Syria: Keeping Hope For Peace Alive

There can be no prospect for a negotiated end to the Syrian nightmare so long as Syrian civilians are targeted by Bashar al-Assad’s regime for terror, death, injury, and flight. If His Holiness the Pope, the secretary-general of the United Nations, the president of Russia, and members of Congress think otherwise, they should specify how negotiations are to happen during a reign of terror. They should explain how anyone purporting to represent anti-Assad Syrians can go to Geneva or anyplace else for peace talks so long as deliberate, indiscriminate slaughter, whether by chemical or conventional explosives, persists. If they agree that the Assad regime’s practice of pulverizing populated areas with artillery, rockets, missiles, and bombs is an impediment to talks, they should indicate how they intend to surmount this obstacle.

It is easy to lecture the president of the United States about the presumed futility of military strikes on Assad’s tools of mass terror, and the inadmissibility of doing anything at all militarily without a green light from the UN Security Council. Most Americans apparently think slaughter in Syria is none of their business, and their representatives in Congress helpfully counsel the president to use diplomacy first. Yet, what diplomatic tools are at his disposal when one side of the dispute has consistently, since 2011, employed mass murder of civilians as its survival strategy?

On Tuesday President Barack Obama will make a televised case to the American people for approval of the resolution now before Congress authorizing military strikes on Syria. The centerpiece of his argument will no doubt be one of upholding, through punishment, deterrence, and prevention, international rules forbidding the use of chemical weaponry. It was, after all, the blatant and brazen challenge to his credibility and that of the United States presented by the regime’s chemical atrocity of August 21 that caused him to abandon an arm’s-length approach to Syria, one whose unintended consequences have been disastrous for Syria and all of its neighbors.

Surely the preservation and enforcement of international norms concerning chemical weaponry is of transcendent importance. Yet, even without chemical weapons there are now over one-hundred thousand Syrians dead, 7 million routed from their homes, 2 million seeking shelter in neighboring countries, and countless lives shattered both physically and emotionally. Nearly all of this wreckage has been brought about by a regime using its Russian-supplied arsenal to shell and bomb residential areas it does not occupy. This terror campaign is turning Syria into an ungovernable space. It is imperiling the economies and stability of US allies and friends. It is the reason why the prospects for dialogue and negotiation between warring parties are currently nil.

Even as he seeks authorization for military strikes aimed at deterring and preventing the use and proliferation of chemical weapons, President Obama remains firm in his belief that there is no military solution to Syria’s nightmare. The Assad regime, Iran, and Russia take a different view. Although Moscow and Tehran may be discomfited by their client’s chemical addiction, they are fully complicit in the campaign of mass terror. They have not lifted a finger to stop it. Indeed, arms provided by Russia and manpower arranged by Iran perpetuate a campaign of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the hope that the Assad regime will survive and prevail through force of arms.

Still, those who cling to the view that there cannot and should not be a military solution to Syria’s travails ought to explain, in operationally understandable terms, what exactly they have in mind. President Obama, at least, seems to understand that an Assad regime endowed with artillery, aerial, rocket, and missile delivery systems will use them—whether armed conventionally or chemically—to kill, maim, terrorize, and stampede. As long as it does so, the prospect of something other than a military solution or a destabilizing, deadly stalemate, is zero.

There may be no cure for a Congress and a public thinking that what happens in Syria, no matter the extent of the outrage or its implications for regional stability, is no business of the United States. There may be no reasoning with those who actually believe that President Obama will replicate Iraq in Syria, or with those who would just as soon sink the ship of state as long as Barack Obama is aboard.

Yet for those who would sincerely want a foundation built for real dialogue and real negotiations—and as one of the architects of the 2012 Geneva P5 agreement I am among them—there is no alternative but to give the president the authority he seeks. For as long as the Assad regime is able and willing deliberately to deliver death to innocent civilians, there can be no dialogue, no compromise, and no peace.

If Moscow and Tehran wish to oblige their client to cease and desist, declare a ceasefire, invite UN observers, and implement the humanitarian measures called for long ago by Kofi Annan, they are free to do so and thereby render a military operation superfluous. For Congress to deny the president the authorization he seeks absent such a breakthrough would be to conjure and invite unintended consequences featuring a sea of innocent blood and an ocean of human despair; consequences with which no decent person would want his or her name associated for all time.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Graffiti on a wall in Homs Syria that reads, "Freedom, that's all." (Photo: Flickr/Freedom House/CC license)