Another look at what happened in Syria

2013-09-27T00:00:00Z 2013-09-27T09:17:21Z Another look at what happened in SyriaBy John P. Willerton Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The Dallas Morning News editorial “Russian assertion that rebels used gas makes no sense,” which appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on Sept. 21, offers conclusions about chemical weapons use in Syria that are not conclusive.

Alternative perspectives abound, generally outside the U.S., but they merit attention. While we likely never will know what happened when sarin was used in Syria, evidence can be evaluated from various perspectives. The Russians set out one such perspective, and it should not be immediately dismissed as false.

Many in the Middle East (including anti-Assad government media sources in Lebanon, where Syria and its complexity are well understood), contend there was no rational reason for the Assad government to use chemical weapons on Aug. 21. The Assad government was winning the war on all fronts, and they were waiting for U.N. inspectors to come to Syria the next day to investigate chemical weapons use.

The fact that the ranks of rebel forces the past months were becoming increasingly filled with foreign fighters only pointed to the rebels’ weakness. Indeed, many one-time Syrian rebel supporters have backed away from these foreigners, who include radical extremists who are also enemies of the Wet.

Meanwhile, sources have emerged (from the Middle East, in Europe, and now slowly arising in the U.S.) asserting that rebels have had access to chemical weapons, rebels have tried to smuggle them in from Turkey, the weapons may be supplied by Saudi Arabia, and the rebels have rockets. In a recently published interview, the father of one slain rebel said his son died in a mishandling of chemical weapons in a tunnel in a rebel-held Damascus suburb: Hence, chemical weapons being (in this case accidentally) used in rebel area. Twelve rebels died; hundreds of innocents also died.

There are even reported incidents of defections within the Assad military itself, and the possibility of rogue elements using weapons against the government.

Anecdotes, stories, rumors abound. The truth is that it is impossible for those of us on the outside to know what happened in Syria. The U.N. will, in all likelihood, never be able to sort out who did what, when and how. We will, at best, get bits and pieces. We will rely on our own assumptions to interpret these events.

We know the Assad government has engaged in atrocities. But so have the rebels. There is a reason the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t want to get involved in a war that involves religious and ethnic hatred, blood feuds and unbelievable atrocity.

Presenting cartoon-character stereotypes of both sides, with one (the Assad government) presented as evil and the other (the rebels) presented as good, does not contribute to a sober-minded analysis of the situation. One-dimensional thinking will not help the U.S. determine how to act.

Americans are understandably war weary. We may not like Putin and the Russians, and we may choose only to listen to our friends in the Middle East to sort fact from fiction. But living in an information bubble and being guided by ideological preconceptions will not help us find our way. Didn’t we learn that in Iraq?

In fact, the Russian assertion that the rebels did use gas makes sense. So does the argument that the Assad government used gas. And therein lies the problem.

Let’s hope we proceed carefully, and we avoid yet another entanglement in the Middle East, especially as we limit our involvement in Iraq, draw down in Afghanistan and try to see stability come to Libya.

John P. (Pat) Willerton, is an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy. Email him at jpw@email.arizona.edu

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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