22 February 2012

How Many More Syrians?

The deaths of three journalists are little in the grand narrative of somewhere between 3,000 and 7,500 lives lost in the Syrian uprising. But I had followed Marie Colvin's reports from Homs, saw Remi Ochlik's photographs of Libya and stayed up at night watching Rami al-Sayed's live video of Bama Amr. They, and others as well who have had the courage to tell Syria's story, made the conflict human for me. And in doing so, it made them human as well. So today I feel their loss.

It feels so trivial to write a letter to my Congressmen about this. I was a Marine; I feel like I should join the fight somehow. But this simple act is what the people of Syria are dying for: the right to say to the government that it should change its course. It isn't trivial for them.

I sent the following to my Representative and Senators today:

February 22, 2012
The Hon. Orrin Hatch
United States Senate
104 Hart Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Mike Lee
United States Senate
316 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Hon. Jim Matheson
United States House of Representatives
2434 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515


Basel and Rami al-Sayed. Anthony Shadid. Remi Ochlik. Marie Colvin. Gilles Jacquier. Brave journalists—Syrian, American, and European—have died so that we who enjoy that most basic right of living at more than the mercy of our government know what is happening in Syria. They join at least 3,000 and perhaps 7,500 others who have been killed by the government of Bashir al-Assad over the past year as he has waged war relentlessly against his own people. Thanks to them, decent people can no longer deny the horrors with which the Syrian people live every day.

I am sure that you agree with me that Assad has forfeited his right to govern, having become abusive of the basic ends of government: the security of life and liberty. The Syrian people have rightly exercised their right to abolish that government, as we did more than two centuries ago. But that they have a right to do so does not mean they have the capacity to. The Syrian people need America’s help.

But they are not getting it. This is not because of a sound policy decision about the justice of their cause or the practicality of the various avenues of assistance we can offer. They are not receiving the help that they need because the people who represent me, those through whom I exercise the rights for which the Syrian people are giving their lives, have not shown the slightest concern with the issue.

Representative Matheson, I have yet to see you acknowledge the issue. I realize that the House of Representatives has a less prominent role in foreign affairs than the Senate, and that your committee assignments are rather far from Syria. But you nonetheless represent your constituents on all matters that come to the floor of the House. The Syrian people need the support of the United States, and many of the ways in which we might provide that support will come through the House of Representatives. Do the Syrian people not deserve to know at the least whether you believe that their cause is just?

Moreover, I deserve to know where you stand and why so that, if the House takes up a resolution calling on Assad to step down, a bill appropriating humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, or an authorization to use US military force in Syria I might know whether my Representative actually represents me. I supported you as a delegate to the state caucus in 2010 in the face of a significant challenge from a candidate who more closely matched my own views. If you believe that the Syrian people do not deserve at the least the moral support of the American people, however, I will certainly need to reconsider that support should I be a delegate this year. I would not be doing my duty as a representative of the people of Utah otherwise.

One of the key differences between the House and the Senate, I tell my American Government students, is authority over foreign affairs. The Senate’s unique formal powers in this area give it, more importantly, the mantle of Congressional leadership in this area. The Senate’s ability to influence the public agenda is substantial. Witness the efforts of your colleague, Senator John McCain, to promote American action on the murder of the Syrian people. I wish you would join him in supporting at least the justice of the Free Syrian cause even if you cannot agree with his preferred responses. A vigorous debate over how to secure basic human rights in Syria would at the least establish the unity of America’s political leaders in opposition to Assad, strengthening our position in relation to the shrinking number of countries that continue to support him. Hopefully, it will also lead to consensus on a set of actions that can be effectively implemented that will protect the Syrian people.

Neither of my Senators has contributed to this, though. Senator Lee, you tell your constituents that “we have a responsibility to promote the democratic values of individual liberty, popular sovereignty, the peaceful transfer of power, and the rule of law.” I could not agree more. Assad’s contempt for these core principles of just government, principles that are the foundation of our success as a nation, is plain. But your website has only a single link to an AP article on Syria discussing the Arab League monitoring mission—the one that Assad’s government ensured would not be able to give meaningful evidence of the violence then taking place, and the failure of which has allowed Assad to escalate the violence toward his people. How, Senator, have you met the responsibility that you so proudly claim we have?

But perhaps ignorance is better than the alternative. Senator Hatch, your web site says that “America has long been a shining beacon of freedom around the world.” And yet you speak of Syria only in the context of its hostility toward Israel—an aggressor in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a problem on which Turkey’s reluctance to act is evidence of its anti-Israeli stance—or as a contributor to terrorism in Iraq. Do the Syrian people not deserve even a word of support or encouragement from you? How do we beacon to them when we speak to them in the same rhetoric with which their government justifies their murder?

As a former political science professor, I am not na├»ve about the possibilities for action in this case. I know that Syria is in many ways a deeply fragmented society—made more so by two generations of “divide and conquer” tactics by the Assad family—and thus presents great potential to turn ongoing violent resistance into intractable civil war. I believe that we must take seriously the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ argument that civil war is not necessarily preferable to authoritarianism even as I condemn the latter. And I realize that overt military intervention is both less likely to succeed and more likely to escalate regionally in Syria than in Libya.

But the United States cannot claim to have met its responsibility to democracy or its calling to be a beacon of freedom if we do not act. I believe the recent proposal by Professor Marc Lynch of George Washington University offers a worthwhile balance of meaningful and effective action and managed risk. Prof. Lynch suggests using the threat of war crimes indictments, diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and communications to the Syrian people challenging the narrative of the Assad regime to fragment the coalition supporting Assad while building an opposition that is unified and willing to ensure the rights of groups currently supporting the regime in a post-Assad Syria.

This approach is not without risk of failure and would likely take some time to come to fruition. The threat of prosecution by the International Criminal Court, for instance, is only meaningful if Assad or those beneath him believes that there is some chance that he would lose power in the future. But it is clear that the Syrian opposition is, at the least, in a position to force a protracted stalemate that would be detrimental to many of the regime’s supporters, and recent statements by the Chinese government suggest that Assad cannot count on his few international supporters indefinitely. A similar strategy was ultimately successful in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. It deserves a chance here, at the least as an alternative to doing nothing.

The people of Syria need the help of the powerful. I am proud to have served as a United States Marine, but I cannot join the Free Syrian Army. I am a reasonably prosperous middle class American, but neither weapons, nor food, nor medicine that I might buy for the people of Homs will be able to reach them. I am a mere citizen, concerned with affairs in the realm of statecraft. There is little that I can do as an individual to right the injustices that rain down on the Syrian people.

I can, however, exercise the rights for which Syrians are dying by the hour. I call on you, Sen. Hatch, Sen. Lee, and Rep. Matheson, to:
  • condemn the Assad regime’s murder of its people,
  • demand immediate resignation of Assad and those members of his regime who have carried out the repression of protesters or other attacks on civilians,
  • support President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and UN Ambassador Susan Rice in their ongoing efforts to isolate the Syrian government internationally,
  • encourage political support and humanitarian aid for the Syrian opposition, and
  • support efforts to bring Assad and other Syrian leaders to justice in the International Criminal Court for his crimes against humanity.
I watched a little baby die today,” Marie Colvin reported from Homs, only hours before her death. That is brutality of the Assad regime: using artillery against children and murdering the journalists who can attest to their crimes. The United States must not, through inaction when it is capable of contribution, be complicit in this barbarity. “Baba Amr is being exterminated. Do not tell me our hearts are with you because I know that,” Rami al-Sayed wrote. “I will never forgive you for your silence. You all have just given us your words but we need actions . . . . Because in hours, there will be no more Baba Amr. And I expect this message to be my last.”

It was.

Jeffrey Alan Johnson, Ph.D.

This doesn't seem any more satisfying. But it's there, at the entrance to Utah Valley University, for anyone who cares to notice.

Update, July 11

I received the following from Sen. Hatch today.

Dear Dr. Johnson:

Thank you for taking the time to write with your concerns with Syria. I welcome the opportunity to respond.

Please know that I have consistently condemned the human rights abuses in Syria, and I will continue to support a transition to a representative government committed to a recognizable level of human rights.

More than 15,000 people have been killed during the uprising in Syria according to official estimates, and that number may be much higher. Unrest in Syria shows no signs of abating, and much uncertainty persists regarding the country’s future. Within Syria, opposition to the Assad regime continues throughout the nation.

As with most foreign policy cases, the current administration has again failed to create a clear foreign policy objective with long-term goals to guide our country.

In an effort to pressure Syria’s current regime, I cosponsored the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act of 2011 (S. 1048). S. 1048 places sanctions on Syria including refusing immigration to any individual who is a senior government official of Syria or a close associate with such individual, prohibits any shipping goods to or from Syria, and prohibits a vessel from knowingly landing at a U.S. port to load or unload cargo or engage in trade if the vessel entered a port in Syria during the 180-day period. I will be looking for opportunities to strengthen the sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Thank you, again, for sending your comments, as well as reading mine. I will continue to monitor the situation in Syria very closely.

Your Senator,
Orrin G. Hatch
United States Senator


1 comment:

  1. Bravo Jeff. I wholeheartedly endorse your comments regarding the situation in Syria. It's another humanitarian catastrophe and our elected representatives in the West are not doing enough. Keep the pressure on.