How to slow down the rush to war: What Obama should do about Syria


The tragic dilemma we now face is that the murderous Assad regime in Syria should have been overthrown long ago, but the U.S. has no moral standing or credibility to be the agent of that overthrow.  

The U.S. interest in Syria is not perceived by much of the world as a human rights interest. If the U.S. cared about human rights, it would not have armed Saddam Hussein after he gassed the Kurds in Iraq, it would not still be arming the Egyptian military after its coup and murder of thousands, it would not be arming Israel without demanding that Israel end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and create a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. The U.S., finally, would not have waited until one hundred thousand Syrians were killed to begin contemplating action against Assad. 

Neither can nor should we be indifferent while watching as civilians are systematically murdered. The planet has shrunk to a size where we are in fact responsible for each other’s well-being and we must take that responsibility seriously.

What is needed is different strategic approach, an approach which is grounded in an expanded sense of moral imagination. Instead of trying to right every wrong at the moment, the U.S. should be involved in a global strategy to relieve the huge suffering of people on this planet. 

Slow down the rush to militarism and instead let Obama use this moment to forge a whole new direction for the US’s role in the world. Congress would be wise to hold town hall meetings in every Congressional district to discuss the range of options  before voting to support a military intervention.

In the fierce urgency of the current crisis in Syria, in which the U.N. is blocked from acting decisively because Russia and China will use their vetoes against any action that imperils Assad, President Obama should call a conclave of the world’s other countries, all of them, and let them together decide on what should be done with regard to saving the people of Syria from its rogue regime. The specific use of chemical weapons should be referred to the World Court for possible trial of whoever is responsible for that use in Syria.

Meanwhile, the deliberations of a world conclave should be open to the public, democratic, and not controlled by the United States or other Western powers, or any one group. Let that body decide whether there should be an intervention, and if so, led by whom, with what short term and long-term goals, and what mechanisms to ensure those goals are achieved. This creates a de facto global forum such as the UN should have been, by eliminating the ability of the Great Powers to veto any decisions made by the people of the world. Hopefully, that global forum will come up with non-violent ways to hasten the end of the Assad regime. But if that body decides on an intervention, the Obama Administration should decide if it can bring the U.S. population along with that, in part by conducting public fora throughout the U.S. focused on the call for an intervention issued by the nations of the world participating in that open and democratic meeting. And if the people of the U.S. support it, then the U.S. should be part of that international intervention.

Clumsy? Undoubtedly. Postponing immediate action? Certainly. But this path would  create a precedent precisely because it would slow down the hunger for more violence. It would allow the people of the world to introduce into that global forum the possibility of a different kind of logic in world affairs, a logic based on recognizing our mutual interdependence and mutual responsibility for the well-being of all.

This plan is not perfect, as many will readily point out. The governments of the world often do not actually represent their people, but often only an elite of wealth and power. The killing in Syria would not be stopped while the process went on. However, the Obama administration has all but explicitly said that the symbolic action they will take will not stop the killing either, nor would it overthrow the Assad government.

If President Obama were to use this moment to teach the world and the US about a new direction in dealing with the forces of evil, he could take his place among the great peacemakers of the human race.  

In the fierce urgency of this moment we must look beyond the tired options and rhetoric that have brought us to this place. The options are only limited by the narrow visions of the elite and the powerful. The options are only limited by a discourse and set of assumptions that should have been replaced many decades if not centuries ago. If not now, when?


Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University and author most recently of Justice in the City.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (which has developed a detailed plan for a Global Marshall Plan at www.tikkun.org/GMP).  He is the author most recently of Embracing Israel/Palestine.

Russia, China express alarm after Israel hits Syria


Russia and China expressed alarm on Monday over the regional repercussions of two Israeli air raids on Syria, while Israel played down strikes which its officials said targeted Iranian missiles bound for Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

Oil prices spiked above $105 a barrel, their highest in nearly a month, on Monday morning as the air strikes on Friday and Sunday prompted fears of a wider spillover of Syria's two-year-old civil war that could affect Middle East oil exports.

Israel, whose prime minister visited China on Monday in a sign of business-as-usual, sought to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that the air strikes did not aim to weaken him and dismissed the prospects of an escalation.

“There are no winds of war,” Yair Golan, the general commanding Israeli forces on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, told reporters while out jogging with troops.

“Do you see tension? There is no tension. Do I look tense to you?” he said, according to the Maariv NRG news website.

The attacks hit targets manned by Assad's elite troops in the Barada River valley and Qasioun Mountain, residents, activists and opposition military sources said. They included a compound linked to Syria's chemical weapons programme, air defences and Republican Guards' facilities, the sources said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 soldiers were killed and 100 more were missing, while other opposition sources put the death toll at 300 soldiers.

Russia said it was concerned the chances of foreign military intervention in Syria were growing, suggesting its worry stemmed in part from media reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict that has killed 70,000 people.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the reported air strikes “caused particular alarm”.

“The further escalation of armed confrontation sharply increases the risk of creating new areas of tension, in addition to Syria, in Lebanon, and the destabilisation of the so-far relatively calm atmosphere on the Lebanese-Israeli border.”

Assad's government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist “terrorists” and said the strikes “open the door to all possibilities”. It said many civilians had died.

IRAN

Israel has not confirmed the attack officially, but has reinforced anti-missile batteries in the north. Israeli officials said that, as after a similar attack in the same area in January, they were calculating Assad would not pick a fight with a well-armed neighbour while preoccupied with survival.

Syria would be no match for U.S. ally Israel in any direct military showdown. But Damascus, with its leverage over Lebanon's Hezbollah, could still consider proxy attacks through Lebanon.

Israeli officials said the raids were not connected with Syria's civil war but aimed at stopping Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, acquiring weapons to strike Israeli territory if Israel were to attack Iranian nuclear sites.

Iran denies Israeli and Western accusations that it is bent on acquiring atomic weapons – a long-running dispute that now threatens to intersect with the bloody strife in Syria.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied Israel's attack was on arms. Shi'ite Hezbollah did not comment.

China, hosting Netanyahu, urged restraint and the respect of sovereignty, without mentioning Israel by name. Moscow and Beijing, allies of Assad, have blocked Western-backed measures against Assad at the United Nations Security Council.

A U.S. official said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to see if he could persuade Moscow to support U.S. peace efforts.

Following the air strikes, the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all sides “to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict”.

The military in Turkey, one of Assad's most vocal critics and home to more than 400,000 refugees from the civil war that grew out of protests against his rule, launched a 10-day military exercise on Monday at a base near the border.

The violence in Syria has inflamed wider regional tensions between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni-ruled Arab states, some of them close allies of the West.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain said on Sunday that the Israeli air strikes could add pressure on Washington to intervene in Syria, although President Barack Obama has said he has no plans to send ground troops.

After Friday's raid, Obama defended Israel's right to block “terrorist organisations like Hezbollah” from acquiring weapons. A U.S. intelligence official said on Sunday Washington was not given any warning before the air strikes.

Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Michael Martina in Beijing, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff

Russia warns West over Syria after Obama threats


Russia warned the West on Tuesday against unilateral action on Syria, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama threatened “enormous consequences” if his Syrian counterpart used chemical or biological arms or even moved them in a menacing way.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after meeting China’s top diplomat, said Moscow and Beijing were committed to “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law…and not to allow their violation”.

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, also speaking in Moscow, dismissed Obama’s threat as media fodder.

“Direct military intervention in Syria is impossible because whoever thinks about it … is heading towards a confrontation wider than Syria’s borders,” he told a news conference.

Jamil said the West was seeking an excuse to intervene, likening the focus on Syria’s chemical weapons with the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led forces on what proved to be groundless suspicions that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction.

Russia and China have opposed military intervention in Syria throughout a 17-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. They have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions backed by Western and Arab states that would have put more pressure on Damascus to end violence that has cost 18,000 lives.

In one of the latest battle zones, Syrian troops and tanks overran the Damascus suburbs of Mouadamiya on Tuesday, killing at least 20 young men and burning shops and houses before pulling back, residents and opposition activists said.

The bodies of the men, mostly shot at point-blank range, were found in basements and looted premises, bringing to 50 the death toll from the army’s two-day-old offensive to drive rebels from the Sunni Muslim suburb in the southwest of the capital.

“People are just starting to get out of their homes to see the destruction,” said one activist who gave her name as Hayat.

Opposition sources said Free Syrian Army rebels left Mouadamiya at dawn under heavy aerial and ground bombardment.

State-imposed curbs on media made it impossible to verify the reports of the violence, which followed another bloody day on Monday, when about 200 people were killed across the country, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“RED LINE”

The United States and its allies have shown little appetite for intervention to halt the bloodshed on the lines of last year’s NATO campaign that helped topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

But Obama used some of his strongest language yet on Monday to warn Assad not to use unconventional weapons.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is (if) we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus.”

Syria last month acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical or biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries attacked it.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said, perhaps referring to Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah group, an Iranian-backed ally of Assad, or to Islamist militants.

The U.S.-based Global Security website says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria producing the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun. It does not cite its sources.

Israel, still formally at war with Syria, has also debated whether to attack the unconventional arms sites which it views as its gravest peril from the conflict next door.

Obama has been reluctant to embroil the United States in another war in the Middle East and refuses to arm Syrian rebels, partly for fear that some of those fighting the Iranian-backed president are Islamist radicals equally hostile to the West.

Rebels have seized swathes of territory in northern Syria near Turkey, which now hosts 70,000 Syrian refugees and which has suggested that the United Nations might need to create a “safe zone” in Syria if that total topped 10,000.

But setting up a safe haven would require imposing a no-fly zone, an idea which U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week was not a “front-burner” issue for Washington.

With diplomatic efforts to end the war stymied by divisions between world powers and regional rivalries, Syria faces the prospect of a prolonged conflict that increasingly sets a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against Assad’s Alawite minority.

That sectarian faultline also flared in neighboring Lebanon, where two people were killed and more than 60 wounded in the northern port city of Tripoli, a mainly Sunni city with a staunchly pro-Assad Alawite minority.

Gunmen in the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and their Alawite rivals in Jebel Mohsen exchanged gun and grenade fire in sporadic fighting overnight and into the day, despite action by Lebanese army troops deployed in the port city, residents said.

The wounded included 10 soldiers, the army said.

Additional reporting by Nazih Siddiq in Tripoli, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Death, grief in Syrian village, U.S. cries “murder”


Graphic scenes of grief and death in a Syrian village bore witness on Friday to a massacre President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents say was the work of his troops and militia allies, drawing words of outrage from the outside world.

There was “indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, demanding access for U.N. observers who on Thursday had been spectators to hours of bombing and gunfire, but were kept out of the village by Syrian troops.

Yet with much unclear about the precise events at Tremseh – where activists put the death toll anywhere between over 100 and more than twice that number – and with world powers as divided as ever, there was little response beyond the rhetorical.

“I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and shelling of populated areas, including by firing from helicopters,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, adding that it cast “serious doubt” on Assad’s recent commitment to Ban’s envoy’s peace plan.

The U.N. special envoy, Kofi Annan, condemned “atrocities”, as video evidence of casualties from Thursday’s attack on the village in rebellious Hama province emerged on the Web.

The White House said such violence cost Assad the legitimacy to remain as leader. Clinton said: “Those who committed these atrocities will be identified and held accountable.”

Annan was “shocked and appalled” at “intense fighting, significant casualties, and the confirmed use of heavy weaponry such as artillery, tanks and helicopters” in the village.

Calling it a “grim reminder” that U.N. resolutions calling for peace were being flouted, he wrote to the United Nations Security Council urging it to penalize Syria for failing to comply. But in the Council, Western powers still face objections from Russia and China to their efforts to push Assad from power.

Said Clinton: “History will judge this Council. Its members must ask themselves whether continuing to allow the Assad regime to commit unspeakable violence against its own people is the legacy they want to leave.”

BATTLE REPORTS

A local activist named Ahmed told Reuters there were 60 bodies at the mosque, of whom 20 were identified: “There are more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses.”

There was no independent account of the battle, which the government described as a massacre by “terrorist groups”.

Some opposition activists said over 220 people died when Tremseh was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks, then stormed by men from neighboring villages in what they portrayed as a sectarian attack on Sunnis by Assad’s fellow Alawites.

Others said the death toll in Thursday’s attack may have been less but was certainly over 100, which would make Tremseh one of the worst atrocities of the 17-month revolt against Assad and the 42-year-old family dynasty established by his father.

Syrian state television said there was fighting in Tremseh and accused “armed terrorist groups” of committing a massacre there, but gave no death toll. The rebel forces also said there was a battle and the U.N. military representative confirmed it.

U.N. monitors, who have been frustrated in overseeing a truce brokered by Annan in April but much abused since then, tried to reach the scene on Thursday. But they said in a report to their Geneva headquarters that they were stopped by Syrian officers who cited “military operations”.

From various points around Tremseh, over eight hours, they logged more than 100 explosions and rifle and heavy machinegun fire. They also saw a helicopter firing air-to-ground rockets.

Opposition video segments posted on YouTube provided evidence that dozens had met a violent death.

One piece of film to appear on the Internet showed the corpses of 15 young men with faces or shirts drenched in blood. Most wore T-shirts and jeans. There were no women or children.

Other videos showed rows of bodies wrapped in blankets, sheets and makeshift shrouds, some leaking blood. One man pulled aside a blanket to display a carbonized corpse. Men placed wrapped bodies in a breeze-block trench for burial.

In a mosque packed with grieving women and distraught men, bodies were collected, identified and prepared. Children stepped gingerly among the corpses covering the floor.

ATROCITIES CONDEMNED

“A regime has decided to use force to crush its own people,” said French President Francois Hollande. He said he was “telling the Russians and the Chinese” that by refusing tougher sanctions they would let “chaos and war take hold in Syria” in way that ran counter to the interests of Moscow and Beijing themselves.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said reports of the massacre were credible and required an international response.

UN monitors must get into Tremseh urgently to find out what happened, Hague said, and the United Nations Security Council must agree to a Chapter VII resolution with teeth that can impose sanctions if Assad fails to fulfill commitments made under Annan’s peace plan, to withdraw troops from residential areas.

Chapter VII allows the world body to take action ranging from sanctions to military intervention. But Russia and China have used veto powers so far to block such a resolution.

“Tragically, we now have another grim reminder that the Council’s resolutions continue to be flouted,” Annan wrote to the Council. Recalling his request for Syria to suffer consequences for non-compliance, he said: “This is imperative and could not be more urgent in light of unfolding events.”

Russia, which will host Annan for talks next week, called for an inquiry into events at Tremseh: “This wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil,” the foreign ministry said.

“ETHNIC CLEANSING”

Hama’s revolutionary movement said what happened to Tremseh was a case of ethnic cleansing.

The Sunni Muslim village lies in flat farmland. Access had been cut off for six months by army roadblocks. Tremseh is ringed by six hilltop villages of the Alawite minority which has dominated Syria for four decades under the Assads. They provided the militia who carried out the lethal purge, the movement said.

In a report, it said 200 buses, army trucks, tanks and other armored vehicles besieged the town in the morning and five helicopters were counted when the bombardment began.

Rebels from nearby rushed to defend the village and the ensuing battle went on for seven hours. After the dust settled, at least 150 bodies were collected from under the rubble and from surrounding farmland and from the Orontes river.

Forty were summarily executed, 30 burnt beyond recognition, it said. Three families were hacked to death.

“We can verify continuous fighting yesterday in the area of Tremseh,” said United Nations monitoring mission chief General Robert Mood. “This involved mechanized units, indirect fire, as well as helicopters.”

U.N. monitors were ready to “go in and seek verification of facts if and when there is a credible ceasefire”, he added.

The Tremseh battle took place as the U.N. Security Council began negotiating a potentially crucial new resolution on Syria. Washington wants tougher action, but Russia again ruled out such a step. Further meetings were held in New York on Friday.

The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that over 150 people had been killed on Thursday in Tremseh and across Hama province, most of them in the village massacre.

The Observatory listed 100 victims by name, among them dozens of rebel fighters. Over 30 of the dead were completely burned, it said, and some were killed with clubs and knives.

On Friday, activists said at least two Palestinian men were killed on Friday when Syrian security forces opened fire on an anti-Assad protests in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.

Additional by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Homs shelled as Syria demands ‘neutral’ U.N. mission


Syria challenged the United Nations chief over the size and scope of a U.N. truce monitoring mission on Wednesday, resisting a larger presence as its army shelled targets in the city of Homs in violation of the ceasefire.

Despite the seven-day-old truce agreement between government and rebel forces, explosions rocked the battered Khalidiyah quarter of Homs as the army resumed what has become a daily barrage of heavy mortar shelling, and plumes of black smoke drifted over the rooftops.

In northern Idlib province, six members of the security forces were killed by a bomb placed by an “armed terrorist group”, state news agency SANA said. It was the second such attack in two days.

While the truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week, in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, the army has kept up attacks on rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Beijing that no more than 250 truce monitors were needed, and they should come from what he called “neutral” countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of which have been more sympathetic to Assad than the West and the Arab League states.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to present proposals for the next phase of the mission on Wednesday to the Security Council. He says more monitors are needed for credible supervision of the truce in a country the size of Syria in the 13th month of a conflict marked by extreme violence and over 10,000 deaths.

An advance party of a half a dozen U.N. peacekeepers in blue berets, led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, toured towns near Damascus on Wednesday in two white U.N. Land Cruisers with a Syrian police escort.

In Erbin their convoy was mobbed by anti-government protesters who chanted demands to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. A banner was plastered on one U.N. car reading: “The butcher continues killings. The observers continue observing, and the people continue with their revolution. We only bow to God.”

With the flashpoint cities in Syria scattered over several hundred kilometers, Ban said he had asked the European Union if it can supply helicopters and planes to make the proposed monitoring mission rapidly and independently mobile, but Moualem said Syria would supply air transport if necessary.

A political source in neighboring Lebanon said Damascus has already refused the use of U.N. helicopters.

The West has shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping mission that might require 50,000 troops or more. Russia and China, Syria’s powerful friends on the Security Council, have made clear they would block a U.N. mandate to use force. They are likely to back Damascus as the terms of the mission are thrashed out later this week.

Assad says Syria is under attack by foreign-backed terrorist and that for their own safety, the unarmed observers would have to coordinate every step of their operation with Syrian security to protect them from “armed gangs”.

STILL NO PULLBACK

The rebel Free Syrian Army fighting to topple Assad says it will stop shooting if he keeps his pledge to U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw tanks, heavy weapons and troops from urban areas, which critics say he clearly has not done since the truce took effect a week ago.

Apart from the shelling of targets in Homs, the city at the heart of the revolt, troops have swept towns and villages in raids to arrest suspected opponents of Assad. Activists say scores of people have been killed since the ceasefire officially came into force last Thursday.

Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that four law enforcement members and a civilian were killed on Tuesday when “an armed terrorist group threw a bomb at a bus” in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city after the capital, Damascus.

It said terrorists were attacking and killing loyalist troops in their homes and kidnapping judges.

Internet video showed what anti-Assad activists said was renewed shelling of Homs shortly after dawn on Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group opposed to Assad, reported explosions and heavy gunfire in the southern city of Deraa early on Wednesday. It confirmed the five killed by a bomb in Aleppo.

ADVANCE PARTY

Ban said on Tuesday that the ceasefire was being “generally observed”, though there was still violence. He said the 250 observers Assad will accept would be “not enough, considering the current situation and the vastness of the country”.

Annan delivered a status report to Arab League ministers, who called on Assad to let the U.N. observers do their job.

“We fully support Mr Annan and his six-point plan, but sadly, the killing still goes on,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told reporters after the meeting. “We are fearful that the regime is playing for time. We expressed this to Mr Annan.”

Equipment for the mission, including vehicles, is already being transported to Syria via Beirut from a U.N. logistics base in Brindisi, Italy.

Diplomats say Annan’s main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria’s supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job.

TIME TO ARM THE REBELS?

The mission must have Syrian consent, and Moualem said “this commitment does not cancel out the right to self defense and appropriate response against any attack on government forces, infrastructure, civilians and private or state property”.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria’s powerful, Russian-armed forces, but other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war, threatening the wider region.

Russia is also critical of Western and Arab states backing the Syrian opposition-in-exile in the “Friends of Syria” group.

France said it would host a foreign ministers meeting of the group on Thursday in Paris, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to discuss the fragile ceasefire.

Western sanctions have halved Syria’s foreign reserves and should be stepped up to force Damascus to comply with the U.N.-backed peace plan, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told officials from 57 countries meeting in Paris.

Additional reporting by Ayat Basma and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Will Waterman