deployment of a weapon that indiscriminately killed noncombatants. They have also condemned Damascus for using cluster munitions.

I am not arguing that because the United States and its allies have indiscriminately killed large numbers of innocent noncombatants in the past, the Syrian government should be held harmless for its own gas attack at Ghouta, which killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Two wrongs never make a right. I am arguing that the United States is in no moral or legal position to play the Lone Ranger here. The first steps Washington should take are to acknowledge its own implication in such atrocities and to finish destroying its chemical stockpiles and join the ban on land mines and cluster bombs.

Now that we’re in the 21st century, moreover, it is time to cease using the supposedly macho language of violence in response to political challenges. Tossing a couple of Tomahawk cruise missiles on a few government facilities in Damascus is not going to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons, and it will not affect the course of the war. Sonni Efron, a former State Department official and now a senior government fellow at Human Rights First, has argued that the United States and Europe could have a much more effective impact by announcing that in response to the Baath provocation they were going to close the loopholes that allow Syrian banks to continue to interface with world financial institutions. This strategy would involve threatening third-party sanctions on Russian banks that provide Damascus with a financial backdoor. A united U.S.-EU push on this front would be far more consequential for the Syrian government than a limited military strike.


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Indeed, the Syrian regime will almost certainly welcome the cruise missiles. In the aftermath, Syria can portray itself as a hero of Arab nationalism, standing up to a bullying, imperialist West. Pro-regime demonstrations are already being planned in Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia. Domestically, President Bashar al-Assad portrays his foes as al-Qaida cadres trained and paid for by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States. (Although there are al-Qaida affiliates among the rebels, the vast majority of the demonstrators and rebels are ordinary Syrians tired of the regime’s tyranny and economic stagnation). Assad will be in a better position to make this argument after the Tomahawks land, and some Syrians who have been on the fence may well declare for the regime for nationalist reasons. In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton fired cruise missiles at the Sudan of President Omar al-Bashir. If you don’t know, do a quick Google search for whom the sitting president of the Sudan is now. Bombs are seldom the answer to geopolitical problems.

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