Arab Spring: In December 2010 it all began. But the scenes that remain vivid in my mind begin in January 2011 and Tahir Square, Egypt when the wave of Arab Spring came into my home via CNN on an hourly basis. As the Arab Spring movement grew across northern Africa and Middle East, the Syrians rose up on March 15th against their minority masters– one of the many in the Middle East. The man at the center in Syria had the right DNA as a dictator-president. Medically trained Bashar Hafez al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad before him have ruled Syria with an iron fist and cold heart.
Politics in the Middle East had finally exploded. The political will of the majority across northern Africa and the Middle East was grabbing for its part of the political pot. Arab Spring protesters were met in many cases by a violent governmental response. In Syria it became a “civil war”, in Egypt there was a “coup”, then there was the Libyan and Yemen “crisis”. In these movements there was a call for a new form of government and recognition of rights. And that power struggle continues. In Syria, as I write this commentary, the fighting has gone on for more than six years with over four hundred thousand dead and counting and untold numbers in the millions seeking shelter however and wherever it may be found. Some found floating dead at sea.
In Syria, the dictator Assad emulates his father’s core philosophy: you meet a demand for a voice at the ballot box by the force of a bullet. Clearly, Assad could not win at the ballot box if he had been open to the idea of a referendum, and so he would try to murder his way to control and his sense of “victory”. His simple plan to victory became politically and strategically complex for the United States.
It started in July 2011; defectors from Assad’s regime formed an organized militia called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to protect protesters and strike back at Assad. By January 2012, the Syrian “uprising” had disintegrated and fragmented into a full-blown civil war pitting the FSA and other assorted rebel groups against Assad and his supporters. It is the “assorted rebel groups” and Assad’s supporters that make this war both a humanitarian blood bath and an international nightmare. Today, The United States is in the middle of this conflict facing its modern historical enemy: Russia. How we got here starts much earlier than the Arab Spring.
In 1980, Iran was using its deep financial resources to further not only its regional control and power but also to destroy Israel. To accomplish its objective it needed to supply its proxies Hezbollah (in Lebanon to control that troubled government and gain control of its common border with Israel in the south) and Hamas (in Gaza bordering in the southwest corner of Israel) with its military and financial needs. To further accomplish this object Iran needed a transfer point for all of this aid. Syria would be that transfer vehicle for conveying whatever military needs and supplies its proxy militias/allies –Hezbollah and Hamas –might require. Assad, in return for his help, would receive enormous military and political largess from Iran. Iran became the Assad’s regime benefactor. Then things changed; the minority population in Syria began their demands. A revolt in Syria is a revolt against Assad, and that clearly would upend Iran’s grand plans for the region. The logical result was that Iran sent Hezbollah to fight alongside of Assad against the rebels. Thus, the beginning of a maze of interventions on both sides.
In early 2013, the Arab League gave its member organizations permission to arm the Syrian rebels; in May of 2013, Qatar alone provided 3 billion dollars in aid to the rebel forces. The rebel pushback against Assad then became a “proxy war” between Iran and Assad on one side against those Gulf states that sided with the United States’ interests. By simple extension, the “proxy war” morphed into a conflict between Russia, who had financed and in fact built the Syrian army in the 1960s, and the United States.
We have witnessed thousands of airstrikes with American pilots along with United States Special Forces on the ground to accomplish cutting the supply lines to ISIS and to assist the Kurdish army in its fight with ISIS. Notwithstanding the disabling politics (the number of assorted supporters fighting for each side requires a complex chart to understand the dynamics of the situation) and the airstrikes, the on-the- ground reality is that the rebels are far from toppling Assad’s regime. In truth, the rebels could be in crises mode. A major rebel stronghold fell to Assad, and although they are not at the precipice of defeat, they are a long way from any victory against the dictator’s hold on his country.
Then there was a sarin gas attack and a United States’ response– April 4th gas attack by Assad and Trump’s one-shot Tomahawk response against a Syrian military airport. Has anything changed? The short answer is: No. Don’t forget Assad has used Sarin gas in the past against his people. Has it changed Trump’s tweeting tone regarding Moscow? Yes. Does it really matter in the scheme of things, and remember Trump’s reasons for authorizing the air strike are totally irrelevant. The pressing question is – Was the strike permissible under our laws and morally responsible?
I will leave the constitutional questions of a single air strike to others more qualified than I to discuss that issue. I am more concerned with those who now condemn the strike as involving us in a battle not on our own lawn. And these very vocal people are on both the left and right of the political spectrum.
Many years ago, I was visiting a friend in a high-rise in Manhattan, and in looking out his window across a one block construction site I noticed what appeared to be a Christmas tree on fire in an apartment two blocks away. I called the fire department, and within seconds I could hear the sirens of the fire engines. It took another three seconds to realize that what I was seeing was a reflection in the apartment window of a Christmas tree on fire in the construction site. The fire department told me that I had done the right thing. The “right thing”. Not what was legally right but what was morally right. It was the responsible thing to do, even though it was not my apartment on fire, not the building I was in at the moment, not my life in danger. I thought there was a fire.
I have never been to Syria, I know no one from that country, and I buy no items made in Syria. I can argue either way that what happens in Syria has no effect on my life in Manhattan. It is not a fire on the next block in New York. The issues are more complex, but the logic remains. One person—a stranger to me — is using an illegal weapon causing horrendous death and injury against another—also a person I do not know. The question is: do I, should I, must I intervene in some manner, or do I just “mind my own business”, and walk away. Animals kill for food. Human beings kill for territory and hate. Neither reason is acceptable. Nor is it acceptable to walk away.
In the late 1930s, the world walked away, and in doing so millions of people died that need not have. The world was a moral coward. American, until it was attacked, did little if anything. Had it acted morally, and when Hitler’s message was clear and unambiguous, cities would not have been left in ruins, millions of people would not have been displaced across the globe, and millions whose lives were destroyed would have lived. The question is not how you could possibly permit Assad to gas his own people. The question is how do you allow anyone to gas anyone else, anywhere in the world? The answer is: You don’t. Period.