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As Strikes on Syria Loom, Is U.S. Ignoring a Diplomatic Track That Could Prevent More Violence?

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Britain is set to introduce a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military action in Syria as the United States and allies gear up for expected strikes on the Assad regime. The resolution condemns the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons and authorizes “necessary measures for protecting civilians.” Russia and China are expected to issue a veto, raising the prospect that a U.S.-led bombing could come through NATO. The Obama administration says military action in Syria would be aimed at responding to chemical attacks, not seeking regime change, but critics say similar claims were made at the outset of the NATO intervention in Libya. “There is no military solution,” says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. “Extra assaults from the United States are going to make the situation worse, put Syrian civilians at greater risk, and not provide protection.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Britain is set to introduce a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military action in Syria as the U.S. and allies gear up for expected strikes on the Assad regime. The resolution condemns the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons, and authorizes, quote, “necessary measures for protecting civilians.”

The resolution is being introduced as the Obama administration considers launching air strikes against Syria. The United States already has four Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea with capacity to hit Syria with cruise missiles. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said forces are “ready” to launch strikes.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: President Obama has asked the Defense Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that. And, again, we are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to a veterans’ group in Houston, Vice President Joe Biden said there could be no doubt as to who was responsible for deploying chemical weapons.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There is no doubt who was responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria—the Syrian regime—for we know that the Syrian regime are the only ones who have the weapons, have used chemical weapons multiple times in the past, have the means of delivering those weapons, have been determined to wipe out exactly the places that were attacked by chemical weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. and British push for military action against Syria is facing opposition. Russia and China are expected to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, quote, “attempts at a military solution will lead only to the further destabilization,” unquote, in Syria and the region. The Arab League has also declined to back a retaliatory military strike against Syria.

Earlier today, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said any U.S. military action would need to be approved by the U.N. Security Council. Brahimi said, quote, “International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said a U.N. team investigating the alleged chemical attack must be given time to establish the facts about what happened last week when hundreds of civilians were killed on the outskirts of Damascus. Ban said, quote, “Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop acting and start talking.”

On Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem categorically denied the regime used chemical weapons.

FOREIGN MINISTER WALID MOUALEM: [translated] They said that the Syrian army used this weapon, although I have denied this to Kerry. I say there is no country in the world that will use weapons of mass destruction against its people. I dare those who accuse our army to show the evidence that we used this weapon.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Syria, we’re joined now by Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has written a number of books, including Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power. Her new piece in The Nation magazine blog is entitled “Moral Obscenities in Syria.”

Phyllis, welcome back to Democracy Now! What evidence has the U.S. or Britain presented showing that the Syrian government definitively used chemical weapons in the attack in Ghouta?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: So far, no evidence has been presented as to who carried out this attack. The reports that are coming—that will come from the U.N. inspectors will not include an investigation of who carried out the attack. Their mandate is quite narrow: just to find out what was used; was it indeed a chemical weapon, as is assumed but not certainly proven yet? But they will not be bringing in evidence of who carried it out. There was a report yesterday in Yedioth Ahronoth, the Israeli mass daily, claiming that it was Israeli officials who provided the Obama administration with what is considered by Obama’s people, apparently, to be definitive proof that it was the regime in Syria. We have yet to see any of that information. So far, it is simply the assertion by Vice President Biden, by—implied by Secretary Kerry and others, that there is evidence. It has not been seen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phyllis Bennis, what kind of legal justification then do you think that the Obama administration might use for this? And what kinds of options are available to him?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, you know, the decision to go to the Security Council, that the British are doing today, is, as you mentioned earlier, guaranteed to get a veto, certainly by Russia, likely by China, as well, although it’s conceivable China could abstain, but they’re likely to veto. They may not even get nine sufficient votes.

But what’s dangerous here is that the United Nations Charter, which is the fundamental component of international law governing issues of war and peace, is very, very clear on what constitutes the legal use of military force. There is no question that having used chemical weapons—whoever used it—is a huge war crime. It’s a specific violation of the chemical weapons treaty. It’s also a war crime or potentially even a crime against humanity. The problem is, we don’t know yet who is responsible.

The U.S. is hinting that it may use the Kosovo precedent of 1999 as a way to get around the prohibition—the absolute prohibition—on using military force unless it is immediate self-defense, which no one in Washington is claiming that the use of these horrible weapons in Syria somehow threatens the United States—so that’s off the table—or that the Security Council agrees, which we know is not going to happen. The Kosovo precedent basically said in 1999, “We know we can’t get support from the Security Council, Russia will veto; therefore, we won’t ask the Security Council, we’ll ask the NATO high command.” So they went to NATO, and, what a surprise, the NATO high command said, “Yes, we approve the use of military force in Kosovo.”

Now, the problem is twofold. One, NATO is a military structure. It’s like a hammer and a nail. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’re NATO, everything looks like it requires a military response. The other problem is legal. There is simply no legal justification that says that the NATO high command or any other organization has the right to determine the legality of the use of force other than the U.N. Security Council. So if that is the justification, it will stand in complete violation of international law.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking Tuesday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney ruled out regime change as one of the goals of possible military intervention.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: The options that we are considering are not about regime change. They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: That is White House spokesperson Jay Carney, Phyllis Bennis. So what is the goal of this attack? I mean, it is clear from what they’re saying that they wouldn’t be attacking the chemical weapons stockpiles, but the Syrian military, but they’re saying they’re not trying to take out the military, and they’ve said that within the rebels are al-Qaeda forces, as well. So what is the goal here?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, it seems that the goal is a political goal. It’s to make a statement: “Oh, my god, I used a red line. I said there was a red line, I have to do something.” And the only, quote, “something” that seems to be available is a military action.

So, they say it’s not the goal of regime change, but if we recall, they said the same thing about Libya. The goal wasn’t regime change; the goal was to degrade the capacity to attack civilians. Well, it may, but most military analysts that we’re hearing from these days say it will not prevent future attacks.

Crucially, this kind of a military strike, which military analysts today in The New York Times admitted, from the Pentagon, that it may well hit civilians, because they don’t have very good control over cruise missiles about where they hit. It may well hit civilians. They’re saying that even now, days before they use those missiles. The goal is one thing; the accomplishment is something else. And I think that the danger here is that there will be enormous numbers, potentially, maybe small numbers if people are lucky, but there will be civilian casualties. This is a political reality that can spin completely out of control and lead to massive escalations.

We have to look at the what-ifs. What if there is some kind of military retaliation by the Syrian government, by the Syrian military, against U.S. targets in Afghanistan, U.S. targets elsewhere in the region, in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia? What if there’s a retaliation against Israel? Do we really think that at that point the U.S. would say, “No, we’re not going any further, because we said this was not about regime change”? These military actions have a habit of spiraling out of control. It’s already an extraordinarily chaotic region, where there is a great deal of instability in a number of countries. Borders have become very porous. The attacks—the U.S.-NATO attacks on Libya led to the spreading of weapons throughout the region. The growing violence in Iraq is clearly linked to the attacks in Syria.

So, the notion that we are going to somehow escalate these attacks in Syria, rather than saying this is a moment when we desperately need diplomacy—we heard today that the U.S. just announced that the scheduled meeting between the U.S. and Russia, scheduled for today, the U.S. now said, “We want to delay that. We don’t want to have it. We don’t think this is a good time.” This is exactly the time. We need to be talking to Russia, to Iran, to all of the U.S. allies that are supporting the other side, to force the various parties to peace talks. There is no military solution. This is what Congresswoman Barbara Lee said yesterday, and it’s absolutely true. There is no military solution. Extra assaults from the United States is going to make the situation worse, is going to put Syrian civilians at greater risk, not provide protection.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday the Syrian government took too long to grant U.N. inspectors access to areas allegedly subjected to chemical weapons attacks last Wednesday. The Syrian foreign minister claims access was requested only on Saturday. I want to play a clip from Tuesday’s U.N. press briefing, where reporter Matthew Lee questions the secretary-general’s spokesperson, Farhan Haq, on the precise timing of the U.N.’s request to the Syrian government.

MATTHEW LEE: Can you say when, formally, legally, the request to go to al-Ghouta was made?

FARHAN HAQ: Well, I just read you that request, which is—

MATTHEW LEE: Right, which is the request.

FARHAN HAQ: —which is a clear request that was issued on Thursday. Angela Kane was immediately dispatched, and then she arrived in Damascus on Saturday.


FARHAN HAQ: So she was also stepping forward with that request. But, as you see, we made that request on the 22nd of August.

MATTHEW LEE: But is that the request? Press statement is the request?

FARHAN HAQ: It’s not just a press statement, when we make these things. As the statement makes very clear, “a formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the Government of Syria in this regard.”

MATTHEW LEE: And it arrived on Saturday in the form of Angela Kane? I just wanted you to respond to that.

FARHAN HAQ: It’s a—that’s basically a question of semantics. You heard exactly what the formal request is. It went out far and wide on Thursday. Angela Kane was conveying this, and she did arrive on Saturday

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Phyllis Bennis, that was Matthew Lee questioning the secretary-general’s spokesperson, Farhan Haq. Could you explain why the timing of the request to the Syrian government by the U.N. is significant?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s important, Nermeen, because Secretary Kerry made a very strong point that one of the big reasons for believing and for claiming that it’s indisputable that the Syrian regime is responsible for these horrific attacks is that they waited so long, they waited so that the evidence would be degraded, they waited so they could attack again. His focus was they waited, they waited, they waited—they waited too long. And, indeed, the U.S. claimed the U.N. inspector should actually be withdrawn, because they had waited too long and it was no longer a viable inspection operation.

What we now know is that the formal request—and remember, we’re talking about diplomacy here. When a nation is at war, the idea that it’s somehow going to respond to a public call that is essentially a press release is nonsense. Secretary Kerry knows as well as anyone else, Farhan Haq knows as well as anyone else, that governments respond to formal requests, formal letters, formal phone calls. It’s not about semantics. It’s about diplomatic formality. We need formal diplomatic talks. We don’t just need the release of a statement saying that the United Nations will request. That’s fine to tell the public that. That’s a good thing. But that’s not the same as the formal request being handed by Angela Kane, the U.N. disarmament chief, to her counterpart in Damascus and say, “Here is the request of the United Nations.” She did that on Saturday, the request was answered positively on Sunday, and the inspectors went in on Monday. That’s hardly an extensive delay, as Secretary Kerry claimed. So, it’s really the collapse of one of the key components of Secretary Kerry’s claim of why it’s so obvious that the regime is responsible for these attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, what is the peaceful alternative to respond? And is it possible that rebels used, had access to chemical weapons?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s certainly possible. Anything is possible. It’s certainly possible the regime used these weapons. It’s also possible that part of the rebels did. We know that some of the rebel armed forces came from defectors. We have no idea whether those defectors included some defectors that might have been involved in Syria’s long-standing chemical weapons program. We also know that some of the rebels are close to al-Qaeda organizations. The Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Nusra Front, has claimed its alliance with al-Qaeda. And the idea that al-Qaeda forces may have access to these weapons is certainly a frightening but very realistic possibility. The problem is, we don’t know. And that’s why the U.N. inspection initially is so important to determine what the weapons were, how they were used, where they were used. The next step then is to determine who used them. That remains a mystery right now. Whoever used them should be brought up on charges in the International Criminal Court and face the harshest punishments available to the international community.

The question of what is the alternative to military strikes starts with diplomacy. It starts with talking. The talks that were scheduled between the U.S. and Russia, designed to try again to create the so-called Geneva II peace conference, is more important now than ever. There have been 100,000 Syrians killed, between military and civilians. Millions have been forced from their homes. And the supporters of the two sides—because this is now clearly a civil war, a devastating civil war, that has become part of really five wars in Syria. There’s a sectarian war. There’s a regional war for power. There’s a war between the U.S. and Russia. There’s a war between the U.S. and Israel and Iran. All of these wars are being fought to the last Syrian. So what’s needed is a set of peace talks. Call it Geneva II. Call it whatever you want. Call it broccoli. Just get those talks started so that you have not only the parties, but their backers. You have the U.S. and Russia, and you have Iran and Saudi Arabia, and you have Iraq and Kuwait. You have all the forces on the two sides coming together to talk about this, rather than fighting to the last Syrian child, to resolve these wars.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, earlier this month, prior to the alleged chemical weapons attack, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated the Obama administration opposed even limited U.S. military intervention in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn’t support U.S. interests. In a letter to Congressman Eliot Engel dated August 19th, Dempsey wrote, quote, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.” Phyllis Bennis, can you talk about why military intervention is being considered so seriously now? And who possibly stands to benefit?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that, realistically, General Dempsey’s letter still stands. I think it’s very clear that there are multiple forces within the Syrian opposition. And even from the very pragmatic, nationalist—in my view, very unpleasant, if you will—position of the United States that we would only support those forces who represent our interests, rather than saying, “We want to stop the violence. We want to stop the killing of Syrian civilians,” even from that narrow nationalist vantage point, there is no good option in supporting the rebels in Syria that have a military capacity. Those that have the military capacity are those closest to al-Qaeda. The others have much less of a military capacity. I think the reason that General Dempsey references when he says that the administration is opposed to using military force to support the rebels, on a certain level, still stands. I don’t think they’ve changed that. What has changed has been the external and domestic political pressure.

And while we know there have been divisions within the Obama administration, there are people in the administration who are known for their widespread support for so-called humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect as a basis for responding to any human rights violations that occur, that there are also people in the administration who have been dead set against the use of force in Syria. The difference now, it seems, is that President Obama’s own position seems to have shifted. He was most clear on opposing, resisting, being reluctant to consider military force; now he apparently seems much more open to it. And it seems that the pressure came with the escalation in the use of these horrific, what appear to be chemical weapons—we don’t even know that for sure. But the problem is that the use of chemical weapons, which is, as I said, a huge violation in its own right, doesn’t mean that the use of military force is going to help, is going to make that impossible.

So, the problem we now face is there’s new pressures. Certainly there’s pressures coming from Congress, from people like Eliot Engel, from the Republican side, led by John McCain, Lindsey Graham—are all calling for an escalation of military force against Syria. You have new pressures now coming from Israel. Israel had been opposed, or at least was standing quiet, on the idea of using military force against the government in Syria, because the government in Syria has, frankly, been very helpful to Israel. It’s kept the occupied Golan Heights quiet, kept the border stable, kept the level of violence very much down, despite all the rhetoric. That government, we should note, has also been very supportive of the United States in the so-called global war on terror, being willing to accept detainees such as the Canadian, Maher Arar, to be interrogated and tortured in Syrian prisons at the request of the Bush administration. So, there’s been reluctance from Israel to call for the overthrow of that regime because of their very realistic fears of what might come next, what might replace it. Now it seems that they are more concerned about the impact on Iran of the political reality that the so-called red line that Obama established last year does not get a military answer. And in the Israeli view, if Iran doesn’t see an attack on Syria, they will believe that they have the right to disobey U.S. red lines, as well, and that’s unacceptable. So, all of this comes back to the question of Iran for the Israelis. For some in the United States—

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty seconds.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: For some in the United States, that’s the same position: It comes back to Iran. At the end of the day, there is no military solution. There have got to be negotiations. Striking Syria now will only make the situation worse for Syrians on the ground. It’s a very dangerous move.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, we want to thank you for being with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Among her books, Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power. Her latest piece, we’ll link to, at The Nation magazine blog, “Moral Obscenities in Syria.” Stay with us.

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