This is depressing. Once again America is thinking about attacking a country in the Middle East. Or maybe we should start calling it the Meddle East, because it seems that the USA can’t stop trying to solve complex problems in complex societies that we don’t understand. What’s really depressing is that Obama, who once campaigned on keeping us out of dumb wars, is using some of the same rhetoric (WMD’s, America’s credibility, UN inspections don’t matter, Assad is evil, etc., etc.) used by the Bushies to drag us into the worst (and there have been some bad ones) war in America’s history. The domestic politics are all over the map. There are liberal hawks and there are conservative isolationists and everything in between. The public sentiment is pretty clear. Poll after poll show more than 60% of Americans are against intervention. But where this will all come out in Congress is anyone’s guess, and even then Obama says he doesn’t need Congressional approval. I give Obama credit for putting the issue before Congress. I just hope he’s come to his senses and realizes there is no gain for anyone, politically or otherwise, for him to bomb Syria.
If you’re interested in a serious thoughtful examination of the issues, I heartily recommend this article by William Polk, a longtime foreign policy analyst for various administrations over the last fifty years. He takes a very serious, non-political look at the issues by trying to answer these thirteen questions:
I will try to put in context 1) what actually happened; 2) what has been reported; 3) who has told us what we think we know; 4) who are the possible culprits and what would be their motivations; 5) who are the insurgents? 6) what is the context in which the attack took place; 7) what are chemical weapons and who has used them; 8) what the law on the use of chemical weapons holds; 9) pro and con on attack; 10) the role of the UN; 11) what is likely to happen now; 12) what would be the probable consequences of an attack and (13) what could we possibly gain from an attack.
The article itself is pretty long, but well worth the time if you’re at all interested in what’s going on. One of the most interesting aspects of his analysis is his answer to #6. He starts off with the ethnic mix in Syria, which is even more complex than that of Iraq.
The population before the outbreak of the war was roughly (in rounded numbers) 6 in 10 were Sunni Muslim, 1 in 7 Christian, 1 in 8 Alawi (an ethnic off-shoot of Shia Islam), 1 in 10 Kurdish Muslim, smaller groups of Druze and Ismailis (both off-shoots of Shia Islam) and a scattering of others.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. I had no idea.
Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.
[USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Commodity Intelligence Report, May 9, 2008]
In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
What a noxious mix – ancient religious and ethnic rivalries + a vicious despot + the lone (but waning) world superpower desperately seeking relevance + drought and starvation. What could possibly go wrong? Is there any way that it could go right?