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Syria and acceptable violence

The Arab and Muslim world has no democratic tradition whatsoever. The rest of the world should therefore not be surprised that in Syria, Arab Spring protests against President Bashar al-Assad, a ruthless tyrant, that began in March 2011 were met by a violent crackdown which has morphed into a bloody civil war.

Much of this civil war has been fought along sectarian lines. Assad, along with his regime and army, are mostly Alawite Muslims, a minority Shiite offshoot. He has been aided by Iran and the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. The Syrian rebels have their base in the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. Army defectors and rebel militias formed the Free Syrian Army, which appears to favor a secular democratic state. But the rebels have been joined by foreign fighters, many from Al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist groups, who have sought to hijack the rebellion, in some cases clashing with the Free Syrian Army.

It has all resulted in more than 100,000 people killed, with more than two million refugees and four million internally displaced. Both sides are fighting a zero-sum game, but neither side has been powerful enough to deal the other a knockout blow.

And where have the world’s major powers been? Mostly sitting on the sidelines. The U.S. and its allies have provided the rebels with food, medical and humanitarian aid, along with small arms, communication and battlefield support. Russia has done much the same for Assad. But diplomatic efforts to find a political solution have been seriously lacking.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would act in some manner if Assad crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, which are banned by international law. This occurred on Aug. 21, when a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held Damascus suburb killed more than 1,400 people.

The use of “red lines” in U.S. foreign policy is a strange thing. Back in the 1980s, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, at the time a U.S. ally, used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and Iranian soldiers, and there was scarcely a peep about it from the Reagan administration. And Obama’s proposed response, limited missile strikes against Assad’s military facilities, would likely have made little difference to Assad’s behavior or the civil war’s results. It may, in fact, have led to deeper American military involvement, a foolish move in light of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With his proposed response unpopular among politicians of both parties, as well as the American public, Obama decided to leave the question of launching missile strikes up to Congress. But then Russian President Vladimir Putin helped him save face by getting Assad to agree that Syria will join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires its chemical weapons and their means of production to be inventoried, secured and destroyed.

War is a stupid, dirty and disgusting business that should never be glorified or sanitized. Assuming that Assad follows through on giving up his chemical weapons arsenal, he can continue to use conventional weapons to kill people, while facing no “red line” from the international community over his regime’s use of rape and torture. But will the chemical weapons deal lead to serious diplomatic efforts to end the civil war, beginning with a cease-fire to stop the killing and possibly leading to a power-sharing agreement? Don’t hold your breath.

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