The crisis in Syria


PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — My dear friend Joe Hanna, recuperating nicely from a hip operation and anxious to return to work in this, his 86th year, looked up from his newspaper, one of four he reads every day, and, expressionless, said: “I told you so.”

Longer than a century ago Joe’s parents immigrated from Syria.

Syria got its first mention in this space almost two years ago, when the bloody Bashar al-Assad, its second-generation dictator, had killed only — only — about 4,000 of his countrymen, or about the population of Marianna. The slaughter went on, its victims soon surpassing in number the 7,000 or so of Morrilton; then doubling, to beyond the census count at Mountain Home. Months ago it leapt beyond the populations of first, Jonesboro, then Fort Smith; and now has accelerated to better than half the souls (190,000) who call Arkansas’s capital city home.

The carnage carried its own inevitabilities.

It brought atrocities on both sides, including the killings of captured, defenseless soldiers loyal to the Assad regime.

It declared an open season on Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities, especially Christians, for decades the beneficiaries of successive Assad governments that extended protection in exchange for political support.

It made refugees of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who, justly fearful for their lives, poured into neighboring Turkey and Jordan, straining their resources and unsettling their own governments, both friendly, generally, to the United States.

And, this being a small world, it nibbled at American politics, then began to consume it.

Syria, its own crisis, became a “crisis” for the U.S. It prompted the president of the United States to draw a red line he surely wishes he had not drawn regarding the use by Assad of chemical weapons. His vow of retaliatory action, abruptly sent to the Congress for support, divided both Democrats and Republicans, demonstrating anew that politics in America no longer stops at water’s edge, and that the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate sit atop sharply divided caucuses reflecting a sharply divided nation.

Except the nation isn’t divided over American military intervention in Syria, be it a few Tomahawk missiles or, especially, a few thousands boots on the ground. “War weary” has become a bit shopworn in describing our people, but after a trillion-dollar decade of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, where car bombs still are deployed by the natives against one another and improvised explosive devices yet claim U.S. soldiers, it fits. An inch-thick stack of public opinion polls echo the conversations I’ve monitored in coffee shops and catfish restaurants in Arkansas: stay out of it.

By all accounts that near-unanimity appears in the inches-thick stacks of letters, e-mails and message slips on the desks of Arkansas’s six Washington delegates, though it has produced its own division, unique in that it has made improbable comrades-in-arms of Mr. Obama and Rep. Tom Cotton of our Fourth Congressional District. In his nine months in office Cotton has grown accustomed to going his own way, frequently voting against his fellow Arkansas Republicans, almost always against the wishes of the White House. Now, alone amid the Arkansas delegation he declares American force justified and proper, putting him at odds with Sen. Mark Pryor, the Democrat he is seeking to unseat. So we haven’t heard the last of Syria. Even should U.S. military intervention be deterred by the frantic diplomacy underway at this writing, it will be argued by the two candidates for the next year. On this issue, the polls — the coffee shops, the catfish houses — give Pryor the edge.

I reminded Joe Hanna of some quotes I’d sent him months ago, comments from Richard Haass, a former U.S. diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Haass lamented that Mr. Obama (and his successors) would be greatly tempted to continue direct American intervention in Middle Eastern affairs, and urged he, and them, to resist.

“For 20 years now, the Middle East has dominated, distorted and distracted us,” Haass said. “It’s time to end that era of American foreign policy, put a ceiling on it, focus on the rest of the world more and, above all, focus here at home” — meaning, in his estimation, addressing our schools, infrastructure and immigration system, and certainly entitlements, the “cancer hanging over the American body politic.

“That,” Haass opined, “is ultimately going to be the way we’re going to be able to lead the world” because, he concluded, “foreign policy really does begin at home.”

Perhaps the Tomahawks won’t be fired. Maybe Mr. Obama, and the nation, will have found a way out, talking instead of launching. But it won’t be the last of it.

Joe looked at me and said, “You can tell your folks back in Arkansas, this won’t have a good ending.”

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansa Week on AETN.