“What do you call a monkey with a hand grenade? a ‘baboom'” – bad joke (yes, I know, baboons are not monkeys)
Tensions in Syria are ramping up, and the prospect of US military intervention in the next few days is quite strong. At the top level the international politics of the situation are fairly clear, though at lower levels they get quite twisted.
Syria is Iran’s puppet and foil in dealing with the west, so obviously Iran is on Syria’s side. Russia and China generally back Iran (Russia apparently for “sphere of influence” reasons and China for oil), so they also want Bashir Assad left untouched. The US, UK, and much of Europe don’t care for the mad mullahs in Iran and would love to see Syria taken away as an Iranian satellite. So too would Saudi Arabia and even Israel – if the “taking away” happened in a vacuum. Unfortunately for Israel some form of leadership would have to exist, and it may not be better for Israeli interests than Assad’s fascist regime.
To this geopolitical backdrop we add the aftershocks of the “Arab Spring” – where oppressed people across the Arab world started to push back against longtime dictators like Kaddafi (Libya) and Mubarak (Egypt). There are plenty of Syrians who want to be rid of Assad and the decades of tyranny. There are other players in the game too, looking to fill the power vacuum created by an Assad departure, including Islamists (why Israel isn’t so gung-ho about a changing of the guard).
The revolt in Syria reached a fever pitch last year and it looked like Assad would be ousted. Then, just as things were getting bleak for the dictator, the Russians stepped in to calm things down (and Iranian assistance escalated), and the tide seemed to turn against the rebels. However, of late the rebels have appeared to make somewhat of a resurgence (with American help … unofficially). So last week, on 21 August, Assad launched an apparent chemical weapons attack (sarin, most likely) against the rebels, killing upwards of 1000 people (many women and children) by some reports.
The attack is horrific. It reminds one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks against the Kurds. (Of course, intervention against Assad is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than intervention against Hussein … I guess because there’s a Democrat in the White House now.)
The attack also presents a rather difficult political situation for president Obama. He labeled the use of chemical weapons a “red line” for Syria. (Actually, he used some mealy-mouthed language about “a bunch of chemical weapons flying around” … but we all understood it to mean “chemical weapons = red line”.) Assad has called his bluff, if it was a bluff, and the president now risks being punked, stared down, and pushed aside by a jumped up doctor-turned-dictator. He appears to be left with nothing but bad choices.
Could we topple the Syrian government? You bet. Even the Russians have come out and said they will not intervene if we attack. But who would take over? Would it just become another hotbed for Islamists? We saw how Obama’s Muslim Brotherhood experiment worked out in Egypt.
Could we leave the Syrian government in place? Well, obviously. But we then lose all credibility with resistance movements in the Middle East. We backed the rebels, we drew a line in the sand, the bully crossed it, and then … we just walk away because now isn’t a good time for us?
Obama appears to be leaning toward a middle-of-the-road approach of dropping some bombs but not enough to topple Assad. Honestly this may be worse than the other two, as it appears to be nothing more than an internal political calculation to save the president from the embarrassment of getting shown-up by Assad. You know, act tough if you can’t be tough – that sort of thing.
Which of these is the best alternative? Honestly the whole thing is a mess and I find no good alternatives. I tend to prefer non-interventionism. Putting our military at play in a foreign theater can be justified if it is part of a defense of freedom at home, and I am willing to accept very broad-sweeping generalizations of what qualifies as defending freedom. But this just doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
Against the backdrop of near-certainty that a US-led attack would happen in the coming days (maybe even today), there appear to now be cracks in the “coalition of the willing”. Headlines indicate that the UK is waffling due to internal pressure, though France is still on board (Hollande desperately needs something to divert attention from his horrible economic policies). Russia and China have turned up the rhetorical heat (as has Iran, but they’re always shooting off at the mouth, so it’s nothing new). And now the president has issued a statement that he “has not made a decision.” Well, well, he may back down after all.
A few days ago, in the heat of the diplomatic maelstrom, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin declared that the west was behaving like a “monkey with a hand grenade”. There is apparently some old fable about a monkey with a hand grenade and sabre-rattling against neighboring monkey tribes to extract goodies. It seems to have been aimed at communist regimes that couldn’t produce bananas for themselves but could extract them from free-market westerners who just didn’t want any trouble. I’ll give Rogozin the benefit of the doubt here and point out the irony of a Russian using such a fable to describe western militarism.
Of course, in the over-sensitive American political norm, dropping a term like “monkey” when a black man is president is suspect to say the least.
The next few days will be very eye-opening on the Syria front. We may strike, we may back down, or we may strike with little-to-no effect and then back down. None of these works out very well for the US. The president appears to have hoped that simply throwing down a “red line” statement would be enough to thwart the use of chemical weapons (and that’s a good hope to have), but sometimes your bluff gets called and you have to decide how to respond. Time will tell.