A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Why now? UPDATE

The Obama Administration's decision to send weapons (don't know what kind) to the Syrian Opposition (don't know which ones) makes you wonder what the president is thinking. This is unlikely to turn the tide against President Assad and his forces; it is unlikely to bring the government and the opposition to any negotiating table (no matter how hard Secretary Kerry begs them); and it is unlikely to gather many allies outside of England, France, and the Arab nations already supporting the opposition. If the administration really wants to stop the killing, it would not be adding to the supply of weapons in Syria. If Assad is going to win anyway, let it be soon and move on. Support the Iranian call for Syrian elections (which Assad would likely lose) and heed the Russian observation that claims of chemical weapons use can be legitimated only by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and not by U.S. intelligence services.

UPDATE: June 16. A thoughtful assessment, "The Commitment Ploy," by Paul Pilar: How Obama has been boxed in by advocates of war with Iran and secondarily, but necessarily with Syria. National Interest   HT, LobLog

UPDATE: June 15. A sobering assessment: "For nearly two years, the Obama administration has described the Syrian regime as having “lost all legitimacy” and “clinging to power.” And yet, it has surprisingly endured. That’s because neither assertion is really accurate. Mr. Assad still has strong support from many Syrians, including members of the Sunni urban class. While the assistance Syria receives from its external allies, like Iran and Russia, is important, it would be inconsequential if the Assad regime were not backed by a significant portion of the population." And goes on with several points on the many errors of the Obama Administration in Syria.  From NYTime Opinion page.

Iranian Troops to Syria!? Robert Fisk: "The Independent on Sunday has learned that a military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years.  Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel.

"In years to come, historians will ask how America – after its defeat in Iraq and its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for  2014 – could have so blithely aligned itself with one side in a titanic Islamic struggle stretching back to the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohamed."


About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Excellent!  And why do the words "weapons of mass destruction" come to mind as I

read your comments about the claimed use of chemical weapons?

To allow the war to become a small arms stalemate might be the better  solution because all obsevers claim a victory by either side will result in a genocide. Two years of war is not enough killing for people who would execute a teenage coffee vender for blasphamy who was overheard when asked for free coffee saying he would even make Mohammad pay for his own  coffee.

As long as Assad is winning the ground war, which he is, he has no reason to hold free elections or negotitate with the opposition. The rebels do not have the kind of weapons to defend themselves against air strikes, tanks and heavy artillery. Making matters worse is fighting Hezbollah.

The U.S. is between a rock and a hard place. The strongest element within the rebels is the Al Quida element, and there are no guarantees that U.S. weapons will not get into their hands. Equally perplexing and uncertain is whether the rebels will be friendly with the U.S. even if they win the war with Assad. Consider what is going on in Egypt.

It is clear that something has to be done in Syria for humnitarian reasons. The homes, farms and small businesses of thousands of innocent Syrians have been destroyed, many have lost their husbands to this war, leaving these families with nothing but fear. As a result, millions of Syrians have migrated to Lebanon and Jordan creating instability for both the migrants and the countries in question. More importantly, there are serious food, shelter and health-medical issues, not to mention the longer term status of these migrants. 

Nothing is going to be done unless Assad is pressured into international negotiations, and this means that the life of Assad and his government leaders must sense a severe threat to their own survivibility. Does anyone doubt that Assad would not use chemical weapons again if he senses losing the ground war? Nevertheless, arming the rebels and providing consulting and other assistance, not boots on the ground, has serious risks but few alternative options.  I seriously doubt that any U.N. coalition will be assembled since Russia and many other European countries have no appetite for another Afganistan. We run the risk of Assad crushing the rebels and killing thousands more innocent lives, or running the risk of arming the rebels only to end up with a govenment that would result in more instability in the region, and another problem for the U.S. and Israel.

A political solution is the only solution, but this does not seem to be a viable option in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the U.S. must act now.



I say help with the expenses for refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan. And if some say US must act in the war, I ask  why no one asks about Sweden, Brazil and Japan etc.

Sweden is being asked to augment the UN Peacekeeping Forces that separate Syria and Israel; the Austrians have pulled out. Does Brazil have an army? And the Japanese army can't serve outside of its own territory. But Egyptian imams have ordered trained able-bodied men to join the jihadis in Syria! 

Will this end in exhaustion for all sides and 300,000 dead? Looking that way. Russia is the key and they are not likely to withdraw their support for Assad.

Egyptian President Morsi jumps in with four feet:

He said "he had cut all diplomatic ties with Damascus on Saturday and demanded Hezbolllah leave Syria.... 

"Morsi also urged world powers not to hesitate to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria on Saturday, in a move that threw the backing of the most populous Arab state firmly behind behind the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"Morsi also warned Assad's allies in the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'ite militia to pull back from fighting in Syria: "We stand against Hezbollah in its aggression against the Syrian people," Morsi said. "Hezbollah must leave Syria - these are serious words. There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria."

More Sunni sectarianism? Or?


I fear that slowly and almost inexorably the US will increasingly become involved in this dispute although there is no strategic or national interest supporting it.

i recall that you drew an analogy to the seeming inconsequential assassination of the archduke in Serbia. That started WW I.

There seems to be no logic, or if there is I fail to see it, associated with all this sabre rattling and worse!

i would be surprised if the US wasn't already supplying arms. I am sure they are. So the translation for that must mean tactical air support, intelligence, sophisticated detection devices, etc.

If we do not want to see a total bloodbath, then "boots on the ground" is the logical trajectory of this entirely illogical situation.



Little honored or even remembered now are the glory days of the United Arab Republic, when Egypt and Syria were one country.

Or better the peaceful days of the Ottoman Empire!!

When there is no clear objective for taking part in military action, then is it not contrary to the spirit of traditional just war doctrine to become a party to this conflict? If there is a CLEAR objective, nobody seems to know what it is.

Here from the op-ed piece I posted above (June 15): "The Syrian revolution isn’t democratic or secular; the more than 90,000 fatalities are the result of a civil war, not a genocide — and human rights violations have been committed on both sides."

The idea that this is a civil war is almost never considered in news stories or in the speeches of  Washington politicians. That could mean, as the author, Ramzi Mardini, points out that an opposition "victory" would mean further fighting. His emphasis on the support Assad retains may have nothing to do with affection for his regime as fear about what is likely to follow. Again, the link: "Bad Idea, Mr. President"

George D, 6/16, 2:14 AM: Have just finished the book I was alluding to with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (actually  in Bosnia by Serbian terrorists). It's an incredibly fascinating and thorough history of how WWI broke out. I hope to write about it soon.

In the meantime, the lesson is that the event on June 28, 1914, set off a chain of decisions based at least in part on the idea that something, anything, had to be done about it, with little forethought of the consequences. According to Wiki, the war started one month later on July 28, when Austria-Hungary fired on Serbia (however, this book The Sleepwalkers suggests a more complex series of mobilizations that actually began with Russia). I gather that one of the enduring historiographical questions is who really started the war?

Margaret - in fact, Barbara Tuchman's masterful, The Guns of August, lays out exactly what you are referencing - and did som decades ago.  This latest book make chronicle in minute detail the complicated national mobilizations and other petty incidents (besides the Archduke's assassination) but, this approach and theory was laid out perfectly by Ms. Tuchman.

Since Tuchman's book was published over 50 years ago!! (1962), I am going to guess that this new effort to explain things will have taken advantage of the 100 years (since 1914) of historical study. Maybe it is just filling in the blanks, but I suspect there is more here.

Here's the NYTimes review of the book (and another):  The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

The peaceful days of the Ottoman Empire? Empires steal the unfolding histories of weaker people. When the empires disappear, people without a history have to catch up, often with great conflic.  In this tragedy, we have four empires: the Ottoman, the British, the French, and the American. The victorious British and French divided up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, seeking their own purposes. Winston Churchill was a real villain in this story. Recognizing that the future was in oil, and seeking an easier way to India, he set up future tragedies. For instance, instead of giving the Kurds their own nation, he divided them up among the Turks, the Iraqis, and the Iranians. Now, the world's only standing Empire is trying to control the future of the Middle East.

I agree with ed gleason.  President Obama should look before he leaps into the Syrian civil war.

I was absolutely sickened and shocked while watching Bill Maher's Real Time last Friday on HBO.  He showed video clips of a so-called Syrian "rebel leader" who was craving-up a dead corpse's chest, removed the heart, and lustfully took a bite of the dead man's heart.

These are the people, the "rebels" who oppose the Assad regime, that John McCain wants to send massive US military aid???  NO WAY!  McCain must be off his medication, again.  These madmen "rebels" in Syria are affiliated with Al Qaeda, for God's sake!

The only thing that choosing sides with the "rebels" in the Syrian civil war would do, like what happened in Iraq, is that Iran would be strengthen, Russia's ally in the region would be confirmed and enhanced, and Hezbollah would be emboldened.  [If I remember correctly when the Israelis attempted to knock-out Hezbollah in Lebannon - that what a military intervention would be like - with all their American-supplied weaponry and technology, they got their butts kicked and scurried home to Tel Aviv with their tails between their legs.]

What are the American strategic interests for any military intervention in Syria at this time???

I would take anything Bill Maher says or presents with several large grains of salt. He and Ann Coulter should both be stranded on an island together.....each is like fingernails scratching on boards...Eeeck.

But, on to the point, I would be careful of propaganda from either side. I am of Croatian descent on my dad's side and remember my grandfather saying that the whole area is crazy and I believe it! Deep animosity and hatred from both sides, in any conflict, causes people to dehumanize each other. Human nature is human nature.

The best thing the international community can do is to arrange for a cease fire and request a fair and free election. Picking sides is a fool's errand.

But, I fear, the situation has so deteriorated that there is nothing that can be done. Leave the rebels to their fate. Work with Assad. As heartless as it sounds, Syria is of no strategic or national interest and the human rights justification always leaves me uneasy (it did with Kosovo too). 

The devil you know is better than the devil you don't.

"Deep animosity and hatred from both sides, in any conflict, causes people to dehumanize each other."

George D. --

It is just so hard to believe that such dehumanization can really happen.  But it does.  Compare the shocking  testimony on the stand yesterday in Boston by the hit man who blithely admitted to 20 murders.  It is hard for most of us to imagine it.  

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment