Yuta Kawashima, a former student at the Pennsylvania University School of International Affairs, is now interning at the Arms Control Association (ACA), where he provides research support. The ACA is describes itself as a
national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies. Through its public education and media programs and its magazine, Arms Control Today (ACT), ACA provides policy-makers, the press and the interested public with authoritative information, analysis and commentary on arms control proposals, negotiations and agreements, and related national security issues. In addition to the regular press briefings ACA holds on major arms control developments, the Association's staff provides commentary and analysis on a broad spectrum of issues for journalists and scholars both in the United States and abroad. (ACA, About the Arms Control Association)
“What we think we know about Syria does not always reflect a complicated reality”
Sept 13, 2013
Yuta KawashimaThe Arms Control Association (ACA) is a Washington D.C. based nonpartisan membership organization specialized in domestic, international and transnational arms control policies. ACA primarily covers policies on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
I am currently working for the ACA as a research intern. I believe professional research organizations’ salient role is to carefully monitor and assess major discourses in certain issues by their accumulated expertise and thus, to offer principle authorities and the public more comprehensive understanding of the issues. As a research intern in a professional research organization, my task here should be to provide with readers “what we think we know” and “what we do not know but might be true” about Syria. All views in this post are the author’s own research and neither are representative of the Arms Control Association or its associates.
Through my own research on Syria (Yuta Kawashima, “Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2013,” last updated on September 3, 2013), coupled with a torrent of reports from world major media, national governments and international organizations, I could roughly grasp “what we think we know” about Syria. At the same time, however, a strange feeling came over me. Information out there seems to be deliberately converging on a certain point, as if the point was already determined in the first place.
In my view, “meaning” of any entity is always changeable, depending on how you see it. The number of “meaning” of one entity is equal to the number of agents involved, but is often limited in favor of elite power, namely states authorities. Corporate media have not served as a “truth conveyer,” but as “essentially occupational groupings with a legal monopoly of social and economic opportunities in the marketplace, underwritten by the state” (See “Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution” edited by Richard Lance Keeble et al., 5). Therefore, the current Western mainstream discourses on Syria can be seen as “information management” within a piece of the state-media political apparatus.
It seems to me that there is a solid “fact” about Syria’s incident on August 21 in discourses made by major media outlets and Western government authorities. The fact is that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces and civilians in Syria on August 21. What I am now witnessing is many major media outlets are having authorities’ “higher-level” discussions, namely, how the United States should act against the Assad regime, presupposing that the “fact” is a solid “truth.” The discussions as to whether or not the United States take military action on Syria is a typical example.
The reporting on Syria’s situation is very similar to the media reports running up to the Iraq War. Under the assumption that Iraq possessed WMDs, the United States waged a decade-long war resulting in severe social destruction in Iraq. Although Syria’s case is not completely the same situation as the invasion of Iraq, in that the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21 is indisputable, the U.S. and the mainstream media’s reaction to Syria, strangely converging on the simplified notion that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, can develop into the recurrence of the Iraq War. So, what should we know about Syria outside of a piece of state-media political apparatus?
What we think we know
To begin, let’s look at the well-known information available of the August 21 attacks in Syria. In my view, the only solid fact is that canisters of chemical agents were used in the suburban areas of Damascus and killed more than a thousand people. This is indisputable. The apparent “fact,” has already included the notion that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against opponent forces and civilian populations. This notion contains two inconclusive assumptions. First, the actors in the war are only two, the Assad regime and the opposition. Second, it was the Syrian government that utilized chemical weapons on the August 21 incident. These two assumptions that have spread via government authorities and major media outlets create a simple one-directional dualism structure in public’s perception. This simplified structure is becoming amplified and internalized in the public discourse via media. In fact, recent news discussions about whether the United States (and its allies) should attack Syria tend to rely on its operational possibility that the U.S. strikes diminish Syrian government’s aggression and military capability toward the opposition forces. This type of discussion presumes that the Assad regime blatantly used chemical weapons against the opponent forces.
“The fact” is not conclusive
This simplified approach, however, could mislead the public about what is actually occurring in Syria. William R. Pork, a veteran foreign policy consultant, gives some important insights in his detailed analysis about Syria (See “Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 2: William Polk,” The Atlantic, September 2, 2013), and claims that the mainstream reports about Syria have misjudged the extremely complicated internal situation in Syria.
The mainstream media and the Western governments rely on a simple dualism between the Assad regime and the opposition forces. Most of those authorities, do not explain that the opposition forces are composed of hundreds of small groups with various motivations for the insurgency. Although the Free Syrian Army is the main armed force, hundreds of sects such as Islamist groups, secular groups, al Qaeda-related groups, and a number of ethnic groups exist. In addition, their antagonisms are not necessarily towards the Syrian government, but sometimes towards other sects. So the situation within the opposition forces is more similar to “the Age of Warring States” in ancient China, which numerous states fought with each other.
Also, no convincing evidence has come out that Bashar Al-Assad himself took a central responsibility for the chemical weapons attack on August 21. The lack of concrete proof of Assad’s direct order leaves the door open to suspect that the Assad regime’s command system is not centralized. According to the BND, the German intelligence service, Assad himself was not involved in the attack (See Simon Tisdall and Josie Le Blond, “Assad Did Not Order Syria Chemical Weapons Attack, Says German Press,” the Guardian, September 8, 2013). If Assad had already lost his control at that time, should “the Assad regime” have still been recognized as the “state actor”?
Even if the Assad regime still maintained a centralized command system, that might not mean that the Syrian government conducted the chemical weapons attack. Major authorities’ inspections do not seem comprehensive. The United States, for example, concluded the Assad regime’s responsibility based on information from its intelligence, but the inspection does not include information on “sample collections, chain of custody, methods of analysis, or results of analysis by reference laboratories” (See Daniel Horner, “White House Makes Case for Syria Strike,” Arms Control Today, September, 2013).
The United States also discredits the responsibility of the U.N. investigation. The U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry claims that the U.N. investigation teams have not been responsible for determining who used the weapons “by the definition of their own mandate.” (See John Kerry, “Statement on Syria,” The U.S. Department of State, August 30, 2013). However, Raymond Zilinskas, a former UN Special Commission chemical and biological inspector in Iraq, said “the role of the UN team is more important than ever[,] whatever its findings” (“White House Makes Case for Syria Strike,” Arms Control Today). So there remains a question of who used chemical weapons. In fact, when looking to the current situation in Syria, the possibility that non-Assad forces used chemical weapons is more than a conspiracy.
Things are more complicated
The one-directional dualism structure might not decisively be the “fact” that major authorities seem to agree with. Now let me introduce William Polk ‘s more specific counterarguments to the “fact.” His critical viewpoint adequately broadens our understanding of Syria and provides us with healthy suspicion of “what we think we know.”
First, Polk points out that risks of massive scale of chemical weapons attack by the government is obviously bigger than potential benefits. As we see now, such an organizational attack by chemical weapons seems to have grave risks of retaliation. The inhumane attack would even upset Assad allies, not to mention the majority of the international community. Was it really impossible for the Assad regime to calculate the international dynamics in case of the blatant breach of international law?
Second, Polk casts doubt on the strategic effectiveness of the attack in case the Assad regime was responsible for the assault. The attacked area was not where the opposition forces’ commander facilities were concentrated. Instead, it was densely populated area, where foreseeable civilian casualties in case of a massive strike could lead to a humanitarian disaster. It seems unquestionable for the government to calculate that such a risky and controversial attack should be at least an effective “game changer” if conducted. But apparently there is no report so far that the opposition forces were significantly damaged by the attack.
Third, Polk argues that the rebels would do more damage to their opponent than otherwise when conducting such a horrifying mass destruction. The attack took place near Syria’s capital city Damascus. If tens of thousands of terrified people fled from the capital city because of the “terrorism,” the country would not function as the state any more. It would induce social destruction, such as spread of disease and food shortage, which deteriorates the Syrian authority. The opposition forces are fractured and some groups tie with Al Qaeda. We do not know what kind of motivation each has exactly, or how hostile and extreme they are. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that the attack was done by some terrorist organizations. From the rebels’ perspective, the attack would be more effective “game changer.”
Lastly, Polk also suspects complicity. Now, we are just seeing the Assad regime condemned by the majority of the international community and be at risk of massive foreign military intervention. Considering the international norm against the use of chemical weapons, reactions by members of the international community were completely predictable. If the Western authorities knew the attack diminishes the Assad regime power, it would not be just an absurd hypothesis that they might aid the opposition forces financially and militarily to take action against the government.
Military intervention in international law
The Obama administration aspires for military intervention in Syria on the basis of “the chemical weapons taboo.” However, current international law does not allow the intervention. There are two ways that the United States is legally admitted to take military intervention in Syria, 1) when it impairs “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense,” (Charter of the United Nations Article 51) and 2) when the Security Council approves forces “to maintain or restore international peace and security” (Article 26). The current request of intervention in Syria by the United States meets neither of them.
Advocates of military intervention may refer to the concept of “responsibility to protect (R2P)” established at 2005 World Summit. Syria is not a member of Chemical Weapons Convention, but of Geneva Protocol 1925. If the Syrian government conducted the August 21 attacks, it would be obviously the violation of the Protocol, and the R2P concerns would emerge. Nevertheless, without the U.N. Security Council’s approval, the international community cannot “take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner” (See 2005 World Summit Outcome). Therefore, military intervention in Syria cannot be justified in international law as long as Russia and China keep vetoing in the UNSC.
The state-media line often “manages” information for the sake of its own political and economic interests. At the same time, however, it seems to me that its importance has diminished, as international norms against controversial foreign intervention is getting strengthened and make such intervention more and more costly in both economic and political senses. A forcible military intervention could be very controversial unless more comprehensive analyses are carried out. Therefore, we need to closely look at things behind “what we know about Syria.” This attitude helps us consider more effective and less costly reaction.