I talked to Damian Counsell of Ricochet in a wide-ranging conversation about my recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan to mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s genocide against its people; why the survivors viewed Allied action as a liberation; the surprising preference of many Kurds for Turkey over the United States as a future partner, and the meaning of humanitarian intervention 10 years after the Iraq War.
The United Nations announced today that the total death toll in Syria has passed 60,000. In summer of 2011, roughly 1,000 people lost their lives per month. The figure has now risen to 5,000. It is said to be a conservative estimate with the actual numbers likely to be far higher.
Compared to other conflicts, the number of Syrian casualties now equals the total killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948 or, put differently, Assad butchered half the number of people over 22 months that Milosevic killed between 1992-1995 in the Balkans.
Yet there are no signs of any potential intervention by the international community, as long as Assad is not resorting to chemical and biological weapons — also known as the ‘red line’ policy of the Obama administration.
But I am asking myself: shouldn’t tens of thousands of men, women and children not be a ‘red line’ in themselves? What is the acceptable human threshold of pain, given that we have said so many times: ‘never again!’
Some commentators suggest that we cannot do anything or that it is already too late to intervene effectively.
It is too late in the sense that the worst case scenario has already unfolded. What we see is that everything the Obama administration said would happen in the case of intervention, is actually taking place in the absence of leadership.
Islamists have hijacked the revolution and the opposition increasingly resorts to the tactics of terrorists.
Yet just because the situation on the ground is immensely bleak, and the post-Assad era likely to be chaotic, does not mean there is nothing we can do at all.
Damage control is still an option.
The Patriots along the Turkish/Syrian border could be utilised to establish a partial no-fly-zone without entering Syrian airspace. This is significant, as the Assad regime‘s preferred modus operandi is to kill from the air.
It would also allow us to establish humanitarian corridors to provide shelter. Right now, refugees are pouring into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, at a rate of up to several thousand a day, and they have reached a breaking point of capacity.
The violence in Syria has also spilled into neighbouring countries. For instance, it manifests itself in the noteworthy increase of terrorist attacks in Iraq over the last few months. The crisis in Syria allowed Al Qaida to slip back into the country and with US troops gone, Iraq once more is at risk of descending into chaos.
It would also make sense to consider arming parts of the opposition. Such undertaking would not be without risk but what is happening right now is that while we refuse to engage with the secularists, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the Islamist rebels with our weapons. The extremists grow stronger by the day. The people we should support, however, are side-lined.
The Syrian problem is not going away and the longer we wait, the uglier it will become. That is a lesson history has taught us many times.
We still have a choice. We always have one, even if it is a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Right now, Washington appears to be the major obstacle to intervention. No Western country has taken the full initiative but France, for instance, suggested the establishment of a no-fly-zone months ago.
With his inaction, Obama is betraying the core principles of American benevolence and is belittling his country’s power and influence in the world. Syria is one of his greatest failures and will haunt him throughout his second term.
As one Syrian woman put it: ‘We will not forget that you forgot about us.’
One cannot expect much from a man who suggested to split Iraq into three autonomous regions but even by Biden’s generally low foreign policy standards, his comments on the Middle East in last week’s VP debate were breathtakingly oversimplified and disingenuous.
Biden started the debate with a desperate attempt to cover-up the debacle surrounding the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi. The Vice President failed to answer at least two crucial questions: a) why did Obama, Clinton and Rice apologise to a mob of extremists? and b) why did the US embassy staff had inadequate security?
Biden told an outright lie when he refused to call the attack what it was – an act of terrorism – and instead defended the administration’s discredited narrative. He carefully avoided mentioning the YouTube video which was, after all, nothing but a cover-up for a pre-planned assault against America on the anniversary of 9/11.
He further denied the allegation that the States Department had refused to tighten security, after repeated requests from personnel on the ground. Two officials, however, testified before Congress that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Charlene Lamb, was aware of the delicate security situation and failed to take appropriate action.
Ultimately, the negligence cost Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other servicemen their lives and someone in the Obama administration must be held accountable for it.
Biden’s quality of answers did not change appreciably when the moderator turned to Iran. For reasons only known to him, the Vice President started giggling when Martha Raddatz questioned him on the ayatollahs’ intention to acquire nuclear capabilities. He relativised the threat post by the Islamic Republic, despite the regime being the greatest risk to peace and stability in the Middle East and the most active state sponsor of terrorism in the region. His assessment of the status of Iran’s nuclear programme struck me as startlingly and dangerously naïve. There is credible evidence which suggests that Iran continues to stockpile uranium enriched to up to 20% purity, a nonessential procedure, unless one plans to build an atomic bomb. 225 kg of 20 percent is sufficient to make 25 kg of 90 percent enriched uranium.
Continuing the trend, the Vice President’s comments on the humanitarian and strategic crisis in Syria can be described as nothing but utterly shameless. According to Biden, the US government is doing everything in its power to stop the bloodshed and cooperates closely with its Arab allies. But if that were true, why would Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, amongst others, complain that the administration’s Syria policy is counterproductive, even destructive, and impedes their efforts to support the Syrian opposition?
Biden made it sound as if there was nothing else the US could do without sending troops to Syria. This, however, is a false choice. In fact, no one, not even the most hawkish supporters of intervention, like Senator John McCain, consider boots on the ground. What they suggest is arming the rebels, setting up humanitarian corridors along the Turkish-Syrian border, and establishing a NFZ to protect civilians from the wrath of Assad’s air force. NFZs worked well in the past, as for instance in Iraq, in the Balkans, and Libya, without zero Western casualties. So again, Biden resorted to overblown assumptions and scaremongering tactics to justify the Obama administration’s colossal moral failure and total absence of leadership in the Middle East.
And just when you thought things could not get any worse, Biden outlined his deeply cynical and reckless approach on the on-going war in Afghanistan. “We are leaving in 2014 – period”, he said. What message does that send to the Taliban? Not only does it strengthen our enemies in the sense that they know that they can play on time, as we will pull out in 2014 no matter the situation, but it also raises the moral question of whether our Afghanistan policy should really be determined by a fixed timetable or degree of success.
Our fallen shall not have died in vain.
Biden reached a climax of hypocrisy when he boasted about the Iraq pull-out. What he did not say, however, was that pulling troops out too quickly allowed al-Qaeda back into the country and now threatens the carefully-constructed peace. On top of that, the Vice President attacked Ryan on the Republican’s legacy of war. “No, we can’t afford that”, he apparently said when George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Too bad that, in fact, Biden voted in favour of both the Afghanistan and Iraq resolutions which authorised military action.
Post-revisionism at its finest.
In sum, Biden’s performance was embarrassing and unprofessional. One can engage in serious debate or mock and ridicule one’s opponent. The Vice President clearly chose the latter approach. He may have won the drama class award but Ryan convinced with facts and figures.