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Even When The Chemical Weapons Are Gone, Violence And Despair Will Endure In Syria

A man bleeds in a northern Syria hospital after a ricochet bullet went through his foot. In a sense, he was lucky that the bullet did not stay in his body, which would have required surgery to remove. The hospital staff told us that until very recently th

Notwithstanding my remarkably horrendous coping with jet-lag, I have been following along — as best I can — with the developments in, around, and regarding Syria. From the hasty deal struck between Russia and the U.S. to account for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, to the draft resolution currently underway — and meant for an imminent Security Council resolution — involving diplomats from the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain, it seems like the Obama Administration has been able to avert a war, save face, and reinforce everyone’s favourite international norm.

But while it’s a very good thing the international arena is acting in unison over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it makes little difference to the everyday Syrian — either fighting in the streets, or fighting to stay alive at home. The sad truth is, we’re in the early stages of a bloodletting in Syria that began nearly 94 years ago when one Brit (Sir Mark Sykes) and one Frenchman (Francois George-Picot) divided the Arab provinces — once belonging to the Ottoman Empire — between their two respective colonial powers. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (also known as the Asia Minor Agreement) of 1920 created the modern state of Syria as we now know it. 20130918-110243.jpgNo one living in Syria ever got a say in how their “nation” was constructed — both in terms of territory, and control. Syria was purposefully devised to pit the Shiite Alawite minority against the Sunni Arab majority, with a side-show consisting of Christians, Druze and Kurds (who are also Sunnis). The same principle (divide-and-rule) applied to Iraq, except the minority Sunnis were used to control the majority Shiites. The reason colonial powers constructed these cynical divisions is simple: appeal to the minority, train them, arm them, and use them to control the majority out of fear, oppression, and obligation. It’s how empires are made, and how they endure.

It should come as no surprise, then, that from Syria and Iraq we had (and have) two of the most brutal, horrific dictators of all time: Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad. They were (and are) manifestations of colonial manipulation; the products of two nations created under the weight of permanent warfare, oppression, and sectarian strife.

“Why do we have a brutal civil war in Syria?” is not the question we should be asking. We know why it’s happening. It’s the same reason we still have one raging in Iraq. The brutal and callous decades long oppression of the majority groups in both states broke free, at long last, with the Arab Spring. For better or worse, and due in large part to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the bloodletting in Syria has only just begun. It won’t stop if and when the chemical weapons stockpiles are accounted for. Nor will it stop if and when Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Notice for example how when the United States argues that it’s justified in arming the opposition, they make it plain that they intend to only support “moderate” rebels. What about the not-so-moderate rebels? What role will they play in a post-Assad Syria? The quixotic idea that any two sides in this conflict could reach a political agreement, untainted by blood and terror, is as likely as it was in Iraq — where a decade of occupation and trillions of dollars could not prevent 100,000+ deaths.

Innocent men, women and children are being murdered at staggering rates. Some have been gassed, but 99% have lost their lives to the real “weapons of mass destruction”: small munitions. The images of dead children, and the videos of crying mothers holding their lost loved ones are unbearably heartbreaking. But for every image of an innocent life lost, there’s a video of a rebel, or one of Assad’s soldiers, reminding the world through barbaric savagery that this is a sectarian fight to the death.

And no UN Resolution is going to change that.

(Photo: Freedom House)

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Best Of The Week

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Apologies to my readers for the lack of posts these past couple of weeks. I’m moving to London for grad school this weekend, so it’s been difficult to keep up with the blog, but mostly because I didn’t want to do a half-ass job for all of you who regularly keep up with Left and Center. I’m not sure what this blog will look like when I live in London. School will take up a considerable amount of my time, and the time-change will undoubtedly be an obstacle. What I imagine happening is that I’ll shift from a number of posts per day to one or two longer ones.

But back to the matter at hand. It’s been one hell of a week for news, and while I wish I could have written more, I’m happy about what’s been put out. The most popular post of the week was my reaction to where we now stand in regards to Syria: A Better Solution. Close behind in terms of traffic was my breakdown of Russian President Vladimir “KGB” Putin’s op-Ed in the New York Times, Putin, Troll.

Other popular posts (mostly because they were the only posts!) included The Astonishingly Bad Arguments For Another Middle-East War; Could This Kerry Gaffe Save Us From Another Middle-East War?; and, but of course, Forget The Pill, Meet The Pullout Generation.

Back soon.

Publius

(Photo: via wikicommons)

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Putin, Troll

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in today’s New York Times is … weird. It’s goal seems to be to urge President Obama not to launch a military strike against Syria, but it’s also about poking fun at the sort of American exceptionalism expressed in Obama’s recent speech to the nation. Some of the points are compelling and valid, but the piece as a whole is so totally riddled with boisterous hypocrisy, disingenuous double-standards and baffling untruths that any micro-analysis reveals just how anemic and ridiculous the document really is.

Let’s take a look at some key passages (Putin’s remarks are in bold-italics):

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

There are two ways to consider this passage, and both are important. First, Putin makes some valid arguments against US intervention — it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that military action will lead to an escalation of violence and extremism in the region. But let’s be real here: Putin’s thuggish regime has played one of the largest roles in enabling the already awful violence and extremism in Syria. Assad kills so wantonly and so freely in large part because he knows Putin’s got his back in the Security Council. Putin is also Assad’s main source of heavy weaponry.

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

These are strong, good arguments against outside intervention. Essentially, Putin argues that it’s not in the U.S’s interests to be embroiled in what is a sectarian civil war. But again, Putin himself has been one of the primary actors involved in making the conflict what it is.

“We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.”

Oh, please. Given how hard Putin has fought to block any UN resolution from even verbally condemning Assad’s actions, no thinking person should take seriously this hilariously disingenuous fealty to international law.

“Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

Putin’s Russia launched a war against Georgia five years ago, and it wasn’t approved by the UN Security Council.

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

Thankfully, this is totally untrue. An investigation by Human Rights Watch found the Assad regime responsible for the attack, and minutes after this op-Ed was posted, a story broke that the upcoming UN investigation into the matter amasses an unbelievable amount of evidence implicating the Assad regime as the culprits.

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.”

This short segment is really the entire purpose of the op-Ed: convince the American people that the best way forward is embracing the Russian plan for a diplomatic solution. But Sam Stein captures the contradiction of Putin’s previous attempt to lay the blame for the chemical weapons attack on the opposition:

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Here we finally get to Putin’s criticism of American exceptionalism. You can judge for yourself whether or not you agree that it’s “dangerous” for a nation to believe itself to be exceptional, but just know that the only other country in the world that espouses a similar notion to its own people is — you guessed it — Putin’s Russia.

“There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Go ask a gay or lesbian Russian how they feel about this.

I can understand why readers and commentators find Vlad’s op-Ed interesting, and even “well-written”, but it should stop there. At its core, it’s a piece of disingenuous, hypocritical political propaganda penned by a KGB thug who couldn’t care less about international law, human rights, or the United Nations. Kudos to whoever wrote it.

(Photo: via Wikicommons)

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A Better Solution

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In the march towards a congressional vote on military action in Syria, one thing became glaringly obvious: the Obama administration had run out of options, and leverage. Maybe Secretary of State John Kerry sensed it and knew exactly what he was doing when he offered Syria an olive branch on Monday. The terms were (and are) simple: give up your chemical weapons stockpiles. We don’t know if this was a strategic plan by Kerry, but we do know that it was accepted almost immediately by both Russia and Syria, and has become a far better solution to this whole saga than anything previous.

Military intervention was meant for one (double) reason only: deter the future use of chemical weapons, and make sure Assad can’t do this again. It was never meant to remove Assad from power, or substantially help the opposition — that would be “war”, according to the Obama administration. What this proposal from Russia/Syria/Kerry does is put these weapons under the control of the international arena — presumably some UN agency — therefore accounting for both deterrence and Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. If the Obama administration has been honest all along, and chemical weapons have been the first and only reason to act, it couldn’t have worked out better.

Many are pointing out that, “we’re relying on Russia and Syria to carry this out? Fat chance.” They have a point. Maybe the plan will never be realized; but it’s still a better option than military intervention. Russia’s acceptance of the plan means we may see a Security Council resolution affirming this proposal — something that’s been missing all along. Russia wont veto a resolution they themselves proposed, and I doubt China would want to be the lone state standing in the way of a diplomatic solution.

Another pessimistic — but possible — take is that Assad will never agree to go through with this. Having chemical weapons is not an insignificant thing in the grander scheme of regional power politics, where Assad has to keep one eye on neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, who want nothing more than a regime change in Damascus.

But even if Assad balks, the entire paradigm of this conflict has been altered for the better. If the United States feels forced to attack Syria if the proposal fails, they’ll probably do so with a UN resolution and a greater number of allies behind them — both pipe dreams on September 8. And if by chance Assad agrees to whatever the proposal ends up being, the U.S. will have averted a war, saved face, and accounted for Syria’s chemical weapons. Win-win-win.

On September 8, the United States stood completely alone. Domestic support was horrendous; the backing of the Security Council (and NATO) was nonexistent; Russia was becoming more vocal and dangerous; Iran was threatening retribution; and even Britain pulled support.

How strange would it be, then, if a simple gaffe by John Kerry ended up preventing another Middle-East war?

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs)

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Could This Kerry Gaffe Accidentally Save Us From War?

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Earlier today, while pressed by the media for alternatives to military intervention, Secretary of State Kerry accidentally said this:

Asked if there were steps the Syrian president could take to avert an American-led attack, Mr. Kerry said, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

The State Department went into crisis mode almost immediately, making it clear the Secretary was being totally hypothetical:

“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to reporters after Mr. Kerry’s comments. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

So, here’s an idea: if you’re the Secretary of State for the most powerful country in the world, and coincidentally, that country is mulling over the option of launching missiles at another country — don’t be fucking hypothetical. And for the love of Zeus, stop making Hillary Clinton look like the best SOS in history.

Anyway, the Russians immediately pounced on the offer:

“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

Holy crap. Kerry made a blunder, but that blunder may actually save us from another terrible Middle-East war. The Russian foreign minister’s support for this — actually quite sensible — plan of controlling Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities is a huge deal. It would protect the world from chemical weapons, therefore appeasing the President. It would also allow Russia to involve itself in a peaceful resolution to this whole mess, without the added degradation of looking like their doing the U.S.’s bidding. And apparently, the UN Sec. Gen is on board. As is Syria:

Wow. This could actually work given the U.S. accepts the terms of the deal and Russia actually lives up to it by helping collect all the chemical weapons in Syria. Two big ifs, but both are better than the alternative of war.

Keep gaffing, Mr. Secretary.

(Photo: Shino)

UPDATE

Gaining momentum.

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Quote For The Day: Stephen Fry Calls For Olympic Boycott

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I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian “correctively” raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.

“All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” so wrote Edmund Burke. Are you, the men and women of the IOC going to be those “good” who allow evil to triumph? […]

For there to be a Russian Winter Olympics would stain the movement forever and wipe away any of that glory. The Five Rings would finally be forever smeared, besmirched and ruined in the eyes of the civilised world.

Stephen Fry, An open letter to David Cameron and the IOC

(photo: via wikicommons)

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Some Russian Perspective for the American LGBT Community

Putin on the parade

It’s fair to say we’ve made some huge strides in this country in how we view and treat the LGBT community, and while there’s still work to be done, it’s been getting better every day. The same can’t be said for Russia. According to Human Rights, it’s now considered illegal — through a draconian “anti-gay propaganda” law — to include public displays of affection between LGBT people (holding hands counts) as well as displaying rainbow flags and even tweeting positive messages about LGBT people. In response, activists — spurned on by sex columnist and author Dan Savage — have ratcheted up their efforts to combat Russia’s stance on intolerance by launching counter-campaigns against brands like Stolichnaya Vodka, which controls a 2.6% share of the U.S. vodka market. 20130731-073801.jpg

Now the Russian lawmaker — Vitaly Milonov (btw, he looks totally gay) — responsible for the law in the first place has issued a statement saying that Olympic athletes and tourists will be subject to the penalties of the law, come the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014:

Speaking to Interfax and as translated by GSN, Milonov said: ‘I have not heard any comments from the government of the Russian Federation but I know it is acting in accordance with Russian law.

‘If a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn’t have the authority.’

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) released its own statement, saying it looked into the matter and received total assurance from the Russian government that 2014 Winter Olympics athletes and tourists will not be subject to arrest under Putin’s anti-gay law. “As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media.”

So gays will just have to trust that Russia told the IOC the truth. No big deal.

(photo by Stuart Grout)

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Edward Snowden And The Difference Between Prosecution And Persecution

edward snowden wall mural

In an email to Tatiana Lokshina, deputy head of the Russian office of Human Rights Watch, Edward Snowden thanked the bravery of states like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia for offering him support against the United States and its allies, and invited Lokshina, as well as other prominent human rights leaders and political figures, to join him for a meeting at Sheremetyevo Airport held just moments ago.

But in the email, Snowden repeated a claim that he’s made before — one that I’ve had a problem with from the beginning:

Unfortunately, in recent weeks we have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. Government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The scale of threatening behavior is without precedent: never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign President’s plane to effect a search for a political refugee. This dangerous escalation represents a threat not just to the dignity of Latin America or my own personal security, but to the basic right shared by every living person to live free from persecution.

While article 14 does indeed afford individuals the right to seek asylum in foreign states, it does not say that the state from which you are seeking asylum away from cannot still seek to prosecute you for crimes committed. And that’s the real difference here: prosecution versus persecution.

Edward Snowden is not being persecuted by the United States, he’s being prosecuted. The difference may seem minor, but it’s important. Persecution entails unfair and/or oppressive treatment based on the religious and/or political beliefs or race of a person or group. Prosecution is the conducting of legal and criminal proceedings against a person for crimes committed.

Now, Snowden may argue that he’s being persecuted for his political beliefs, therefore the label makes sense, but the fact is that he isn’t. He’s being prosecuted for his political/criminal actions — we can debate whether or not those actions were justified, or good, or damaging, but they were still illegal. If Snowden never leaked top-secret documents to newspapers, and instead expressed his alternative political beliefs, and was still being chased down by the U.S. because of them, then it would indeed be persecution.

But that hasn’t happened, and the United States has acted within the purview of the law throughout this asylum ordeal. Granted, it was stupid as all heck to ground the plane of the Bolivian president on a whim, but besides that, there has been no persecution to speak of whatsoever.

But I am glad to see Snowden finally invoke the UDHR as the basis for his understanding of rights and responsibility. It makes sense, considering many of his leaks have transcended American domestic surveillance concerns and have had to do with U.S. foreign intelligence operations against other states. Unfortunately for Snowden, and for anyone else who invokes the Declaration of Human Rights, there has never been a more anemic, baseless and unenforced document in the history of the world.

If you don’t believe me, go ask a Rwandan.

(photo by flickr user squirrel83)

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Time To Stop Worrying So Much About American Foreign Policy?

Obama visits Pentagon

Dan Drezner politely recommends America’s foreign policy commentators relax:

I suggest a community-wide vacation because, right now, a lot of them are writing a lot of nonsense. The combination of perceived U.S. inaction on Syria and Snowden is leading to a lot of silly talk about how Russia is back and China is back and the U.S. can’t do anything anymore and everything is going to hell in a handbasket.

I don’t mean to go on a rant here, but this is just so much bulls**t.

OK, it’s not all that. Advocates of humanitarian intervention are justifiably upset about inaction on Syria — and they should be even more upset if the administration is actually doing what I think they’re doing in Syria.

That said, there’s not much that’s new in these laments. China and Russia are opposing U.S. interests? Well, blow me down!! I haven’t seen that kind of activity since… since… every year for the last decade. There’s nothing new here.

He has a point. US/China/Russia relations have been tenuous for decades now and it’s likely to continue now until the end of time. The Middle East has been a pit of despair and conflict for a half-century (thanks in large part to American/Russian imperialism and interventionist policies), and now with Syria descending into a sectarian strife that will likely become a regional conflict, there’s no end in sight. And when it comes to Snowden, this quote from Obama tells you something about how he feels about the affair: “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.”

America has the most powerful military force in the history of military forces, and it’s not even close. It’s economy is far and away stronger than that of Europe and despite the handwringing over China’s ascension, still stronger than theirs too.

Basically, America is doing fine.

(Photo by flickr user The U.S. Army)

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Daily roundup – April 18

Today on BaddiesBoogie I kicked off the day with a developing story out of Washington that may mean a future intervention in the war torn state of Syria, then explained as best I could that the reason we don’t have a gun control bill is because we’re “represented” by a Senate that has become totally undemocratic and pernicious.

Elsewhere I featured the tragic story out of West Texas where a huge fertilizer plant explosion took the lives of several people and injured more than 160, then followed that with a lambasting critique of the New York Post, where apparently, journalistic integrity is as disregarded as responsibility.

Finally, needing a little repose from a day of negativity, I shared my favorite “Laugh Break!” so far, featuring a long improvisation by comedian Patton Oswalt, and ended with another installment of your “Photo of the Day”, this time of a beautiful cave hotel in Cappadocia, Turkey.

See you tomorrow!

Publius

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