Tag Archives: Stephen Zunes

Six Reasons for Not Bombing Syria

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and Coordinator of the Middle Eastern Studies Program.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and Coordinator of the Middle Eastern Studies Program.

President Barack Obama still plans to ask Congress for authorization to engage in military action against Syria if the Russian diplomatic initiative to place the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control fails.

As repressive as the Syrian regime is and as horrific as its apparent use of chemical weapons against its own people may be, authorizing U.S. air strikes would be a bad idea for the following reasons:


1) A U.S. military attack would be illegal.

According to the United Nations Charter, Article 2(4) makes it illegal for any country to use force (or threaten to use force) against another country, and Article 2(7) prohibits intervention in an internal or domestic dispute in another country. The only legal use of military force is self-defense if one’s country is under direct attack (Article 51), or in the event that the UN Security Council determines all peaceful means have been exhausted and specifically authorizes such use of force (Article 42). Having one country violate international law to punish another country for violating international law makes little sense. Furthermore, given that the UN Charter is an international treaty that has been signed and ratified by the United States, it is to be treated as supreme law, according to Article VI of the Constitution. Attacking Syria would therefore also be illegal under U.S. law, even if authorized by Congress.


2) There is little strategic rationale. 

Syria’s chemical weapons’ stockpiles would release large amounts of toxic gasses into the air, which could kill many thousands of people. Since there is no realistic way of eliminating their delivery systems either, there appears to be little strategic rationale. Furthermore, the threat of a U.S. attack in the event that the Syrian regime would use chemical weapons – a possibility first put forward by Obama more than a year ago – failed to deter last month’s attacks. Even if subjected to missile strikes in the coming weeks, there is little question that the regime would be willing to use them again and on a more massive scale, if its survival were threatened. Indeed, punitive air strikes rarely have worked, often leading to more serious acts of retaliation.


3) Military intervention likely would lead to more death and destruction. 

History is replete with examples of supposedly “limited” military actions that escalated dramatically. In addition, empirical studies have demonstrated repeatedly that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term, and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious than if there were no intervention. In addition, such military intervention often triggers a “gloves off” mentality that severely increases the violence on both sides, with the government believing they no longer had anything to lose and the rebels less prone to negotiate or compromise.


4) The United States has little credibility regarding chemical weapons.

In 2002, the leading administration and congressional backers for military action – John Kerry, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor, among others – categorically insisted that the Iraqi regime still had large and dangerous stockpiles of chemical weapons. Though their current claims about the Syrian regime are probably true, the false statements they and other top U.S. officials made about Iraq have severely weakened U.S. credibility in terms of alleged threats from chemical weapons. In addition, the United States has sought repeatedly to undermine multilateral approaches to the control of chemical weapons and weaken its enforcement agencies, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And, in 2007, the United States blocked a Syrian effort at the United Nations to impose a region wide ban on chemical weapons and other non-conventional weapons because it would have required U.S. allies Israel and Egypt to also rid themselves of such weapons.


5) A military attack likely would strengthen the Syrian regime.

Whatever strategic losses the Syrian regime may suffer, a U.S. attack could be more than made up by political gains. Any time a country is attacked from the outside, there is a rallying-around-the-flag effect. For decades, President Bashar Assad and his father have successfully manipulated the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism into support for their rule. U.S. support for the 46 years of Israeli occupation of the southwestern part of their country, along with U.S. attacks on Syrian forces in Lebanon during the 1980s and threats of “regime change” during the Bush era, have led to enormous resentment–even by opponents of the regime. Despite its horrific repression, the regime has convinced millions of Syrians that it is the last noble bastion of secular Arab nationalism resisting both Islamist extremism and Western imperialism. A U.S. attack would play right into that narrative.


6) The United States is isolated in the international community.

The Obama administration has very little support internationally for a unilateral strike. Despite the Syrian regime having very few remaining defenders in the international community, it appears that only France – the former colonial power – is seriously considering directly supporting U.S. military action. Unlike the 1999 bombing of Serbia, which had the support of most NATO countries, and the 2011 bombing of Libya, which had the support of most of the Arab League, neither of these organizations supports a U.S. bombing of Syria. Having the United States once again engaged in a war (in violation of international legal norms) against a much smaller country on the far side of the world can only strengthen anti-American sentiments and result in the further decline in the credibility and influence of the United States.

In 2012, Will Feinstein Answer for Iraq?

It appears U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is on her way to re-election, despite unanswered questions regarding her judgment and credibility as a result of her role ten years ago in pushing through the resolution that made possible the disastrous U.S. invasion, and subsequent war, in Iraq. The consequences of that illegal, unnecessary war remain with us to this day.

Prior to the vote, I had contacted the senator and explained how it was virtually impossible for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to have reconstituted his biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs. Citing reports from the United Nations, reputable think tanks, recognized arms control experts, and respected peer-reviewed academic journals, I thought I had made a convincing case that Iraq was no longer a threat to the United States or its neighbors.

Other scholars and arms control specialists made similar arguments. Indeed, Scott Ritter, the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, personally briefed the senator as to how Iraq had achieved qualitative disarmament and was no longer a threat.

However, Senator Feinstein still insisted that Iraq somehow remained a “consequential threat” to the national security of the United States, and insisted Iraq still possessed biological and chemical weapons. None were found.

Similarly, even though the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency had correctly noted in 1998 that Iraq’s nuclear program had been completely eliminated, Feinstein also falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein was still “engaged in developing nuclear weapons.” No nuclear program was found.

When asked at the time how she could make such claims despite any credible evidence, she insisted that she was somehow “privy to information that those in California are not.” However, despite repeated requests to make public what she was supposedly privy to, she has to this day refused to allow me or any other independent strategic analyst access to this supposed information.
To this day, Feinstein’s supporters insist that she didn’t lie.

They insist that her false claims about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” were just an honest mistake and the fact that Iraq happens to sit on one of the world’s largest supplies of oil is just a coincidence.

I was also among a number of scholars specializing in the Middle East who warned Senator Feinstein—correctly, as it turned out—that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would likely spark a disastrous armed insurgency, ethnic and religious tensions, and dramatically increased terrorism and anti-American extremism. Despite being made aware of the likely consequences, however, she insisted that the United States should invade Iraq anyway.

Feinstein acknowledged at the time of the resolution authorizing the invasion that calls and emails to her office were overwhelmingly opposed to her supporting President Bush’s war plans. Unfortunately, she decided to ignore her constituents and joined a right-wing minority of Democrats on Capitol Hill voting in favor of the resolution.

California voters must decide whether, under such circumstances, Senator Feinstein really deserves another six years in office.

Documetary Breaks Down Middle Eastern Stereotypes

On Nov. 17, Jean Marie Offenbacher presented her film Tea on the Axis of Evil, a portrayal of Syrian society. The film intended to bridge a growing disconnect between Americans and Middle Easterners in a post-9/11 climate of increased tensions between the two regions.

Offenbacher spent several months traveling throughout Syria with her camera to interview people. She hoped to break the stereotype of terrorist-inspired images portrayed by US media under the Bush administration.

Following the film, a panel of three USF professors, along with Offenbacher, answered questions and critiques.

Professor of Feminist Islamic Ethics, Dr. Aysha Hidayatullah, said it is challenging to produce a film about another culture without reinforcing preexisting frameworks. In this case, those frameworks are based on Orientalism – the Western attempt to construct the “truth” about the Middle East.

Dr. Hidayatullah said, “a film such as this illustrates that people’s preconceived notions of Syria as being ‘exotic’, ‘ancient’ and ‘barbaric’ are misled.” If people understand the film to show that Syrians are “just like us,” they fail to challenge the overall framework that leads to the stereotyping of “good” vs. “evil.”

Professor Annick Wibben, who teaches politics and international studies, said “Our pre-existing frameworks limit our options for responding to an event.”
With a strong focus on social responsibility, Wibeen added that  “so many of us [at USF] focus on helping others.” However, she said people must keep in mind the ethical dilemmas associated with changing the world.

Politics Professor Stephen Zunes, who is also the program director for Middle Eastern Studies, said Offenbacher captured the essence of Syrian society, which he remembers fondly from his many travels.  He questioned the filmmaker’s decision not to include political content. In his view, political and historical context is crucial to challenging the stereotypes that both Professor Wibben and Professor Hidayatullah addressed.
Responding to the panel discussion, Offenbacher concluded, “We have an obligation as Americans to see the parts of the world we are affecting.” She hopes the film can foster a connection, if not greater understanding between U.S. and Syrian citizens.
The film is available in the International Studies office.

Editor-in-Chief: Heather Spellacy

Chief Copy-Editor: Burke McSwain

News Editor: Ericka Montes