When You’re Hard Up, You Pawn Your Intelligence To Buy A Drink

[This post is completely different than my normal posts…in fact it has nothing to do with history (well maybe a little), films of any kind, and is completely dedicated to a current event. You have been warned]

On 21 August, Syrian civilians were attacked with a chemical weapon. It was horrible, the video and pictures were horrifying, and just the thought that someone would do this is disturbing at the highest levels. In response, the United States and the United Kingdom, and some other countries who’ve never followed through on promises so they don’t matter, determined that some type of military intervention would be necessary as a “punitive statement.” Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama spent hours on the phone discussing possible responses. Cameron recalled Parliament for a vote on military intervention, and he lost. Parliament couldn’t be convinced of two things: 1) that the Assad regime was actually behind the attacks and 2) that UK interests were threatened to a point where military intervention was required. That leaves the US in a tight spot: not having the physical support of its closest ally, and in reality very little support from anyone else, the US is faced with unilateral action in a country in the middle of a civil war. It’s not the first time the US has been in this position, and it probably won’t be the last.

Let’s talk practicality. In order for the US to justify its position of launching an attack on Syria, the world must believe this basic premise: the Assad regime, while under the watchful eye of the world and with UN inspectors in the city, crossed the “red line” Obama had drawn and used chemical weapons on its own people. Then, 8 days later, whilst people with video capability watched and UN inspectors still in the country, an incendiary bomb was launched into the playground of a school. Apparently there is sufficient evidence, and intelligence, to back this premise.

I’m not, even remotely, arguing that a chemical weapons attack happened (on 21 Aug…we’ll get to the second one in a minute). The evidence of a nerve gas of some type being used in Damascus 10 days ago is irrefutable. I am, however, rejecting the premise that it was the Assad regime. Here’s my argument: 1) someone show me raw intelligence that proves the premise and I’ll stop questioning, since that’s not likely to happen let’s move to 2)The US wants the world to believe that Assad is a stupid, stupid man. He’s a dictator with no soul, but he’s not stupid. If he was stupid, he’d have lost his throne long ago. 3) The US hasn’t released ANY definitive intelligence of any kind. Both Obama and Kerry have said that they have seen, and heard, intercepted conversations that prove that the Syrian regime was behind this. I realise that this might be enough evidentiary support for some people (including, it seems, a few US Congressmen who just “trust” that’s true), but come on! No military commander is idiotic enough, in today’s technological climate, to have secret conversations about using taboo weapons over the phone. And if the US got this intelligence through any type of technology that was placed inside the office of either the military commander, or Assad, then they violated about half a dozen international laws (and they better hope no one finds out about it). Also, US intelligence doesn’t seem to be able to count. Kerry has said that the death toll from the attacks is now at about 1400, 400 of them children…British intelligence puts the death toll at around 350. So either the British missed a thousand, or the US is trying to make the case for intervention by pulling at heart strings by exaggerating the totals. 5)the Syrian Foreign Minister has said that previous rockets which carried the chemical payload landed inside areas that had Syrian troops. Kerry says this isn’t true, and cited (again) intelligence no one has seen to say that the rockets were launched from Syrian controlled areas and landed in opposition controlled areas, and the attacks were well planned. Alright, lets assume for a second that Kerry isn’t being deliberately misleading and that Moallem lied. Except why would Moallem lie about where chemical weapons landed? Honestly, it’d take 5 seconds for any nation to corroborate the location of opposition controlled territory and where the rockets landed. Again, we’re left with the assumption that the Assad regime is, possibly, the stupidest in history. Kerry argues that they have the intelligence to prove that the Syrians were on the ground three days before the attack happened “making preparations” and that the regime was told to “prepare” for the attack…and NO ONE noticed?! No UN person, or random street kid, or spy satellite or MI6 official noticed that, for 3 days, the regime prepared the area for a chemical attack. Wow, Syria must be full of unobservant humans, and apparently there are no intelligence assets inside the capital city of a country led by a man the entire world wants gone? And, if there are no intelligence assets in the area, where’d this intelligence come from? If there are intelligence assets in the area (and lets be honest, there are), they didn’t inform the US that something sketchy was going on, and maybe the US should contemplate looking into it? Three days of preparation is a long time for no one to notice. And lastly) Question of the day: who would gain the most from any US military intervention? Answer: the Syrian rebels. What better way to force the hand of the United States, who has been only moderately involved and not in the way the rebels really want, then making it look like Assad had crossed Obama’s infamous “red line”? The incendiary attack on a school playground in Aleppo province was NOT a chemical attack…it just wasn’t. If you watch the video that was shot, there are burn marks around the school, the parking lot and the playground. Professor Alastair Hay, who is an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds and advises the UK government on chemical weapons, has argued that it appears there was a fire, not a chemical weapon. But, when the world is already horrified by the previous chemical weapons attack, it’s a good way to ride the sensationalised wave.

Something about this entire thing has seemed off from the beginning. There’s a giant, gapping, hole in the argument for intervention. That means there’s a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit…something is missing here. The question that remains, mostly, unanswered is this: what does the US have to gain by intervening in Syria? The US has said that, although they want Assad gone, a regime change is not the purpose of this…it’d be a punitive strike, not a reactionary one. And honestly, if the US had wanted Assad gone that badly, the CIA would have been there ages ago. Obama isn’t sure that a rebel led government would be any better than the current Ba’athist led one, and he’s right. Currently, the rebels consist of three “armies”- the Free Syrian Army, which consists entirely of army defectors and claim to be non-sectarian; the Syrian Liberation Front which operates in the southeast and the Syrian Islamic Front which operates in the northeast, both of whom are Islamic groups and both of whom have significant backing from Al-Qaeda (personnel, weapons and money). So really, the US is in a lose-lose situation here: Assad’s Ba’athist government, or a new government which would be, ostensibly, an Al-Qaeda type government. In reality, neither option is good, but in the case of Syria the devil you know is better than the one you’ve been at war with for the last decade.

Syria has very little in the way of natural resources, and the US has no vested interest in Syria’s dwindling oil fields. Most Syrian exports have been sanctioned (although, seriously, sanctions do not work), and the US’ argument that chemical weapon use in Syria poses a risk to US national interests is just ridiculous. The only national interest that could potentially be at stake would be Israel, and even Israel isn’t too thrilled about this idea. It’d be very easy for Assad to retaliate by striking Israel, and then the US would have to respond. The last thing Israel wants is war in the Middle East. In this case, Israel’s security would be less at risk if the US did nothing.

There is also the argument that if the world doesn’t show its condemnation in some physical manner (aka: let’s bomb something) that chemical weapons usage will become the norm. Also, that the US, who made a declarative statement should the Assad regime use chemical weapons, would look weak if it didn’t follow through with the threat, and that it was part of the US’ obligation as a “world leader” to act. Except, military intervention isn’t as simple as Obama and Kerry are making it sound.

 

Any military action is 3 pronged: action, reaction, counteraction. In this case, both reaction (by Syria) and counteraction (by US) are unpredictable. Military action itself isn’t going to start a war in the Middle East, but Syrian’s reaction could lead to a US counteraction which does. There is not “limited shot across the bow” option (and let’s spend a second thinking about the use of a Navy strategy when talking about an air strike). The US has NO idea what’ll Syria will do after they’re bombed. Also, the US has no idea what a Russian or Chinese retaliation would look like, and that’s even more concerning. Both Russia and China have said that any US action against Syria would result in retaliation. The US argues the things Russia and China wouldn’t do, but we’ve heard that argument before.

In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire.” He also announced that the US had begun R+D on a new space based weapons system, which the US media began referring to it as “Star Wars.” In October, Grenada happened and the Soviets were livid. In November, the US and NATO realised that nuclear retaliation could be possible, and they staged war games to prepare for a nuclear strike that never came.

The knowledge that the USSR would retaliate for the Grenada invasion was so prevalent that even Hollywood jumped on the fear bandwagon, creating two disaster movies: The Day After, which focused on a town in Kansas in the aftermath of a nuclear strike, and Red Dawn, which depicted the Soviet invasion of America. Except that’s not what the Soviets did. There was nuclear strike, no invasion. What happened, instead, was the downing of KAL flight 007. No one, and I do mean no one, anticipated that the Soviets would strike back by taking out a plane with 269 people on it…only 61 of whom were Americans and none of them military.

The Soviets, however, didn’t know that…at least not at first. The flight had deviated almost 200 miles off course, and the Soviets thought it was a US spy plane. By all rules known to man, the Soviets had every right to shoot down a spy plane…they scrambled fighters, did a few attempts at making contact with the pilot (although they didn’t follow ICAO standards), and when the pilot didn’t respond, they shot it down. Did the Soviets know the plane was full of passengers and not a US spy plane before they shot? Unless every pilot was blind and criminally unobservant, it’s pretty hard to mistake a Boeing 747 full of people for a RC-135…the lit windows on the top deck of the 747 would have been a dead give away. The only information that exists is pretty sketchy, and relies mostly on interviews with the fighter pilots who were there that day (and HUMINT is the least reliable form of collection). There remain arguments that the Soviets knew the plane was civilian, and the military commanders ordered its destruction anyway (there are also conspiracy theories…but that’s par for the course when talking about an international incident. They’re pretty entertaining though, look it up). Did the Soviets bring down KAL 007 as retaliation for Grenada and the US presence in Afghanistan? Most likely. Will the Russians ever admit it? No. But, it does give some idea of what the Russians are capable of. The point being, no one has any idea what “retaliation” from Russia or China would look like, and that type of unpredictability has never ended well.

After the downing of KAL 007, President Reagan called it a “crime against humanity” and argued that there was “absolutely no justification, legal or moral” for the Soviet actions. Funny, that. Secretary Kerry said much the same thing in relation to the Syrian chemical weapons attack. Using Cold War language as a reason for military intervention is what created Iraq and Afghanistan…and it’s the type of language that is inherently incendiary. It fulfils the purpose, but that type of rhetoric isn’t a military strategy.

Strategy, in fact, has never once been mentioned. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the JCS, has told Obama that any attack is not time sensitive… in Army lingo that means ‘Dear Mr. President, please rethink this entire intervention idea because the military really doesn’t want to do it.’ When the Chairman of the JCS says something like that, it’s a good idea to listen. So far, the only thing that’s been said in relation to military intervention is that there will be intervention. No exit strategy, no time table, not even a definitive idea of what a “punitive” action would look like. When you military intervene in a country, you have some benchmark for victory, and so far the only thing the US has said is what it won’t be doing rather than what it’s hoping to achieve.

There are also some international law concerns. Having a “moral obligation” doesn’t give you legality. Now, of course, international law itself is an area of the law that is more grey than black and white…and a lot of it hasn’t been written yet. Having said that, however, there exists no legal precedent nor international law which gives the US the authority to act when chemical weapons have been used. If the US intervenes militarily, it’ll be breaking a few mandates for non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, and will have no legal basis to do so. Of course, international law has never stopped anyone before.

The problem with any intervention in Syria is that it won’t be quick, simple, and relatively blood free. It’ll be dirty, unpredictable, and possibly catastrophic. The Middle East has never been a calm place, and religious conflicts dictate most of its political issues. The problem here is that US intervention in Syria makes absolutely zero sense….but more importantly, the US is reacting to something, again, before the facts are all in. The timing, the location and the nature of the strike is too convenient by half. The US needs to take a step back, tone down the rhetoric and propaganda, and ask themselves if they’re being had. The last thing the US needs is another decade long involvement in a country that doesn’t want them there to begin with. And someone needs to ask Secretary Kerry where he’s getting his intelligence from, and are the sources reliable (if they exist at all). The US Congress isn’t going to be any more thrilled at the prospect of military involvement than the UK Parliament was. The questions that surround the entire prospect are far too numerous, and the US decided on intervention far too quickly. There’s something off, and “off” in international politics usually spells disaster. Obama’s on his way to Russia next week for the G20, and hopefully he doesn’t decide to strike Syria whilst sitting in St. Petersburg. Although, I suppose, Edward Snowden would have a few ideas of where he could hide.

[haha! History, film, and politics. So it wasn’t so different after all.]

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