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How Should U.S. Respond To Chemical Weapons Attack In Syria?

President Obama has warned Syrian President Bashar Assad, shown here in 2009, against using chemical weapons.
Louai Beshara
President Obama has warned Syrian President Bashar Assad, shown here in 2009, against using chemical weapons.
US In Syria
How Should U.S. Respond To Chemical Weapons Attack In Syria?
GUESTSMichael Provence is Professor of Middle Eastern History, UC San Diego, he specializes in Syria. Sohaib Alagha, a civil engineer here in San Diego and Board Member of the Syrian American Council

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition as we all celebrated the final big weekend of summer we may not have realized how close the nation came to another military intervention in the Middle East. Many expected president Obama to announce a strike against Syria on Saturday, but instead he asked for congressional authorization before taking action. US officials say more than 1400 people died in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on August 21 allegedly carried out by the regime of Syrian Pres. Basher al-Assad. But along with outrage over the use of chemical weapons are so deep opposition from US politicians and the public over launching another military attack in that troubled region. Joining me to discuss this are my guests, Michael Provence is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC San Diego and Michael welcome back to the program. MICHAEL PROVENCE: Thanks for having me. It is nice to be back MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sohaib Al-Agha is a board member of the Syrian American Council. Sohaib, welcome. SOHAIB AL-AGHA: Thank you for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I would like to hear from our listeners to support a US military strike in Syria give us a call with questions or comments the number is 1-888-895-5727. Sohaib let me start with you, you recently start return from the Council in Turkey and Syria with Syrian opposition leaders. What did they tell you about how the conflict in Syria is going for opposition forces. SOHAIB AL-AGHA: Actually I talked to people in Aleppo and there is real fear that Asad will use employ another chemical attack with substantially injuries higher than the number of casualties which we had in Damascus. There is a real fear that Asad will, after he crossed the red line by massacring hundreds of people and recently more than 1000 people in Damascus, that he may understand the international inaction as a green light for him to commit yet larger crimes against the Syrian people and actually people in Aleppo are bracing for major chemical attacks. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, aside from these terrible chemical attacks, how are the opposition forces faring in their struggle against the Asad regime? SOHAIB AL-AGHA: To a large degree, they are feeling if they've been abandoned by the international community. The Syrian people rose up against Bashar's dictatorship two and a half years ago. And it has not started to just recently when we failed when we need to interfere somehow but the Syrian people cannot stand up against Asad, Iraq, Russia and Hezbollah at the same time. So there is a big system and of abandonment by the international community. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael what you make of the events of the past two weeks in Syria. Why this chemical attack, why now? MICHAEL PROVENCE: Will that's a really difficult question. There were UN inspectors on the ground at the time. And people in this community, this country has made the argument that it is the US government case that it took place is like the Iraq war in 2003 this is completely fallacious. So the chemical attack happened. The Syrian military was responsible. The effects were catastrophic for these Eastern Damascus suburbs. So there are lots of different temptations and possible is but it seems logical that the Syrian government is pushing against what it expects to be you know, a sort of moving target of outrage by Western countries, NATO, the US and so on. Pushing against the to see what it can get away with, so I think that Sohaib is right that this is sort of an escalation on the part of the Syrian government. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you could, Michael briefly give us some background about why Pres. Obama says the US must strike Syria. Tell us about the red line that Obama said Syria must not cross. MICHAEL PROVENCE: Well he backed himself into a corner months ago because of course he was getting attacked from the right by people like Lindsey Graham and John McCain who have sort of an insatiable appetite for Middle Eastern adventures and were prominent backers of the Iraq war and so on. So these people are eager to prosecute another Middle Eastern war. So Obama was being attacked by these people because he was not intervening in Syria, so he said well poison gas, that would be a red line. So now the argument is that the credibility of the US is on the line. This is really the only thing that has caused this sort of escalation, this rhetorical escalation on the part of Obama and the US government is this issue of US credibility. Now from my perspective it seems to me that if a person, to make an analogy if a person gets into continuous problems by making threats that they either can't or will not back up the solution is not to make good on their threats no matter how outrageous, but to stop making threats. But this is not actually the US foreign policy in the Middle East especially seems to be prosecuted for the president had backed himself into a corner. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take a call. We are taking your calls at 18888955727. (Dohir) is calling from San Diego. Welcome to the program. NEW SPEAKER: Hello thank you for taking my call. I am a long-time listener. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you. NEW SPEAKER: I have a comment and question why now the administration is taking this action because it has been two years. It has destroyed the whole country, pieces to pieces. Why now, is my question. The second question is I think it's a little bit too late that America has to interview right now because if they interfere with a quick, like the administration says we're going to do a little quick stop or bombing, what can be accomplished? I mean there is a civil war going on and after the American, or Western do a little bit of intervention, it's not going to do anything to the Syrian society or Syrian people. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me stop you there because you've raised to two very interesting points and I want to thank you very much for your call. Sohaib, let me let you answer the first half of the question. About why now, why now, because you almost did when I asked you are very first question, you say Syrians are concerned that the Syrian government is testing to see how far they can go, is that right? SOHAIB AL-AGHA: Correct. The hope for US intervention is not to start a war. War has started 2 ½ years ago. We hope the US intervention will help stop the war. And also enforce safety international will add existed since World War I that the use of chemical weapons is an atrocity which will not be accepted by the international community. And the US. We also hope that the US will be using its power responsibly. To tip the balance of power in Syria to bring it to a negotiated settlement. Asad has insisted to remain in power and he had insisted with the support of Russia. To win the conflict and that is the situation which is unsustainable and cannot be contained. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael is that what Pres. Obama thinks an attack on the Asad regime will tip the balance of power? MICHAEL PROVENCE: They've been very explicit that that is not their intention. Their intention, I mean the goal of the proposed offensive is to restore the credibility of the US which I think is a silly goal, actually. In the first instance. The second thing that I would do is make people who are outraged by the behavior of the Syrian government feel better for a week. Until the Russians escalate and the Asad regime has absolutely no disincentive at that point not to completely flatten cities and so, and of course the Russians and Iranians would be emboldened to resupply the Syrians even more prodigiously than they already have. So I think that to think that the United States by its military might can affect a positive outcome by intervention in the Middle East is to suspend his belief. Because I think over the last three decades this has never happened. The US has never had a successful intervention in the Middle East and has never been able to effect a positive outcome that was good for anybody in the region by use of its military weapons. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take a call, John is calling us from La Jolla and good afternoon John. Thank you for calling us. NEW SPEAKER: I thank you for having me. Definitely I agree with the last caller that we have not had a successful war practically since World War II unless you consider Grenada that is you know, our name and the rest of the world is never good no matter how much money we give them and why are we not vilifying Russia right now before you know, one of the biggest powers of the world, why are we not making a public relations campaign against them and telling, my God, how can you not be against them? Why does the US have to do it alone? If we're going to send a bomb, let me to do it, let more countries, I say each one send a bomb, then you cannot blame us. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay thank you for the call, John. Well, you have heard there is a sentiment out there Sohaib, that the United States does not want to go it alone, it is too little too late, you heard Michael say that this might escalate the situation in Syria far above the terrible situation that is there now. What is your response to that input to opposition leader say in response to concerns? SOHAIB AL-AGHA: We've been hearing the same argument for 2 ½ years and now more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed by the Asad regime. Actually more than eight years of war in Iraq have been killed by the Asad regime more than one third the population of Syria more than 7 million have been displaced from their homes. Massive human tragedy going on in Syria and suddenly some voices are saying that we want the US to be Switzerland in the Middle East. We think when it comes to saving the Syrian people from the atrocity conducted on them by Asad, Hezbollah and Iran action is much more worse than in action and if the US wanted, suddenly decided to be irrelevant to the Middle East, then that is the US option, but we think it is in the short term it is wrong, is a fatal mistake for the US strategic interest in the area. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What would you like to see the world community do instead of just the US? SOHAIB AL-AGHA: The world community had promised In 2005 and the UN issued a responsibility to protect doctrine. And now for the very first time it's been tested in Syria and no one is protecting the Syrian civilians. Well, fine if the US and Western power don't want to be a police at least it ought to balance, counterbalance Russia and Iran influence where they basically want to dominate the area. On account and the blood and tears of the Syrian people. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Michael, I'm wondering what happens though if the president does not receive approval from Congress for a strike against Syria. Let me broaden the question. What happens if the world community allows chemical attacks like this to continue in Syria? MICHAEL PROVENCE: Well, I you know, it is a difficult and good question. The appetite for the Syrian government for murdering its citizens, for killing its citizens is inexhaustible. And the argument that the Syrian government has made for 2 ½ years is that it's a foreign conspiracy. Not a legitimate demands of its own citizens for the rule of law and representative government free elections and so on which of course is what actually people have been calling for for a long time since the beginning of the uprising. So if United States attack Syria the argument that it is fighting a foreign conspiracy is instantly validated at the very, in the very most visible and obvious way. Attacked by the US, which is you know, a military power, a dominant power, an ally of Israel and so on. So, this has the effect of allowing the Syrian government to take the gloves off even more I would say and to polarize the situation and create kind of a proxy battleground Russia, Hezbollah and the American zone some of the gulf states where Syria is a battlefield and the Syrian population. I mean, this is, it will be a proxy battlefield of really a potentially very larger fight. It seems to me that de-escalation and a way to find out, to cause fewer deaths should be the thing that everybody is thinking about. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry, I'm out of time. I want to thank my guests, Michael Provence professor of Middle East history at UC San Diego and Sohaib Al-Agha, board member of the Syrian American Council in San Diego. Thank you both very much. BOTH: Thank you.

As Americans celebrated the last big weekend of summer, some may not have realized how close the nation came to another military intervention in the Middle East.

Many people expected President Obama to announce a strike against Syria on Saturday, but instead he asked for Congressional authorization before taking action.

U.S. officials said more than 1,400 people died in a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21, allegedly carried out by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Along with outrage over the use of chemical weapons, there is also deep opposition from American politicians and the public over launching another military attack in that troubled region.

A local civil engineer and Syrian American Council board member Sohaib Alagha, said he hopes the U.S. will use its power responsibly to bring the situation in Syrian to a negotiated settlement.

"The hope for a U.S. intervention is not to start a war, war had started two and a half years ago," he said. "We hope that with a U.S. intervention will help stop a war and also enforce the international rule which had existed since World War I that the use of chemical weapon is an atrocity that should not be accepted by the international community and U.S."

But Middle Eastern history professor Michael Provence said U.S. action in Syria may be fruitless.

"To think the United States, by it's military might, can affect a positive outcome in the Middle East is to suspend disbelief," he said.

Provence said in the last 30 years, U.S. military intervention in the Middle East has not had a positive effect.

"The United States has never had a successful intervention in the Middle East and has never been able to affect a positive outcome that was good for anybody in the region by use of its military weapons," he said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Tuesday to debate military action in Syria. Congress is expected to schedule a vote when it returns from recess Sept. 9.