Saturday, August 31, 2013

We should know better than to bomb Syria

pic:Freedom House/Creative Commons
By Subhash Kateel

You have to pardon me for being really tired of hearing highbrow justifications for murder from people that should know better.  I have spent the summer watching the murders of two Miami teens named Trayvon and Israel be justified by a bunch of people that should know better who misinterpreted and intentionally misrepresented the law and basic norms we should hold sacred. 

I have spent the past decade as an ex- New Yorker hearing other people who should know better (I stopped calling them experts) use bad intelligence and worse intentions to justify a war in Iraq fought in our name that killed thousands of civilians and US troops. 

I have also spent most of my living years watching an earlier cohort of people who should’ve known better explain away the arming, training and propping up of “freedom fighters” who killed Soviets in Afghanistan in the 70’s and 80’s before birthing a movement that turned those tactics on the city I called home a decade ago.

I have spent this week feeling horrified by our nations ability to commemorate Martin Luther King’s eloquent expressions of nonviolence in the “I Have A Dream” speech while simultaneously creating a consensus to bomb Syria. I just can’t fight the feeling, as I said on Facebook, that Martin Luther King is probably rolling in his grave and throwing up.

The fact that I respect some of the people pushing that conversation, such as Van Jones, who was on CNN Tuesday making the case for “surgical strikes” against Syria, is a particularly hard punch in the gut, even after Van took the time to engage me personally and talk me through his reasons for supporting surgical strikes.  But this is not about Van per se, as much as it is about all of us who should know better, especially those of us who just a decade ago, fought hard against the lie that you can save people by bombing them.

Sadly, this is not about Syria either.  Because while the Syrian people definitely deserve justice, democracy and the ability to not be killed by their leaders, I am finding it hard to believe that any foreign powers playing politics or proxy wars in their country really give a damn about Syrian life. 

To believe that, I would have to believe that the Saudi government, perhaps the most oppressive in the world, is arming Syrian rebels out of a sudden urge to end oppression even after helping their Bahraini counterparts rain down murderously on the Bahraini people’s own Arab Spring.

I would have to believe that the same Israeli government that is building illegal settlements on land they are perpetually promising to swap for an elusive Palestinian state has an eye on Syria because they envision it teeming with democracy. 

I would have to believe that the French government is supporting air strikes because they seek to end senseless slaughter, ever after they shut their eyes and closed their mouths in 1994 as their Hutu allies in Rwanda massacred with machetes (not chemical weapons) a half million Tutsis in one month.

Believing that is easier than believing that the Russian leadership has set aside their internal gay bashing and crackdown on Chechnya to stick up for Syria’s various minority groups, some of whom fear the fall of the Assad regime.

But I would also have to believe that our own government has finally acknowledged the evils of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East despite helping the formerly friendly Saddam Hussein gas scores of Iranians to death, sending the Saudis enough cluster bombs to turn Damascus into a parking lot, and tolerating for decades Israel’s presumed possession of a nuclear weapon.

But it is hard to believe any of those things, let alone believe that the President or his supporters believes any of those things.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe Syrians are dying by the thousands, that the Assad dictatorship bears the responsibility for a bulk of the killing or that Syrians don’t have the right to defend themselves.  It doesn’t even mean that I don’t believe that chemical weapons were used last week, even if I do believe that it wouldn’t hurt to wait a few days for the UN to verify it.  I just don’t believe that American leaders have shown American people how bombing Syria will stop any of it.    

American leaders can’t even prove that the rebels they have covertly helped for a couple years are any better than the Assad regime.  While plenty of members of the Free Syrian Army and millions of Syrian civilians fight in earnest for a free Syria, some of the strongest rebel factions are said to be close to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda affiliates. There is at least some evidence that the same Syrians that rose up peacefully against Assad have also stood up to those same Al Qaeda-esque elements in rebel controlled areas.  Precisely which faction of the loosely coalesced Free Syrian Army and which segment of Syrian society will be helped or hurt by surgical strikes is anyone’s guess.  
“Syria is for the free, not for Zawahiri and not for Bashar” pic:
But the people tasked with educated guesses can’t even really tell us if the other countries we have surgically striked, covertly supported the opposition in or outright invaded such as Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan are any better or worse after our government’s stated attempts to change regimes, eradicate weapons of mass destruction, kill terrorists and stop the killing sprees of dictators.  We don’t even know if Americans are better off after all of this. 

In that context, people should know better than to push Americans that barely know anything about Syria into agreeing to bomb it to freedom with less international support, less public support and less clarity of purpose than either of the Bushes had when they went to war with Iraq or Carter/Reagan had when they supported the covert action in Afghanistan that we are still paying for today.

But some of my friends that should know better have asked people like me, who barely know enough, what our alternative is.  It is a partially fair/partially perverse question to answer for those of us far from positions of power. 

The people with the least resources and the least monopoly on violence are always asked and expected to be the first to seek alternatives to violence. And throughout American history, those who are less resourced generally comply.   That is why we celebrate the words and actions of a Martin Luther King, who never picked up a gun (despite at one time owning several) while pursuing a path of principled non-violent resistance to stop people from being killed, kicked and kept at the bottom of America’s caste ladder. 

The fact that the less resourced of us are always expected to choose the path of peace while those in power with the most resources and biggest monopoly on violence are never saddled with that expectation shouldn’t sit well with any of us.  If there is a redline, it should compel us to never again pretend that we are bombing, shooting and killing in a country under the pretext of saving it. It should force our leaders to spend the same energy and money they do on military hardware and advisers to build the infrastructure that can create an alternative to armed conflict. It should force our diplomats to spend more energy ending conflicts and less fighting to extradite “fugitives” like Edward Snowden.  It should push all of us to stop audaciously hoping and start effectively seeking peaceful solutions to violent problems.  Doing any of this doesn’t require us to be pacifists, isolationists or cut-and-runners.  It just requires us to know better and act on what we know.  


  1. Very well-written! I, too have been surprised at Van Jones. He makes brilliant statements,has great ideas, helped found the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, and then says/does stupid(or duplicitous?)stuff.

  2. Very well put. We can wait until we get support. And if we get enough proof of wrongdoing. Try them in absence and then put a billion dollar bounty on their heads.

  3. Great article!
    Wars in the middle east are the only reason why the price of oil keeps increasing; at a time when supplies are high, and demand is at an all time low. Gas prices have the potential to bring us another recession.
    I'm glad President Obama played this as safe as possible; Republicans would have his impeachment papers drawn up by the end of the day, if didn't ask congress for approval on Syria.

  4. So amazingly written my brother. This article gives a great history lesson and provides readers with a clearly well-written context to understand why the U.S. or any other country for that matter shouldn't immediately jump to respond with violence that would have an adverse effect on the people in the region. U.S. and other big countries, always quickly run to say that they reason they respond with military action (i.e. war, surgical strikes, etc.)is for the people, for humanitarian purposes, this is how they justify going in to citizens, without taking responsibility for the many roles they played in the background, covertly that got many of these countries to this place. Americans and other nations are completely disconnected from what is happening in the rest of the world, that they believe any and everything they are begin fed by our leaders and elected officials. The first option is not war and it should never be, it is important to seek alternatives to war when possible. Thank you again for posting this article.