Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Costs of 'Intervention' in Syria

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Syria braces itself for a barrage of cruise missiles based on assertions of guilt by proven liars and dubious evidence provided by Israel, a nation with a clear vested interest in the removal of Bashar al-Assad, how are we to rate the performance of the world's media?

Even the UK's Guardian, which - given its fearless NSA reporting - one would expect to hold leaders to strict account has proved weak, negligent even. John Hilley at his Zenpolitics blog writes:

Instead of outright denunciation of Cameron and his war-salivating ministers, rather than explicit exposure of their mendacious motives, we're asked to indulge this set of political psychotics, ruminate on Blair's prior 'mistakes' and kowtow to the great charade of 'parliamentary accountability'.

True to form, it's all here in the Guardian, with its noble postures, tempered admonitions and guiding advice to Cameron on the need to persuade and carry the public. This is what passes for a serious, 'radical' response to scheming warmongers.

The Guardian could have led with an unambiguous rejection of Cameron, Hague and the whole R2P deceit they and their transatlantic masters are foisting on the public. Instead, we have this safe introspection, all serving to whitewash their crimes and legitimise the fiction of 'measured liberal intervention'.

When those cruise missiles start falling on Damascus, the Guardian will stand back and say 'we did our vanguard best'. It won't be remotely good enough. Such cowardly editorials are nothing but liberal bleating for war.

And Media Lens highlights media double standards with regard to the 'massacres that matter' and the use of 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P) as a tool for Western imperialism.

With a few honorable exceptions, the corporate-owned media has engaged in caveat-laden reporting obviously designed for cover just in case the 'evidence' is once again proved to be 'faulty' after the fact.

A good start would be high-profile journalists pointing out the stunning hypocrisy of Western leaders:

"The use of chemical weapons on men, women and children is a flagrant abuse of international law and if we stand idly by we set a very dangerous precedent." - Nick Clegg

"Almost a hundred years ago the whole world came together and said that the use of chemical weapons was morally indefensible and completely wrong...[]...and I don't believe we can let that (alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad government) stand." - David Cameron

"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny." - John Kerry

It beggars belief that these words can be spoken with straight faces by representatives of governments which have themselves used chemical weapons (and worse). Will David Cameron also not 'let stand' American use of white phosphorus in Iraq or the herbicides and defoliants used for Agent Orange in Vietnam? What accountability does John Kerry expect with regard to US use of napalm in WWII, in the Korean War and the Vietnam War?

[Quick question for pro-interventionists. As John Kerry believes there 'must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people', and that a missile strike would be an apt response in order to teach Syria not to use these weapons again, do you believe that the US should also have been punished in the same fashion by an international coalition for, say, using white phosphorus against Iraqi civilians in Fallujah?]

The media has framed Syria in simplistic terms: a ruthless dictator crushing any and all opposition to his brutal rule. The reality is far more complex, making any attack on Syria extremely risky. The need for evidence and the legality of intervention has already been discussed on this blog, but an authoritative examination of the consequences of intervention is sorely missing in the media.

For authority we must turn to an expert on the region. Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in a debate in the Economist:

Military intervention in Syria is ill-conceived, short-sighted, counter-productive, and likely to generate more killings and massacres rather than stop them. Unlike any other Arab nation, Syria is home to varied and numerous assortments of religious sects, tribes, ethnicities and historic rivalries. In contrast to the uprisings in Yemen, Egypt and Libya, we have not witnessed high-level political and military defections inside Syria. And the largest cities in Syria — Damascus and Aleppo — have so far been relatively calm. Whatever the reasons—fear of, or support for, Bashar Assad—the opposition has thus failed to mobilise key constituencies inside Syria that would indicate to us that the regime is losing control.

Mr Assad retains a tight grip on the Ba’ath party. Its control of mosques, schools, businesses, police and local government means that it can still marshal large crowds of supporters in Damascus and Aleppo. Prominent Sunni Muslim clerics with regional weight, including Ramadan al-Bouti, have come out in support of the regime. At Friday prayers across the country they still pray for the strength of the government and call for “the destruction of its enemies”— Islamic reinforcement of Mr Assad’s government in a deeply religious country should not be underestimated.

Just as Mr Assad’s supporters use religion in Syria, so do his opponents. The footage coming out of Syria showing opposition forces killing soldiers and publicly torturing any who are accused of “spying” for the regime is deeply troubling; these are not the actions of democracy activists. In Tunisia and Egypt we heard cries for freedom, democracy and human rights. Sadly, in Syria, we are hearing shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and “jihad”. Al-Qaeda has now officially entered this conflict. Military intervention assumes that we will support one side. Granted, Mr Assad is an Iranian stooge. But at least we know the nature of that enemy. The debilitating differences among the opposition, the lack of leadership, the taking up of arms, the torture and killing of opponents, and the co-ordination with al-Qaeda and jihadists from Iraq and the Gulf should force us to stop and take stock. Who are we being asked to support, much less arm? And with what consequences?

Moral impulse and outrage alone cannot shape foreign policy. Strategic calculations, national interests and geopolitical implications are paramount. In an attempt to stop the killing of thousands in Syria, military intervention and then toppling the regime risk unleashing forces that could kill millions. Mr Assad’s supporters are just as brutal and vicious as the opposition. With Christians and other minorities fleeing across the Middle East, how wise is it to put in power a dysfunctional Sunni opposition? The premature removal of the Assad regime by force would not only result in a sectarian bloodbath inside Syria, but also encourage Iraqi Sunnis to violently agitate against Shia rule in Iraq. Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere would see their historic moment to create a homeland by forcing these countries to give territory, or face political violence. The fragile political balance in Lebanon would be threatened by greater Sunni-Shia clashes, led by Hizbullah.

In private, senior Israeli officials are aghast at the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Syria and are demanding that the all-important Golan Heights be returned. For all Mr Assad’s confrontational rhetoric, Israel and Syria have enjoyed relative calm on the border. With terrorist threats from the Sinai in Egypt, and the Camp David accords regularly being tested by Egypt’s new authorities, is this really the juncture at which to further threaten Israel’s security?

The immediate priority is to stop the loss of life on both sides in the conflict in Syria. The best guarantee of that is to allow Russian, French and British diplomats to work together to broker a ceasefire with immediate effect. The British connection with Syria is unique: Mr Assad’s wife is British, and her father is Syria’s de facto ambassador-at-large in Europe. British and French ties to Syrian opposition factions are also strong. Without Russian involvement, the Syrian regime will not budge. A combined effort, with America at arm’s length, is still the best way forward. Agreement from the Syrian and Russian governments can pave the way for peace. Without this, even peacekeeping missions would be seen as a declaration of war by China, Russia, Iran and Syria. With al-Qaeda on the ground, and Russia and China prepared to defend the regime, it is deeply imprudent to launch air strikes or missiles or even arm the rebels. The Free Syrian Army’s several thousand fighters are no match for Mr Assad’s forces of around 320,000 soldiers.

Cooler heads must prevail in Western governments. Diplomatic options have not yet been fully exhausted. After the Iraq debacle, we cannot choose military options over diplomacy so readily. In the great game to bring down Iran, and to strengthen Israel, do not go through Syria. Syria will prove to be yet another deadly, expensive detour for the West. Think Iraq, but compounded by sectarianism and regional contagion.

Mr. Husain warns of a sectarian bloodbath that could easily spread throughout the entire region, and we don't need to look very far to see how likely a scenario this is. Dozens are killed daily in Iraq and violence and lawlessness is widespread in Libya, two nations previously installed with democracy and freedom thanks to Western 'intervention'.

Then there is the financial cost. With both the US and UK with their enormous debts and deficits insisting that they must curb spending, and with savage cuts to benefits in the UK causing widespread outrage, selling a deeply unpopular intervention that is supported only by 25% in the UK and an incredibly low 9% in the US is likely to stir serious opposition from the public in both nations.

This infographic shows some of the costs of military hardware. [Note: this information is around two years old so we can expect the costs to be higher now.] A single cruise missile is shown to cost at least $830,000 and a BBC report from 2011 says that a cruise missile costs 500,000 pounds, with one trip by a Tornado aircraft costing tens of thousands of pounds in fuel alone. The Huffington Post reported in 2011 even higher costs:

In the opening days of the assault on Libya, the United States and the United Kingdom launched a barrage of at least 161 Tomahawk cruise missiles to flatten Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses and pave the way for coalition aircraft.

In fiscal terms, at a time when Congress is fighting over every dollar, the cruise missile show of military might was an expenditure of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Each missile cost $1.41 million, close to three times the cost listed on the Navy's website.

Given that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of possible targets (interactive) in Syria, and that around 7,700 bombs or missiles were dropped/launched in Libya, we can expect costs to become very high, and even higher still if a Tornado or two is downed by any of the hundreds of SAM sites shown on the linked interactive map: one Tornado costs around 50 million pounds to replace.

To put these figures into perspective, almost 5,000 nurses left the NHS between May 2010 and August 2012, a loss blamed by unions and Labour on UK Coalition cuts. Starting salaries for nurses are from 14,294 pounds at band 2 (clinical support workers) and 21,388 pounds at band 5 (fully qualified nurses). One cruise missile (at 500,000 pounds) would pay the annual salary for 35 clinical support workers or 23 fully qualified nurses. The cost of 142 cruise missiles would replace every single one of those lost 5,000 staff.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, General Martin Dempsey, told Congress last month that even limited strikes against Syria would require hundreds of aircraft, ships and submarines, costing billions of dollars. He also warned of the risk of retaliatory attacks and 'collateral damage impacting civilians', as well as 'unintended consequences'.

Finally there's the human cost. The New York Times found credible evidence for dozens upon dozens of civilian deaths in the 'surgical' Libya air strikes, implying there were many more for which credible evidence could not be found in the chaos. Bereaved families will greatly suffer due to loss of wage-earners along with grief, depression, PTSD and other mental disorders. Ensuing sectarian violence will lead inevitably to increased incidence of torture, rape and killing as well as property damage. Infrastructure will be damaged or destroyed, meaning unsafe water and power cuts. Another Iraq and Libya in the making.

Despite massive public opposition (remarkable in itself given the insipid response by the press); despite the illegality of any strike without UN Security Council approval; despite the likelihood of a strike causing heightened sectarian violence that may spread throughout the Middle East; and despite the moral indefensibility of spending huge sums on destruction and killing while massive cuts are deeply hurting the poor, sick and disabled at home...despite all these factors, President Obama and his loyal Western subordinates are determined to press ahead nonetheless. This is not only undemocratic, it is insane. Unsurprising, then, that Nobel laureate President Obama dared not utter the word 'peace' even once in yesterday's speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of celebrated pacifist Martin Luther King's March on Washington.

There are no good reasons to strike Syria and countless ones not to. Pressure from all quarters must be put on belligerent Western leaders to cool down and return to the negotiating table. That's what the diplomats are paid for.

Twitter: @simonwood11

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