Sometimes, my friends, I take a look at one or another political/diplomatic situation, and I think, “This is just sooo outrageous. So counter-intuitive in terms of how things ‘should’ be. How do I deal with it?” Actually, on occasion it occurs to me that if a satirical film were made incorporating some of the events we are witnessing, critics would pan it as too far-fetched. Such is the world about which I try, however humbly, to provide some perspective.
Today I want to begin with the horrors to our north in Syria, where, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights [an anti-Assad group], the death toll from the civil war has now exceeded 140,000, including more than 7,500 children and over 5,000 women.
The UN has stopped updating its records on those killed, because gathering the information has become too dangerous. So we can call this an obscene farce.
An official for the Observatory says the toll is probably considerably higher – by as much 60,000 – than what is cited, because both sides deliberately try to obscure the amount of damage they’ve endured.
“The Observatory would like to point out that these statistics do not include the fate of more than 180,000 people missing inside the regime’s prisons. Nor does it include more than 7,000 detained by regime forces and armed groups loyal to it, or the hundreds of people kidnapped [by rebel groups.]
“It is shameful that the international community has done nothing to show that it will defend human rights…The Syrian people dying are just statistics to them.”
In the second decade of the 21st century – the world has learned less than nothing.
It has been noted that since a second round of peace talks for Syria began a month ago, the rate of deaths has increased: the month has been the bloodiest of the civil war.
And those talks have fallen apart, yielding nothing. A stalemate in the talks yesterday led to their collapse after 30 minutes. The Assad regime balks at discussion of a transitional government, and insists on focusing on combatting terrorism (with the government definition of “terrorists” encompassing a good part of the rebel forces).
International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi issued an apology to the Syrian people for the lack of progress in the talks. “I am very very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people that their hopes, which were very very high here, that something will happen here.”
No date has been set for the next round of talks, but Brahimi has suggested that the first day be devoted to stopping violence and combatting terrorism, with discussion of a transitional government to then follow.
“Unfortunately the government has refused, which raises the suspicion of the opposition that in fact the government doesn’t want to discuss the TGB [transitional governing body] at all.
“In that case, I have suggested that it’s not good for the process, it’s not good for Syria that we come back for another round and fall in the same trap that we have been struggling with this week and most of the first round. So I think it is better that every side goes back and reflect and take their responsibility: do they want this process to take place or not?”
These are rhetorical questions Brahimi is posing: the answers are obvious. And that’s what makes it such a farce. There is no way to approach two warring parties and come to a peaceful compromise unless both parties are on board, and this is clearly not the case. Assad is fighting for his political and literal life. Period. He will not come to terms unless he is required to do so, and the sort of force that is necessary to compel him is simply not forthcoming.
Allow me to remind my readers that in late August of last year, Obama was set to hit Syria with a few Tomahawk Cruise missiles fired from well off-shore, as retribution for (or warning with regard to repetition of) Assad’s use of poison gas on his civilian population. Then, very suddenly Obama called off the operation (referred to by Kerry as “incredibly small”) that had been in place.
It later emerged that Obama refrained from hitting Syria at Iran’s behest. The president was deep into negotiations with Iran, which is every bit as much a farce if not more so (and I shall return to this); Obama was in appeasement mode.
A “tremendous diplomatic victory” was then said to have been put in place, with Obama acceding to a Russian plan for Syria to surrender its weapons of mass destruction. See? Problem solved. Except I didn’t see, nor did a whole lot of other observers. Was there a reason to trust either Syria or the Russians on this?
Now it turns out that Syria has missed a deadline for turning over its cache of chemical weapons, with only 5% of its supply having been surrendered yet. At first it was said this was simply a logistical delay, and that it would happen. Now there are reports that Assad is stocking piling the weapons in the region of the country that is an Alawite stronghold (west Syria and along the coast around Latakia up to the Turkish border), against the time when he may be forced to relinquish control of other parts of Syria. A sort of “insurance.”
Obama had no compunction in saying in his State of the Union address that Syria’s chemical weapons “are being eliminated” thanks to American diplomacy.
However, my very favorite administration statement on the situation came from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney last week. Officials were keeping up the pressure on Assad regime, he explained: “They have an obligation here. They have committed to doing this.”
At the end of last week, Obama met in California with Jordanian King Abdullah, whose country is struggling under the onslaught of fleeing Syrian refugees. In the course of his broader statement, the president said that:
“There will be some intermediate steps that we can take applying more pressure to the Assad regime and we are going to be continuing to work with all the parties concerned to try to move forward on a diplomatic solution.”
I would suggest here that the American president is the very embodiment of tragic farce.
There is a great deal more to say, and I will return to this.
I close the subject for today by noting, hardly for the first time, that there are no easy answers, no good guys, in this situation. The more moderate rebel forces – which were not adequately supported by the US when they might have been – have in some considerable measure been coopted by more radical groups, with outside forces coming in; the situation is enormously complex. The nation of Syria, such as it was, is on its way to self-destruct.
Let us turn then, just briefly here, to some issues regarding our putative “peace partner.” This is no less farcical.
A group of some 250 left-wing Israeli students – whose own positions I see as terribly sad, because they so thoroughly miss the boat – paid a call today on Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Abbas told them that there can be no discussion of Jews living in “Palestine” because “settlers cannot be compared to Palestinians who have lived here for thousands of years.”
And here, too, I have a favorite line:
“I admit,” Abbas is quoted as saying, “that there is Palestinian incitement, which plagues chances of peace. But it can’t be used as an excuse to not reach a deal.”
Abbas says (above) that Hamas is with him in peace efforts.
Hamas, however, says that it would treat NATO forces (which Abbas proposed replace the IDF) as an occupier on “Palestinian” territory. Declared a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, “No Arab country will agree to the desecration of one centimeter of its lands.”
Were (and this is purely hypothetical) the PA truly on board for peace, it would be pointless in any event to negotiate: the PA, whatever Abbas’s claims, does not represent all of the Palestinian Arabs. In point of fact, Hamas would be likely to overtake the PA, were the IDF to pull out. And Hamas is anti-peace.
This is all an exercise in futility. And there is considerable reason to believe that Abbas is on his way to calling it quits.