The Obama Administration’s Case for Military Intervention in Syria? Bullshit.

In philosophy circles, bullshit is a technical term denoting a claim presented as “fact” although its veracity has not been established. The truth value of bullshit is largely irrelevant to its propagators. Bullshit is disseminated in the service of particular ends, typically opaque to the audience. There is no better description for the White House’s case for intervention in Syria.

It stinks of Karl “Turdblossom” Rove, who once said:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The Obama Administration had been intending to use the Ghouta incident as a pretext for changing the balance of power “on the ground” in Syria. They were prevented from direct military action as a result of the deft maneuvering of Syria and Russia, so they have instead ramped up the delivery of arms to the rebels, and stand poised to shift the training of said rebels from a small CIA operation into a much larger Pentagon-run operation.  Simultaneously, the State Department has began sending the rebels vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment, advanced combat medical kits, and other gear–collectively, these actions amount to a “major escalation” of U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Moreover, the White House continues to make its case for strikes, despite the deal which was recently achieved with Russia and the al-Asad government.  There are bills being floated in the Senate which would empower the President to “punish” Syria if the Administration deems the regime’s progress “unsatisfactory,” even in the absence of U.N. agreement. If the history of Iraq is any indication, we can rest assured that the progress will be deemed insufficient regardless of how well the Syrian government complies, providing ever-new pretexts to increase “allied” involvement.  The opposition is already calling for further military restrictions on the Syrian government.

That is, while the recent developments were inconvenient for the Administration, the plans to depose al-Asad have been in the works since 2004–they will not be abandoned so easily. Sanity may have prevailed in this particular battle, but the war rages on. What follows is the most direct and systematic refutation of the Administration’s case for military intervention in Syria—deconstructing their justifications one by one.

Justification #1: Al-Asad crossed the ‘red line’ in the Ghouta Incident.

While uncertainty remains just how many people died and were injured from the sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta – Medecines Sans Frontiéres estimates 550, the U.S. 1,429 – there is also no clear culprit. Much of the evidence points its sarin-soaked finger at rebel groups now backed by the White House, armed by Saudi and Qatari money funneled through Istanbul.

Despite the growing influence of al-Qaeda within Syria and throughout the region, and the UK’s own assessment that al-Qaeda in Syria is working tirelessly to obtain the Bashar Al-Asad’s chemical weapons, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the possibility as “vanishingly small” that affiliates such as the al-Nusra Front could have been responsible for the recent chemical attacks. The Obama Administration has claimed the rebels “do not have the capacity” to carry out such an attack; the CIA might beg to differ.

In a 2007 report, the agency asserted Al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists have,

“a wide variety of potential agents and delivery means to choose from for chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) attacks… Analysis of an al-Qa’ida document recovered in Afghanistan in summer 2002 indicates the group has crude procedures for making mustard agent, sarin, and VX.”

And their capacity has grown substantially in the subsequent years. In fact, al-Qaeda has a long and well-documented history of obtaining, developing, and deploying chemical weapons—even in the Syrian theater.

In May, Turkish authorities disrupted a Jahbat al-Nusra cell and discovered sarin gas in the possession of the opposition militants. This is the same chemical agent supposedly used in the small-scale attacks in April, which the Obama Administration attributed to the al-Asad regime. Following closely after this event in Turkey, the Iraqi government claimed to have disrupted another major al-Qaeda plot involving chemical weapons, this time on a massive scale. Iran had been warning the United States since July 2012 that the Syrian rebels had obtained chemical weapons, and had an apparent intent to use them. Tehran repeatedly urged the White House to get this threat under control.

Despite these incidents, in June the Obama Administration declared that al-Asad had crossed its “red line” by deploying chemical weapons. After reviewing all of the intelligence the U.S. and its allies provided to substantiate this claim, the United Nations experts declared that it was not up to UN standards and ordered their own investigation. Subsequently, Carla del Ponte, a prolific investigator assigned to investigate human rights violations in Syria, declared the evidence suggested strongly that it was the rebels who used the sarin gas in the disputed attacks. It is clear that al-Qaeda and its affiliates within and around Syria have access to chemical weapons, as well as the intent to deploy them—contrary to the Obama Administration’s dubious assertions to the contrary.

According to recent reports including testimony from rebels, survivors, and doctors on the front lines, the incident in Ghouta was not an attack at all but an early, perhaps accidental, use of them by rebels on the Saudi payroll. This would not be surprising: most of the indigenous rebels are not seasoned fighters or military defectors, but rural farmers who were disenfranchised by al-Asad’s Washington-backed economic liberalization scheme. Even with conventional weapons, many have died in the Syrian conflict from misuse of heavy weapons in fluid and urban environments. Chemical weapons are far more sensitive tools requiring a degree of control and specialization beyond RPGs or automatic rifles.

Consider the battleground: the neighborhood of Ghouta in the capital of Damascus. While there are still pockets of al-Nusra resistance, the neighborhood was largely reclaimed by the government in May. It is simply inaccurate to call East Ghouta a “rebel-held” area (as the media has consistently done). Many have posited that the regime shelling of the area “proves” that most of the residents support the rebels—this logic is beyond tortured:

Consider the Jahbat al-Nusra occupation of the Christian town of Ma’lula—the town was seized because of its strategic location, and also to evoke terror in a population known to support the Syrian government. The government has been bombing parts of the town, and has placed it under siege. Most of the town’s residents have fled to Damascus, even as the al-Nusra extremists desecrate their sacred Christian holy sites. Could we infer from the government’s persistent shelling that most of town’s residents therefore support the al-Qaeda affiliated rebels and despise the government? Is this why they fled to its capital?

The Christian population of Ghouta is significantly higher than in most Sunni areas further from the capital (Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities disproportionately reside in and around Damascus and Aleppo). It is certain that many Christians were among the victims of the Ghouta massacre, they may have even been its target.  Al-Nusra and other extremist groups frequently target Syria’s vulnerable minority populations.  In fact, there were multiple churches at and near the epicenter of the attack.

So if it was an intentional act committed by the rebels, it would not necessarily be an instance of “rebel-on-rebel” violence. Moreover, “the rebels” are not a monolith: thousands of competing factions comprise the Syrian opposition, with these tensions often descending into armed struggle. If it was a rebel-on-rebel attack, it would hardly be the first or the last.

Regardless, the al-Asad regime had no incentive to deploy chemical weapons in this region largely under its domain, and especially when victory seemed so close at hand:

The Ghouta incident occurred just when the regime had nearly broken the insurgency. Moreover, in the lead-up to this incident, international attention had been consumed by the crisis in Egypt. The momentum in the Syrian conflict was with the regime. According to NATO reports, the government was not just winning on the battlefield but also in the “hearts and minds” of the Syrian people. Just when the regime stood poised to quietly “close the deal” for all intents and purposes, the very last thing al-Asad would want would be to risk even greater international intervention. The regime would be especially hesitant to deploy chemical weapons at a moment when UN investigators had just arrived in the area to follow-up on the earlier incidents.  For these reasons, Damascus perhaps rightly described the accusations as “illogical.” No satisfying answer has been provided as to why the al-Asad regime would undermine and jeopardize its own campaign at such a critical moment. The government has no need to deploy chemical weapons: there would be little to gain and a lot to lose from such an heinous attack.

While the regime is unquestionably ruthless in prosecuting the war, it is tactically ruthless and relatively measured in the use of force. Contrary to the pop-media narrative, the government does not indiscriminately kill people, as any detailed analysis of the casualties in Syria would suggest. Between 60 to 70 percent of the casualties of the conflict have been combatants, not bystanders. Of the non-combatant deaths, many were killed at the hands of the rebels—both unintentionally (for the reasons previously described) and intentionally (e.g. in hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities and/or social elites). Many other deaths cannot be principally attributed to one side or the other. All said, the non-combatants killed by the government represent a fairly small (if ethically significant) share of the total dead. Concrete, verifiable evidence proving the regime carried out the chemical attack remains “elusive.”

In defiance of this counter-evidence, the Obama Administration put forward its own extremely circumstantial case for the al-Asad regime’s culpability. We encourage everyone to read the internal White House documents using flimsy and manipulative arguments—not to mention their inflated and completely unsubstantiated casualty statistics.

The administration’s so-called “smoking gun” consists of wiretapped conversations between the Syrian Ministry of Defense and various military officers furiously seeking answers in the fallout of a chemical attack on their country’s soil. They confirm chemicals had been deployed – but were themselves unsure of who carried out the attack or why. The Administration’s case is heavily reliant upon conflating evidence that a chemical attack did in fact occur, which the Syrian government never denied, with statements that the regime carried it out. They frequently pretend as though evidence of the former is proof of the latter.

It is important to bear this in mind when interpreting the U.N. findings on the Ghouta incident: U.N. investigators are not permitted to say who committed the attack, they can only state whether or not a chemical attack occurred, and which chemical agents were used– and the U.S., through the U.N. Security Council, attempted to prevent even this much information from coming to light. A look at the report reveals why—investigators acknowledged that a good deal of the samples and munitions may have been manipulated by the rebels (p. 18); the munitions were likely delivered by an unguided rocket (p.19)—i.e. the type of munitions commonly used by the opposition, not the government. As we have already explored, the chemical agent used in the attack, sarin, is a compound that al-Qaeda has long had access to.

It should be clear why there is widespread skepticism about the Obama Administration’s case: one need not be a regime sympathizer, a conspiracy theorist, or a Russian to find the White House’s case to be weak and eerily reminiscent of the lead-up to Iraq.

However, the Obama Administration’s sketchy case against al-Asad need not, and should not, be the primary reason to oppose intervention in Syria. Even if there were incontrovertible evidence al-Asad used chemical weapons (or really, any compelling evidence), military intervention would still be the wrong course for America, for Syria, and for the world.


Justification #2: An attack on Syria preserves and upholds international norms and international law.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly declared that the purpose of bombing Syria is to support international law and international norms. This, despite the fact that such a strike would be a major violation of international law—as U.N. chief Ban Ki Moon, as well as U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, have both stated unequivocally. Both have repeatedly underscored that no military solution to the Syrian crisis exists.

Towards this end, the U.N. has continually asked the U.S. and its allies to cease arming, funding, training and supplying the rebels. The United Nations, created in the aftermath of a generation of globe-spanning conflict to stop such conflagrations, has argued this support only perpetuates and exacerbates the conflict. It is a clear violation of international law and norms to arm or fund non-state actors against foreign governments. Yet, France and Britain were prepared to arm the rebels in defiance of not only U.N. law, but even their own European Union embargos. Because this coalition has such a flagrant disregard for international law and norms, al-Asad called upon the BRICS nations to help stem the tide of foreign money, weapons, and people in Syria.

Similarly, the U.N. along with former SNC head Sheikh al-Khatib have called upon the Obama administration to drop the precondition that al-Asad resign before any negotiated settlement—a caveat which Washington has insisted upon in defiance of the Geneva Communique they signed onto.

That is, resistance to the US, EU and Gulf plans for intervention is a matter of defending international law, by the international community forged in the wake of decades-long international conflict–NOT the result of Chinese or Russian “intransigence.” This is the position of the U.N. itself. It’s easy to draw another parallel, then, between the Obama and Bush administrations – both have treated the U.N. with contempt regarding the Middle East continuing until today.

The notion that the strike on Syria is mandated by international law, or serves to enforce or preserve international norms—these justifications are hollow. The greatest threat to international order seems to be those calling now for more war to create peace.


A three-part series by Counterpunch, co-authored with ST McNeil
Part One published 9/9/2013 (syndicated 9/9/2013 by Syria Report)

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