Massacre and the War in Syria

On the morning of November 14th, following Friday night attacks that killed 130 and injured more than 350 in Paris, President François Hollande was quick to declare the events of the previous night an act of war by the Islamic State. His choice of words lays the groundwork in the coming days for the invocation of NATO Article V, the core mutual defense provision of the alliance, which has only been used once in the organization's 66-year history: in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The article would call for each of NATO's 28 member states to take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."

The attacks come at the end of the second week of diplomatic talks in Vienna regarding the Syrian Civil War, a war that has, in the last five years, displaced 10.9 million of the country's 23 million inhabitants and tested European tolerance for refugees. The talks have been particularly controversial because of the presence of Iranian diplomats and the absense of Syrian representatives of either Assad's government or the many opposition parties. The situation on the ground is ghastly, and the actions and inactions of foreign governments in the last five years have been either inert or varying degrees of reprehensible. Both government and opposition forces in Syria have blocked United Nations efforts to supply non-combatants and refugees with food, water, and basic medical care; reports by the UN Commission on Human Rights document a strategy of "making life unbearable for civilians who remain inside armed group controlled areas" through systematic bombing and besiegement of non-military targets. "Surrender or starve." The Commission has corroborated numerous reports of the use of chlorine and sarin gas on civilians and combatants alike.

The Obama administration placed incontrovertible blame on the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons in August 2013, the so-called "red line" for American involvement in the conflict, attacks which left somewhere between 281 and 1,429 people dead, depending on whom you believe. Seymour Hersh, writing in the London Review of Books, cites numerous intelligence officials who dispute the claim that it was Assad's military responsible, alleging instead that the Obama administration lied about the order in which they received evidence, ignored crucial intelligence, and "bent over backwards" to place fault with Assad, in a move they compared to George W. Bush's justification for invading Iraq in 2003 and Lyndon Johnson's justification for the escalation of the Vietnam War following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. More likely, Hersh's sources claim, al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that split with ISIS in 2013, had developed the capacity to manufacture sarin gas and deployed it in territory controlled by a competing rebel group.

That ISIS and al-Nusra are just two of the anti-government militias should give some hint of the intractability of the situation—their success has been due in no small part to their ability to provide basic services to the people living in occupied territory, something the government has shown itself uniquely incapable of doing. This modicum of stability has come along with systematic killing of Christians, Shias, and Kurds, and random acts of violence, including public beatings and amputations, to maintain their self-declared moral and martial supremacy. As early as last October the Commission confirmed reports of the Islamic State using children as soldiers and suicide bombers. And now, Friday night in Paris.

The talks in Vienna also come as the United States, France, Great Britian, China, and Russia, not to mention most of Syria's neighbors, have continued to supply various warring factions with financial and military support, increasing each faction's conviction that it might succeed through force, making a diplomatic resolution ever-more unlikely. The Obama administration's attempt to train and arm 15,000 so-called moderate fighters by the end of 2016 has been a resounding failure; the program was discontinued on October 9th, less than a year after it was announced, when Defense Secretary Ash Carter revealed in a congressional hearing that only "four or five" U.S.-trained rebels were left fighting in Syria.

If Article V is invoked the outcomes will be disastrous. The UN Security Council, thanks to Russia and China's backing of Assad's government, has been unwilling to refer the list of government and opposition war criminals compiled by the Commission on Human Rights to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. NATO, while capable of convening an ad-hoc tribunal to do the same, is far more likely to encourage wide-scale military action: drone strikes, tens of thousands of troops, quagmire. Already France has escalated its airstrikes on Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State, as Hollande announced the response to the Paris attacks would be "unforgiving." Even without Article V, the pressure on the French and U.S. governments to further escalate their involvement in the conflict, both from legislators and citizens, will be tremendous. The question is more "how" than "if."

The failure of wide-scale surveliance to prevent the attacks in France, measures approved following January's Charlie Hebdo shootings and modeled on our own PATRIOT Act, and the failure of the US intelligence to turn up anything about the chemical weapon attacks of August 2013 until after YouTube videos surfaced should give cause for a lot of soul-searching about the abilities and weaknesses of any modern intelligence service and military apparatus to counter the power of a few dozen conspirators acting on behalf of a stateless paramilitary group. In reality the failure will more likely lead to increasingly draconian and costly measures to observe, record, and follow innocent citizens—particularly Muslims, immigrants, and refugees—and to retrench American involvement in a horrific conflict that is in no small part of our own making.

But consider that the attacks are a direct result of decisions made not by the people of Paris, but by the governments and military apparatuses of the Western world at large, including (and especially) that of the United States. Consider that the U.S. military classifies any male over age 14 as an enemy combatant to keep the numbers in the "civilians killed by drone strike" in the region deceptively low. Consider that the assailants cited France's aggressive bombing campaign against ISIS as one of the reasons motivating the attack, as well as the usual nonsense about decadence and prostitution.

So mourn the victims of the attacks in Paris and elsewhere; what happened was atrocious. Pity their families; their sorrow will be drawn out and drowned out by the scale of the tragedy and emptiness of performed emotion on the internet. Change your profile picture, as Facebook suggests, if it makes you feel better. Watch the backlash to the backlash as people argue that mourning the Paris victims means forgetting the victims in Beirut. Be wary of the attempts, well underway, to use the attacks for political means—this includes anything that comes out of CIA Director John Brennan's mouth. As Susan Sontag wrote two weeks after 9/11, "Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together."