The Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week approved Obama’s request for an authorization to use force against the Syrian government. The resolution would permit strikes against Syria for 60 days, with the possibility of 30 more days after consultation with Congress, but would specifically block the use of ground troops. It has yet to be approved by the full Senate or the House.
Missing from that resolution is a requirement to seek U.N. concurrence for military action. An attack without Security Council authorization would violate a fundamental international rule, a prohibition on the use of military force for anything but self-defense.
Virtually nobody describes the Syrian situation as a threat to the U.S. requiring self-defense measures.
Some see a threat to Israel, which will always energize those who believe no price is too great for Americans to pay to defend Israel. As the New York Times has reported, Israel supports Obama’s limited strike proposal because it prefers a stalemate rather than a victory by either Assad or by Sunni jihadis, who are coming to dominate the rebel movement.
What is also missing from the discussion is a clear purpose and achievable objectives — a strategy. The proposed intervention is variously described as punishing Assad for using chemical weapons, as degrading his military capability, or as “changing the equation on the ground,” a nebulous all-purpose concept if there ever was one. How much should we punish him? Until we destroy the country? Until he says “uncle?”
Outrage is not a strategy. For a country that has used napalm, white phosphorous, Agent Orange and incendiary raids on civilians in the not-so-distant past, we might temper our self-righteousness. Besides, do we overlook the 100,000 Syrians killed so far in the civil war but retaliate for probable use of Sarin? For those following the investigation, it is not a “slam dunk” that Assad ordered that gas attack.
There are no analyses of how an American intervention changes this civil war or when our intervention or the war ends.
There is no articulated strategy to achieve a stable endgame, which would almost certainly require U.N. peacekeepers to separate the contesting parties, or even why it is in America’s interest to get involved in another sectarian conflict in the Middle East.
Once the U.S. intervenes, it cannot afford to lose, even if there is no prospect of “victory” in any realistic time frame — which would surely be the case in Syria: Sunni and Shia have been fighting each other since the battle of Karbala in 680, with no indication their religious fervor or extremism is abating.
Any intervention would also likely trigger Syrian retaliation, probably in coordination with its ally Iran, using Hezbollah and other proxies. Are we prepared for another terrorist threat from a group which has not targeted us to date?
Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who was head of the Central Command when we launched cruise missiles against Iraq and Afghanistan warned that “The one thing we should learn is that you can’t get a little bit pregnant.”
He added “You’ll knee-jerk into the first option, blowing something up, without thinking through what this could lead to.” Sound familiar?
The US and Russia issued a joint proposal in May 2013 to organize an international conference to seek a political solution in Syria. U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi played a major role in negotiating an end to Lebanon’s civil war, and is currently attempting to bring all the parties to the table.
A second track is underway to train and arm the fragmented opposition groups. Several Muslim states — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey — have provided arms, which the U.S. is also preparing to do.
Removing Assad would be difficult, and perhaps not even wise, as it might open the door to rule by Muslim extremists. The Bush administration overthrew Saddam without realizing that it was eliminating a counterweight to Iran and instead, was setting up a new majority-Shia state aligned with Iran.
Syria is a party to the 1925 protocol banning the use of poison gas, one of the oldest international treaties. Our goal should be to mobilize support for that treaty and for the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the production, stockpiling, or use of chemical weapons, even though Syria never signed it.
Such treaties have the force of international law, and a concerted effort would serve to establish the precedent of the international community uniting to defend international law.
In the meantime, Obama should return that Nobel Peace Prize.
Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.