New York Times Article Alters My View of Reasons for Obama’s Syria Policy

I originally thought I had the Obama administration’s Syria policy and the reasons for it basically figured out (see here). From a recent New York Times article, I have concluded that my assessment of the Obama administration’s Syria policy was essentially correct. I have also concluded that I had vastly overestimated the coherence of Obama’s reasons for his Syria policy. I have concluded that Obama’s Syria policy was much less a result of cold-hearted reasoning (as I had originally thought) than a result of reluctance to have a coherent policy. From the New York Times article, emotions that I simply did not consider in my analysis of Obama’s Syria policy: apathy, indecision, reluctance to act, and fear of taking responsibility, came to the forefront of the Times‘s presentation of the reasons for Obama’s Syria policy. Apparently, Obama’s reluctance to engage in decisive action in Syria in 2011-2012 was a result of certitude of a rebel victory until early 2013, a reluctance of mission creep, and a deep desire to avoid embarrassment for the inevitable clusterfucks that would result from taking decisive action. The 2013 turn-around came due to Samantha Power (and other Obama administration War Hawks)’s strong desire to salvage the remaining chance of a rebel victory. The main Obama administration proponent of the realist strategy for Syria followed by the Obama administration appears to be Denis McDonough.

In conclusion, Obama’s opposition to U.S.-sponsored regime change in Syria may stem from the words “U.S-sponsored” as much as from the words “regime change”. Contrary to my previous strong belief, Obama’s decision not to attack Syria may, in fact, have been influenced by the British House of Commons vote on August 29. I’m still left wondering whether Obama’s Underpants Gnome-style reasoning and refusal to present evidence for Syrian regime culpability for the August 21 attack (which did exist) was a deliberate strategy meant to convince the Saudis and Turks that America was trying to do something while convincing the American and British people that the strike proposal was a very stupid idea proposed by very dangerous people.

A Book I’d Love to Read (or Write)

Fake book cover made by me based on this real one. Assad quote from here. Assad picture from here.

U.S. aiding al-Qaeda in Syria.

The YouTube claim.

Points against the “sectarian civil war” interpretation and in favor of the “class conflict” interpretation: most urban Sunnis in Damascus continue to oppose the rebellion, the first organized rebel massacres of Alawite civilians only occurred in August of this year (and even these massacres were done by groups with at least a large minority of foreigners), most fighters in Aleppo are of rural origin. I do, of course, understand that there is a sectarian element to this war (e.g., most Alawites and Druze are pro-regime, most rebels are Sunni), but to characterize the war as sectarian is to miss a pretty big point. The sectarian violence done so far is nothing compared to what would have happened had the regime collapsed in 2011. The war did not begin because Sunnis hated Alawites, and it is not continuing because Sunnis hate Alawites.

On survival of the Syrian regime still being important to U.S. interests and Obama understanding this-see this DailyKos article. The continued survival of the Syrian regime is the only thing keeping thousands of fighters outside the countries from where they came from. If the regime falls, rebel fighters causing trouble outside Syria are guaranteed.

More pro-regime combatants than civilians have died.

Points in favor of the claim that the civil war benefits U.S. interests: it has broken any Iranian dreams of becoming a major regional power, it decreases the militant Islamist threat in Iraq, it has distracted Syrian, Iranian, and Lebanese attention from Israel.

There are no viable non-military solutions to the conflict: this is self-explanatory. If the only provincial capital in which regime forces have been fully defeated is controlled by al-Qaeda, what more needs to be said?

A Few Words On Syria: Part 1

When I started this blog, Syria used to be the most stable country in the Middle East to the East of the Suez Canal besides Iran. When I looked at the Google Earth imagery of Syria three years ago and saw the webpages of excavation teams of western universities operating in Syria, it was easy for me to contrast the safety of the archaeological sites and museums in Syria to the peril of those of neighboring Iraq. I never could have predicted this present civil war. During the main phase of the Iraq war, Syria appeared to be an oasis of stability. Indeed,  Francesca Stavrakopoulou visited the archaeological site of Mari while Iraq was brimming with violence. According to Lemche, Qal’at al-Hosn and Mari seemed to be doing pretty well in 2010. They aren’t doing so well now.

What has happened to the World Heritage Sites? As I have never been in Syria, I cannot say much. I can, however, report what others have reported on the Internet. This is the Global Heritage Fund report from over a year ago. This is a newer report by an Italian scholarly publisher. This is NPR’s October 2012 program on the matter. This is a February 2013 report. See here for some images of damage. Follow these two Facebook pages for updates. Subscribe to this YouTube channel. It’s not a bad idea to follow the Syrian Coalition and Aleppo Media Center Twitter accounts to keep up-to-date about the war.

Bosra: Contested, overbuilt, damaged by looting and military operations. Expect the worst by the end of the war. Surprisingly, though, the locals are allied against looting, employees of the Directorate of Antiquities patrol the site, and no damage has taken place since December 2012. Edit: the site is still a battlefield.
Qal’at al-Hosn: Between rebel-held Houla and Tal Kalakh. Illegal excavations and architectural damage have occurred here. It has been a hideout used by al-Qaeda and has been bombed by regime forces. Though the outer walls are still standing, parts of the inner citadel have been destroyed. Expect the worst by the end of the war.
Villages in N. Syria: Solidly in rebel hands. Expect the worst by the end of the war.
Palmyra: In regime hands, but looting has gone on there by both regime and rebel forces. Very heavy damage has occurred due to combat operations. At least one temple has fallen and many statues have been looted. Regime tanks have caused much damage with their treads. Walls have been damaged by tank fire.
Damascus: In regime hands. Damage has occurred due to shelling and fighting. The Damascus Museum has not been looted.
Aleppo: Very heavily contested. Expect the worst. Citadel is currently in regime hands, though the Old City surrounding the citadel is in rebel hands. 13th century AD citadel door has been blown off. Citadel is covered with wood and metal rubble. Damage has occurred to mosques and markets. The Umayyad mosque is very heavily damaged.

It is safe to conclude that every Syrian archaeological site and museum to the East of the Euphrates or near it has been or will be looted, a good portion so severely that it will be impossible to salvage any ancient building remains. Syrian sites near or to the East of the Euphrates include Mari, Nagar, Tuttul, Shehna, Halabiye, Shadikanni, Gozan, Urkesh, Sikan, Chuera, Tell Hamoukar Ekalte, Emar, Basiru, Rezeph, Tell Sweyhat, and Dura-Europos. Curiously enough, most of these sites have not been heavily looted as of February 1, 2013. Dura-Europos is under rebel control and has been looted and illegally built upon. Mari has also been looted and will continue to be heavily looted. The Qala’at Jabar Museum is under rebel control and has been looted. Tell Hamoukar has been subject to illegal construction and looting. Tell Sheikh Hamad has been looted and will probably be found looted down to bedrock by the end of the war. The fort of Halabiye has been looted. The situations at Tuttul and the fort at ar-Raqqah are uncertain. Gozan and Sikan are safe enough, but expect the worst by the end of the war.

Ebla and Hadrach (Tell Afis), both excavated sites, are in rebel hands. Expect them to be plundered to bedrock by the end of the war. Ebla and Hadrach have certainly been looted and have been damaged as a result of fighting. Arpad might be plundered to bedrock as well. The temple of Ain Dara and the city of Cyrrhus are presumably in Kurdish hands. Their fate is uncertain. There are reports the Idlib museum has been looted (Looting the Past, p. 44). Strangely enough, the antiquities at the museum at rebel-held Maarat al-Nu’man are secure. Qarqar is between regime-held Jisr ash-Shughur and the rebel-held tell/village of Qastoun. The fates of Qastoun, Qarqar, and the large tells of Awar and Gazal are uncertain. They are likely to be found severely looted by the time the war ends. The fates of the sizable tells of Daoud, Hassane, and el-Kerkh are uncertain, though they are also likely to be found severely looted by the time the war ends. Tell al-Ash’ari, three kilometers West of Tafas, has been illegally excavated. The fates of Ashtaroth and Sheikh Sa’ad are uncertain. Illegal building has taken place at Tell esh-Shihab, an important Late Bronze site thought, probably incorrectly, to be Yeno’am by Nadav Na’aman. The ruins at Daraa/Edrei have also suffered damage. Expect the worst by the end of the war. Between Hadrach and Aleppo, Chalcis, Arne (Tell Aran), and Tell Hadir are in rebel hands. Tell Tuqan at the Tell Sultan village E. of Ebla is also in rebel hands. The situation at the square-kilometer walled city of Qatna is uncertain. It is between the rebel-held Talbisah and regime-held Mukharram.

The sites of Shaizar/Shenzar and Tunip/Tell Asharneh are both under regime control, though damage and looting has certainly occurred at the former. The tels at Hamath and Homs, cities both largely under regime control, have almost certainly sustained some damage from military activity. The museum at Hamath has been looted. Tell Nebi Mend/Kadesh on the Orontes has been heavily damaged by regime and rebel forces. It came under regime control on April 11-12, 2013 after being taken by rebels a month before. Margat Castle, well in regime territory, has also been damaged by the installation of tanks and military equipment. Hamath and Homs have also suffered from tanks and the installation of military equipment on their tells. Tells Sakka and Sultan, on the outskirts of Damascus, are under rebel control and might be or might have been looted. Tell Ghizlanieh is under regime control. Suwayda/Dionysias is safely in regime hands, though it might have suffered from construction violations. The large ruin of Paradisus/Old Jusieh, at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon, is safely under regime control, though was in a contested area of Syria between November 2011 and early June 2013. There are a few looting pits, though I do not expect the worst.

Apamea has been very heavily looted by the rebels throughout the ruined city. Mosaics have been removed and bulldozers have been used on the site by government forces. It is also, according to PBS, contested between regime and rebel forces. Looting still goes on at Apamea. Shelling has also damaged the site. It is the most-damaged archaeological site currently and may have no ancient building remains left by the end of the war. By the May 3, 2012 satellite imagery, Tells Braidij, Baqalou, and Jifar have all been severely damaged by the installation of military equipment on them. Tell Jifar has been illegally excavated. Tell Braidij has also been severely damaged by tank treads. Tell Houaj has been dug into. Tell Salba has been illegally excavated. In short, all but one of the tells within a five-mile radius from Apamea are either already built over or had been severely damaged during this war by May 3, 2012.

What sites are safe? Ugarit is safe, as is Ras el-Bassit (Poiseidion). Masyaf/Mansuate, where Ben-Hadad was defeated by Assyria, is under regime control (albeit, long-overbuilt). Sumur/Zemar, Arvad, Shuksu, the tell and Roman city of Gibala/Gabala, Siyannu, and Marathus are also safely under regime control.

What is to be done in response to this massive damage to Syrian archaeology?

First, it is absolutely necessary for authorities to scour all antiquities auctions, both online and in the real world, to make sure that all antiquities of Syrian provenance are found and confiscated by proper authorities, as has occurred at least once in Beirut.

Secondly, it is impossible to help the situation by continuing to send arms and military training to the rebels. A rebel victory will guarantee a chaotic and insecure political future for Syria and will require a longer period of armed conflict to achieve due to the certainty of an Islamist-Secularist war after the regime falls.

Thirdly, the Syrian army must be commanded to severely punish all instances of looting by regime troops and should advise officers to avoid operations at or near archaeological sites that are not being looted. Bombing archaeological sites should be prohibited.

Fourthly, the Syrian citizenry should be educated about the danger of illegal construction and looting to Syria’s future tourism and archaeology.

Fifthly, victory in the Syrian Civil War is nowhere in sight. Museum antiquities should be moved out of the country in an orderly manner by the proper authorities, as this war may well last for over two decades, resulting in far more damage to antiquities than has already occurred. Museum antiquities have already been moved out of the museums.

I hope for a regime victory in this war. Though I sympathized with the anti-Assad protestors during the regime crackdown in early-to-mid 2011, after the transformation of this conflict into a regime struggle against an armed insurgency, I could no longer root against the regime. By mid-2012, I already hoped for an Assad victory. Right now, I’d rather have a servile Syria than a Somalia.

An opposition victory offers no better prospects compared with those resulting from an Assad victory. An Assad victory at least offers the prospect of a restoration of the order that existed before 2011. A rebel takeover of Damascus guarantees an enormous extension of the war, with the Damascene rebels now having to fight against not just one regime, but Alawite militia, Kurdish militia, and the Islamic Emirate of ar-Raqqa. If America directly attacks Syria, there will be hell on Earth between Lebanon and southern Turkey for at least half a decade. But I don’t think America will directly attack Syria. His Obama’s strategy has been to gradually ratchet up support for the opposition in Friedman units. If he continues on this course, the next logical step is to supply anti-aircraft weapons to rebels or begin limited strikes on easy regime targets. But limited strikes are not goal-oriented. They cannot bring down a regime. Thus, if America attacks Syria, a full-blown months-long American bombing campaign is sure to result. I think Obama is goal-oriented. I think he understands that “punishment” is not a coherent goal. I think he has learned the lessons of Iraq.