I didn’t pay much attention to Syria until January 2013 when I met a young Syrian doctor in Cairo living in the same hostel I was staying in. His parents had sent him to Cairo to escape the bloody mess in Syria and to learn German so that he could qualify for a visa to travel to Germany where his uncle lives. My friend is still in Cairo, 9 months later, studying German and watching the horrors unfold back home. He taught me a lot about the situation on the ground in Syria.
I also met a Free Syria Army (FSA) fighter in Cairo. Yes, I did. He didn’t speak English but my young doctor-friend translated for us.
My FSA friend had transported a young female from Syria to Cairo and he was on his way back to Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had imprisoned and tortured this young woman for several months. She was an FSA ally and was released as part of a swap — the FSA released one of Assad’s men in exchange for her freedom. She struck me as a stoic and determined young woman who wanted to start her life again away from the violence in Syria.
My FSA friend told me about the atrocities occurring in Syria, about Assad’s brutality to innocent civilians, and about some of his activities as a freedom fighter. He showed me a picture of himself standing next to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and explained that he’d met with western leaders, including the US and UN, and asked for assistance (weapons) to fight against Assad. He said he received words of encouragement because everyone knew that Assad is evil, but no one was willing to step up to the plate and help the FSA.
By this time, I knew I must be speaking with one of the FSA leaders.
I asked him where the FSA was getting weapons if the US and the West weren’t helping. He shrugged his broad shoulders and told me that Al Qaeda and other extremist groups offered to help, what could they do? The West rejected their pleas for assistance.
In my mind, I divide the Syrian civil war into three groups —– the pro-Assad people, the anti-Assad FSA people, and the extremists. There is very good reason to believe that the FSA and the extremists are working separately and apart from each other.
President Obama spoke to the American people today and said he’s made two decisions — (1) he is going to strike Syria because he’s convinced that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, killing innocent men, women and children, and that despicable act must be punished; and (2) even though he believes he has the legal and constitutional authority to make the decision to strike Syria himself, he’s going to ask Congress for approval.
He wants a thoughtful debate, but left no doubt in the minds of the Syrians and the rest of the international community that he is prepared to strike tomorrow, the next day, the next week, the next month, with or without Congressional approval.
A thoughtful debate is indeed a breath of fresh air and a break from the past actions taken by so many of his predecessors. President Obama gets a standing ovation from me for seeking approval from Congress for use of military force in Syria. But a thoughtful debate requires something more than TV soundbites and protest signs in favor of peace.
The American public knows so little about Syria — I’m sure of it because I was completely baffled by the entire region just a few short months ago — and most of us don’t spend the time to learn much. I highly recommend this piece from the Washington Post that my son showed me today.
I plan to call Senators Udall and Heinrich and Congresswoman Lujan-Grisham and ask them to ask the Administration the following questions:
- Over 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the past 2 1/2 years in this civil war, most of them at the hands of Assad’s military, while chemical weapons killed 1,429 Syrians on August 21. Why does the use of chemical weapons warrant intervention when so many have been killed by conventional weapons? Is America more concerned about the weapons used against defenseless civilians rather than the loss of life? Are chemical weapons reason enough to go to war? Maybe the answer is yes! Chemical weapons are illegal under international law, conventional weapons are not. (See this good article about the history of the use of chemical weapons, maps, who has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.)
- Isn’t it hypocritical for the US to express outrage over the use of chemical weapons in Syria when the US turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of sarin gas against Iranian troops in 1988? Didn’t the US also turn a blind eye to Israel’s use of white phosphorus against Palestinian civilians in its Operation Cast Lead (Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009). International law restricts the use of white phosphorus during war. Why does the US pick and choose which atrocities to respond to?
- You have picked out the targets you want to strike, Mr. President, but what is the estimated “collateral damage” as a result of any airstrike? Don’t tell the American public that your weapons are precision-guided and leave us with the idea that it is a sterile, antiseptic cleansing of some bad, bad weapons without giving us the full picture of the 100s or 1000s of lives that will be loss as a result.
- What is the “end game”? The US strikes Syria, Syria responds, and then what?
- Is the Administration’s goal focused on punishing Assad (who may or may not have actually been responsible for the chemical attack) or is there a long-term goal in mind?
- Will an airstrike by the US weaken Assad’s military? Experts say it would not.
- Are there alternative measures that could be employed which punish Assad without killing civilians? (Hint: Look at the region and the distribution of oil and gas.)
- Are there links between the civil war in Syria and the Israeli occupation of Palestine? (Hint: The answer requires a good understanding of how Syria and Israel were created.)
- Should the US be working with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to revamp the rules of the Security Council? Is this an opportunity to do it? (Hint: Russia vetoes actions against Syria. The US vetoes actions against Israel. Maybe it’s time for the veto power to be eliminated on the Security Council and both sides could come to an agreement.)
- Have the weapons manufacturers provided counsel and recommendations to the White House regarding Syria? If yes, what advice?
- Has Netanyahu and/or AIPAC provided counsel and recommendations to the White House regarding Syria? If yes, what advice?
- Will there ever be peace in the region (Syria included) until the Israeli occupation of Palestine ends? (Hint: No)
- What is in the long-term (10-20-30 years) best interest of the U.S. in this region? (Hint: Stability)
I’m thinking of my Syrian doctor-friend sitting in Cairo today worried about his family and friends back home. I’m thinking of my FSA fighter-friend who wants peace and stability in his country. I’m wishing President Obama had met both of these intelligent young men.