Syria and the parable of the poisoned arrow

e13-iconA Buddhist scripture recounts a parable in which the Buddha said:

Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.

Translate this to Syria and this parable takes an ugly twist:

Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and he asks a doctor to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the doctor does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If the doctor were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.

The principle, do no harm, applies just as well to politics as it does to medicine, yet it’s a mistake to view this as a choice between action and inaction. If conceived in those terms, the balance will always incline towards inaction because we can’t know the future. We can never say with certainty that our actions will cause no harm.

Yet if we endeavor to do no harm, we have to recognize that inaction has effects. A passive bystander who actually possesses a significant amount of power yet declines to wield it in any meaningful way, is not lacking in agency. More often, he is simply climbing through the moral escape-hatch which every day affords people across the globe some fragile peace of mind: it’s not my problem. I don’t need to worry about it.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post last week, Stephen Hawking wrote:

What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?

When I discuss intelligent life in the universe, I take this to include the human race, even though much of its behavior throughout history appears not to have been calculated to aid the survival of the species. And while it is not clear that, unlike aggression, intelligence has any long-term survival value, our very human brand of intelligence denotes an ability to reason and plan for not only our own but also our collective futures.

We must work together to end this war and to protect the children of Syria. The international community has watched from the sidelines for three years as this conflict rages, engulfing all hope. As a father and grandfather, I watch the suffering of Syria’s children and must now say: No more.

Hawking is clearly frustrated with global inaction, he sees the suffering of the Syrian population as an affront to any conception of universal justice, and he is appealing for the war to end. What he fails to do is propose any course of action which might lead to that outcome.

A theoretical physicist can reasonably claim he is unqualified to outline such a plan. Nicholas Burns, on the other hand, was a career diplomat and was the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Bush administration. We might expect that while appealing for action he would go further than offer a McCainish something must be done.

Burns writes:

There are no easy answers to the Syria crisis. A US-led ground invasion would require something on the scale of the 1991 Gulf War — hundreds of thousands of troops. That’s not in the cards for a president, Congress, and public emerging from two major wars since 9/11. Russia and China continue to shield Syrian President Bashar Assad from international pressure at the UN, going so far as to object to proposals to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. For now, the main, and mainly vain, hope is UN-led talks for a ceasefire and transition from Bashar Assad’s rule. At its current languid pace, that could take years to materialize.

Washington finds itself in an uncharacteristically weak position to drive events in Syria. President Obama has taken force off the table, refusing to strike last September following Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Obama has still not provided effective, lethal support to moderate rebels or threatened strikes on Assad’s air force if the brutal killings continue. As a result, the United States lacks the leverage and credibility to intimidate Assad. The administration plods along the diplomatic path, remaining a responsible contributor of humanitarian aid but lacking the strength to produce a solution on its own.

The one country that could make a decisive difference to stop the fighting is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But Putin, aligned with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, prefers to run arms to the Syrian government and serve as Assad’s de facto lawyer in Geneva.
Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria. That leaves the rest of us to consider once more — how many more lives will be claimed by Syria’s ceaseless civil war before we are finally shamed to stop the killings?

The question is: how?

Opponents of war, who nowadays seem to be much more concerned about avoiding involvement in other people’s wars than in ending wars — let’s call them the Not-Our-War-ists — seem to commonly have a kind of organic perspective on Syria.

If allowed to, the war will follow its natural course — though no one’s particularly clear about where that leads. In one breath the conflict in Syria involves no “good guys” and thus there is no basis for taking sides. Yet in the next breath, the conflict is driven by external powers and the Assad regime is resisting Western imperialism.

While it’s impossible to construct a coherent picture from these elements, the unifying theme is that Syria must not become another Iraq.

On those terms, since there has been no invasion, no bombs dropped nor cruise missiles launched from American warships, I guess — at least for now — Syria counts as one success story in the campaign to end U.S.-led wars in the Middle East.

While 140,000 have been killed and 6 million Syrians have lost their homes, this hasn’t become America’s war.

If this is mission accomplished, this is the kind of victory that leads to ruin.

So what’s the alternative?

One of the many reasons Americans tend to have a twisted view of war is because the continuation or end of a war has often had so little impact on life in America. Ending a war is a political choice here, but the physical implications play out elsewhere. America and American civilians collectively, face no existential threats.

The day the war ends is not the day the bombs stop dropping because for most Americans during wartime the bombs were always dropping somewhere else. War thus appears to be nothing more than the product of the callous calculations of governments — governments which might just as easily choose to end such wars as they chose to start them.

In Syria, on the other hand, both sides see themselves as facing an existential threat. There can be no return to a status quo ante bellum.

But as much as this is true for the Assad regime, it is not true for its principal supporters. Iran’s future does not depend on its alliance with Syria and neither does Russia’s. And while Hezbollah’s dependence may be the greatest, its involvement in Syria is actually serving to postpone its greatest existential challenge: whether it can ever fully evolve into a political entity, or whether it will always need weapons to compensate for a deficit in its popularity.

Without these three pillars of support, Assad is finished, and everyone knows that all four will not all rise or fall together.

Burns is right that Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria — but neither will the U.S. and its allies. That moment came and went last August.

So what’s left?

Assad rules Syria from the air and now more than ever through barrel bombs which plummet aimlessly from helicopters. This crude use of power utterly depends on the weakness of his opponent, but that may soon change.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, quoting Western and Arab diplomatic sources, reported that Saudi Arabia is about to supply Syrian rebel forces with “Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia”.

[I]f the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor.

“New stuff is arriving imminently,” said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the weapons deliveries.

Rebel commanders and leaders of the Syrian political opposition said they don’t know yet how many of the Manpads and antiaircraft missiles they will get. But they have been told it is a significant amount. The weapons are already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.

Earlier in the conflict, rebels managed to seize a limited number of Manpads from regime forces. But they quickly ran out of the missiles to arm them, the Western diplomat said.

Following the logic that more weapons means more violence, the supply of Manpads would have to be viewed as an unwelcome development. Moreover, no one can plausibly claim that Saudi Arabia has an interest in promoting democracy in the region. Yet assuming that the Manpads do in fact materialize, the most immediate and likely effect they will have is to bring a sudden end to the regime’s use of barrel bombs. Perhaps a broader shift in the balance of power will follow.

An end to this war depends less on finding enough people willing to give peace a chance than it does on changing the status quo.

And while some observers will always be inclined to see nefarious motives in all Saudi actions, their decision at this time, along with Washington’s quiet acquiescence, provides yet another telltale sign of AIPAC’s dwindling power.

The most vociferous opposition to Manpads circulating in Syria comes from Israel — which also happens to be the power that appears most content with a continuing stalemate.

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