After an August 21 military attack on rebel-held areas of the eastern suburbs of Damascus killed hundreds of people, the United States and others accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons. President Obama is now pushing Congress to authorize military action against the Syrian régime, on the grounds that the attack “presents a serious danger to our national security.”
Let us assume that the U.S. allegations against the Syrian government are all true. Contrary to the administration’s assumptions, military force is not the only available option. And responding to the Syrian régime’s reported massacre with air strikes could still do serious harm to U.S. foreign policy in the region and worldwide. We should take a look at diplomatic options that have been shoved aside in the haste to use force.
First, let’s consider the likely consequences of punitive air strikes. No one expects them to change the military balance in favor of the rebels or end the conflict. Obama himself has said that “we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military.” Even so, the régime’s conventional artillery, aircraft, rockets, command and control and troops — there are few separate units for chemical attacks — will assuredly be damaged. President Assad, who is aware of pending U.S. arms deliveries to the rebels, will probably try to prove his mettle by killing more “terrorists” (i.e., rebels). His Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies will step up their military support to forestall a Western-sponsored “régime change.” And the deeply divided insurgents, including a strong contingent of radical Islamists, will be encouraged to pursue a military victory.
In the end, countless more Syrians are liable to die from the various reactions to U.S. and allied “punishment” for chemical weaponry than from the initial attacks themselves. Intensified fighting will also put long-planned UN-United States-Russia-sponsored peace negotiations in Geneva at risk.
It is of little comfort that the Obama administration has been describing its military plans as “limited,” “proportional” and just “a shot across the bow.” The truth is that these terms are vague and less constraining over time than one might suppose. Their expansive potential was indicated Monday when hawkish Senators John McCain (R‑Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R‑S.C.) emerged from a meeting with Obama to say how encouraged they were about his plans to “degrade” the Syrian military and do “more” for the rebels. After the UN authorized force in Libya for the relatively narrow purpose of “protecting civilians,” President Obama told the nation, “Broadening our military mission to include régime change would be a mistake.” But the United States and NATO then did just that — and Obama proudly acknowledged it during a debate with Mitt Romney. This was no fluke: The executive branch’s capacity to wring its desired meaning from Authorizations to Use Force has been demonstrated from the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution to the 2001 Congressional AUMF following 9⁄11. By now, members of Congress should realize that there are real limits to their ability to use legislative language to refine the President’s use of force.
Moreover, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently warned, military action may have “unintended consequences,” and “deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”
The only positive in the planned strikes is that they may make the Syrian régime and others think twice before launching any new chemical attacks — at least until they reach a stage of military desperation. But there are alternative diplomatic steps that, taken together, would be more effective in preventing Syrians (including rebel extremists) and others from using chemical weapons. These steps also have a better chance than air strikes of advancing the United States’ prime security interests: dampening down the spreading extremist violence in the region, diminishing the chemical weapons threat and improving U.S. relations with the new Iranian leadership and President Putin’s Russia. They even chart a path to bringing the terrible conflict in the region to an end.
First, the United States can capitalize on Russia and Iran’s expressed opposition to the use of chemical weapons to mobilize the UN Security Council to expand its investigations into Syrian chemical attacks and establish a system to monitor the country’s chemical stocks. Providing a neutral source of fact-finding and evaluation would prevent Russia and Iran from dismissing allegations against the régime. If the UN established that Syria used, or was about to use, chemical weapons, Russia and Iran would be under strong international pressure to discipline their client.
(It’s too bad that such a system is not already in place. Currently, signs point to a major chemical attack by the Syrian government. But for unexplained reasons, the official U.S. government’s estimate of 1,429 deaths is approximately three to four times higher than those offered by the British and French governments, the French humanitarian group Médecins sans Frontières and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Meanwhile, concerning the degree of régime culpability, the U.S. assessment states that during the offensive a “senior” Syrian official became “concerned” that U.N. inspectors would detect “evidence” of chemical weapons, and the operation was subsequently halted. This suggests that Syrian authorities may not have foreseen the full consequences of their military’s actions. Unfortunately, the source of this information — a communications intercept — remains classified, which in turn makes a neutral assessment of this aspect of the incident nearly impossible.)
Secondly, instead of obsessing about using military force to preserve the “credibility” of its earlier warnings against use of chemical weapons in the conflict, the United States could be diplomatically pushing for a political settlement to end the war itself. This means activating the long-promised peace conference in Geneva. There, the Syrian parties’ key military and political sponsors should jointly begin to persuade them that neither can prevail over the other using brute force. Instead, they must negotiate an inclusive and consensual transitional government with a timetable for democratic change. A robust international peacekeeping force would also be required.
Obviously, one of the most difficult questions for both the Syrians and their foreign supporters will be the future of President Assad. The International Crisis Group has offered the outline of a sensible compromise: “A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power but, beyond that, the United States can be flexible with regards to timing and specific modalities.” In other words, given the severe fragmentation of the Syrian opposition and the fears of President Assad’s own sectarian base, a gradual easing out of the dictator is in order.
Mediating a political settlement in Syria won’t be accomplished in a day or a few weeks. Based on experience with comparably bloody civil wars in Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Sudan and Mozambique, it will likely take many meetings over many months. But the basic ingredients for a deal have been coming into place. The warriors are in what conflict specialists call a “mutually hurting stalemate.” And the most important international actors share the same core interests in discouraging the spread of Sunni Islamic extremism and maintaining a viable Syrian state.
By contrast, the Obama administration’s proposed military action is a classic example of what the great international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau called the “political folly” of a “legalistic-moralistic approach to foreign policy.” It confuses the question of whether the Syrian government was wrong to violate the emerging international norm against chemical weaponry with the more complicated issue of how the United States should deal with a violent civil and regional war, considering the interests involved and the power available on either side.
U.S. decision-makers cannot fulfill their responsibilities to protect American interests if they do not see the world as it is: full of complex power struggles unlikely to be resolved by an impromptu assault from the skies.