With Decision Looming, Local Vets Mull U.S. Options in Syria

Sep 9, 2013

As the political situation involving Syria and the U.S. continues to unfold, war veterans are watching from the sidelines with great interest.

President Obama says he’s not giving up his argument for a military strike as he considers Syria’s offer to hand over its chemical weapons.

At the Veterans of Foreign War post in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the bar is open, the peanuts are out for snacking, and three men sit around the counter. Each one is a veteran of a different war.

Everyone agrees the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, but they have different thoughts on how the situation should be handled by the U.S., if at all.

Aaron Stoltz, 46, served in the Gulf War. He believes if the U.S. were to get involved, it should have done something two years ago, before there were 100,000 casualties.

“You do what (we did) in the first (Gulf) war, which is the Powell doctrine. You use overwhelming force to obtain a meaningful objective, and then you are done. Like in the first Gulf War, (our objective was to) drive Iraq out of Kuwait. When that was accomplished, we came home,” he said.

Justin, who only wished to be identified by his first name, fought in the Iraq War. Now 31, he’s worried that the rebel forces in Syria trying to overthrow Syrian president Bashar Al Assad aren’t friendly to western ideals, and therefore not worth supporting.

“I can’t get behind the president supporting al-Qaeda forces. It seems to be that most of the rebels are tied to al-Qaeda forces. Supporting the enemy that we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t sit well with me. We don’t have any business being there,” he said.

Why risk igniting a big fight with Syria and its allies, Stoltz adds, when, in the past, “the world didn’t have a collective conniption fit during the Iran-Iraq War where chemical munitions were used mostly by Saddam against the Iranians? He also used them against the Kurds in 1986. I don’t recall the U.N. having a collective fit over that."

University of Washington political science professor Stephen Majeski, who specializes in foreign policy, says Stoltz is right; during the Iran-Iraq war, the Reagan administration supported Iraq and didn’t do anything when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran.

“When those weapons of mass destruction, those chemical weapons, were used by Iraq, the U.S. didn’t react in any positive way,” said Majeski. “It was alleged they were used. Eventually, it became pretty clear. But that did not deter the U.S. and they continued to support Iraq in all kinds of ways, although much of it was covert.”

And while the world criticized Iraq for using chemical weapons against the Kurds, there was no mention of missile strikes.

“The Kurds are an ethnic minority which live in many other countries including Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and they really didn’t have any champions on their behalf,” Majeski said. “While it was condemned, there was not much that was done aside from that.”

Asked whether things would have been different if the U.S. had gotten involved with Syria earlier, he says the U.S. and the international community ”were involved in ousting (Muammar al-) Gaddafi from Libya.”

There are al-Qaeda-connected rebel fighters in Syria, says Majeski. And complicating the situation even further has been the apparent internalization of the Syrian civil war.  

“The Iranians have supported the Syrian regime. The Saudis, the Qataris have supported with arms and money. Hezbollah has gotten involved directly into the conflict. It’s turn into a proxy war for various factions,” he said.

Back at the VFW hall in Ballard, 75-year-old Harold Rodenberger chimes in.

“I’m an old-timer, Vietnam veteran. I may look back at a little more history than these guys do,” he said. “There’s no easy course. I think the only real solution is a negotiated peace. Unfortunately, that’s hard to do.”

As far as figuring out a way to end Syria’s civil war, no one has been able to solve that. But Majeski says this new deal being brokered by Russia for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons has a lot of possibility.

“It may not change the situation on the ground in Syria, which some people would be upset about, but it would be a path toward a diplomatic resolution of at least one essential problem, which is the chemical weapons that the Assad regime does have,” he said.