Obama no 'wuss' but at what cost to Syria?


Barack Obama gesturing as he gives a speech in front of a red curtainAfter a British soldier was run down and beheaded on the streets of London, UK Parliamentarian George Galloway tweeted, 'This sickening atrocity in London is exactly what we are paying the same kind of people to do in Syria.'

Galloway was understandably shouted down. British policy toward Syria is not exactly analogous to killing an off-duty soldier with a meat cleaver. However in light of the Obama administration's move to arm Syrian rebels, a notoriously fragmented and diverse group of partisans, his comments shouldn't be totally discarded.

Syria is a weeping sore in the international community. The UN recently estimated that Syrians are being killed at an average rate of 5000 per month, bringing the total deaths to around 93,000. Continuing one of the great demographic trends of the 20th century, civilians make up an overwhelming proportion of these figures.

Interventionists argue that something must be done. After all, didn't a UN inquiry find that 2500 adequately trained military personnel with a coherent mandate could have prevented the Rwandan genocide, thereby sparing 800,000 people from the machetes?

One wonders if this weighed on Bill Clinton's mind when he recently warned Obama not to look like a 'wuss' on Syria. Not that he mentioned Rwanda, focusing instead on Kosovo, where he did lead a military style intervention.

Indeed interventionists argue, as a chastened Kofi Annan would later, that 'The state is now widely understood to be the servant of the people, and not vice versa.' History appears to be on their side.

And yet when I heard Obama's decision to start providing arms, I couldn't help but picture the character of Pyle, sauntering through the pages of Graham Greene's The Quiet American and out onto the streets of Damascus, dog-eared copy of York Harding in one hand and plastic explosives in the other.

Let's be clear. Adding arms to a pressure-cooker environment is an enormous risk.

Last year The New York Times suggested that the CIA was managing this risk by operating in Turkey, 'vetting' the rebel groups, distinguishing those with al Qaeda or anti-Western affiliations on one side from those more suitable to Western interests on the other. However, former CIA-field officer Milton Bearden, no stranger to arming rebel groups, remains skeptical about separating the 'sheep' from the 'goats'.

Bearden was one of the point men who oversaw the $US3 billion covert program to arm the Afghan mujahideen and bleed the Soviets out of Afghanistan. When questioned over arming Islamic fundamentalists, he quipped, 'Well, I don't know how many Presbyterians there are over there.'

Hardly a peacenik, he said in a recent interview that rebel interests and American interest may overlap but are not identical. 'It's their rebellion. They have their agenda. Our agenda now is to turn up the heat on Bashar al-Assad. [The rebels] have an agenda that goes beyond that, and certainly beyond what they understand on Capitol Hill.'

Consequences matter in all this. As Michael Doyle, professor of US foreign and security policy at Columbia University notes, 'it makes no moral sense to rescue a village and start Word War Three, or destroy a village in order to save it'.

Criteria for evaluating Obama's decision can be found in an unusual context. The Australian historian Inga Clendinnen explored state interventions to tackle Indigenous disadvantage in her essay 'Plenty Humbug'. She noted: 'we 'naturally' favour clean, across-the-board solutions, and ... have a mighty urge to intervene'.

Sound familiar?

Clendinnen's case studies expose the potentially disastrous results of good intentions. She emphasised that the solutions that did work drew heavily — even exclusively — from local initiatives, because 'local Aboriginal initiatives are sufficiently informed by local knowledge of the particular historical experience and the particular balance of pressures and personalities in a particular place, at a particular time'.

And there it is. Has the decision to arm the rebels been sufficiently informed by local knowledge? Does it take into account the particular historical experience of those involved? How will it affect the balance of pressures and personalities in Syria at this time?

The fictional character of Pyle had no real answers to these questions. He saw things in broad brushstrokes, summarising war-torn Vietnam into the three dot points of Colonialism, Communism and his Third Way. The weapons he provided got people killed. Nothing more.

It is important both for the people of Syria and for Western credibility that Obama's decisions are better informed than Pyle. There is nothing at all fictional about the human suffering currently unfolding there.

Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major. He won the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for his essay 'Catholic and Aboriginal listening revolutions'.

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, Syria, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama



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Existing comments

Britain depends even more then USA on arms exports. The danger of global peace would be a disaster for the British economy. It reminds my of a saying by Lenin:” "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." Today, the rope is replaced with modern weapon.
Beat Odermatt | 18 June 2013

Thank you Evan for your very thoughtful take on this current issue.
Marie o'connor sgs | 19 June 2013

Yes, we deplore the loss of life, so let's pour in more weapons. What could possibly go wrong? How do we choose the right side? Is there a right side? On what moral authority do we choose? I'm reminded of Henry IV when he tells his son that a crusade will distract from domestic problems and 'busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels'.
John Vernau | 22 June 2013

The situation in Syria is now incredibly complex. You only have to read Robert Fisk's pieces in the Independent to realise this. It would be nice for someone/anyone to step in and stop the suffering. Sadly that won't happen.
Edward F | 22 June 2013


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