Syria: Surefire Alternatives To Failure?

In a recent (February 19, 2014) editorial, The New York Times channeled Obama administration thinking on Syria’s war and peace dichotomy. “But, so far, no one has come up with surefire remedies or even new ideas that would not draw the United States into a war … Mr. Obama has resisted being pushed into a war by critics who seem to believe that force is the ultimate sign of leadership. Leadership sometimes means not going to war.” The problem with the Times’ formulation of administration thinking is not the clarity of its argument. Its shortfall is that it misrepresents criticism of the administration’s Syria policy and seeks to sell the notion that alternatives to a failed policy add up to war.

Indeed, in August 2013 the US commander-in-chief made a public case for circumscribed military operations in response to a massive chemical atrocity by the Assad regime, one that had shredded, in a blatantly shameless manner, what remained of his red line ultimatum. The president’s argument for air strikes centered on the victims of the criminal atrocity and the moral and legal inadmissibility of chemical warfare, particularly against civilians. He downplayed the red line issue, saying at one point that the multi-crossed line was not his: that he had drawn it in 2012 on behalf of the international community. Ultimately, Mr. Obama backed away from his threat: first by referring the matter to Congress and then cashing it in altogether in return for a promise that the Assad regime would surrender its chemical arms capability and the weapons themselves.

Was the president merely bluffing all along? No doubt he had reservations: no one contemplating the use of military force should be without them. Still, on the basis of his statements and those of his key cabinet officers, Mr. Obama deserves the benefit of the doubt: he was not misleading the American people about his genuine willingness to strike regime targets. It was only when he got something he deemed valuable enough in exchange that he dropped the threat and suspended plans that were presumably ready to execute. Arguably what he got in return only served to bolster the Assad regime and inadvertently facilitate its war on civilians, albeit using non-chemical means. Geneva II, accompanied by enhanced regime atrocities, bears witness to the efficacy of the trade.

The point, however, is that President Obama identified a way to punish a lawless regime militarily in a manner that would not have “drawn the United States into a war.” Yes, the attacks contemplated would have been acts of war. Yes, there would have been risks: intended targets missed, innocent civilians killed or injured, and (depending on the delivery means) US military personnel endangered. Yes, an Assad regime stripped of military air assets, artillery, missiles, and rockets might have declared all-out war against the United States and/or Jordan, Turkey, and Israel, thereby drawing down on its own head destruction in detail from above.

So: the attacks would have been acts of war and yes, there would have been risks. Yet the notion that they would have “drawn the United States into a war” in the implied sense of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam is far-fetched. President Obama seemed to understand in August 2013 that the United States could take on the inevitable risks of kinetic action in Syria in a way that would provide humanitarian relief to millions of Syrians without committing America to invasion and occupation. President Bill Clinton had come to the same finding in 1999, when he finally decided that the Serbian equivalent of Syria’s Assad regime would not desist in its campaign of mass murder and genocide.

The desire of The New York Times and the Obama administration for “surefire remedies” in proposed alternatives to feckless passivity is indeed a high bar. Surefire remedies in the context of Syria do not exist. The Rafik Hariri Center of the Atlantic Council has, for over a year, been proposing specific policy alternatives (some kinetic, many not) with no illusion of offering discrete silver bullets. To be sure, an Assad regime relieved of its weapons of mass casualties and universal terror would not necessarily cease to exist. The opposition, thanks in part to the administration’s steadfast refusal to promote an alternate government (in spite of persistent recommendations to the contrary), would not necessarily be ready to govern if air strikes were to stampede the regime into a quick departure. The United States might have to be content with merely saving tens of thousands of lives.

The truth is that no one who has presented specific, detailed alternatives to the administration’s arm’s-length, let-it-burn-itself-out approach to Syria has promised or suggested anything in the nature of a surefire remedy. The only thing “surefire” to date has been the failure of the administration’s approach to a crisis imperiling US allies and friends in the region while giving rise to a humanitarian abomination of the first order. No one has suggested that “force is the ultimate sign of leadership.” President Obama himself, for a brief, shining moment, understood that military force—governed by a military mission focused on putting a murderous regime out of the business of using shells, rockets, missiles, and bombs to commit mass murder—was justified and appropriate. Neither he nor those who supported him then nor those who now see a need for circumscribed military intervention saw it then or see it now as a surefire remedy. There are those, however, who do indeed see credible alternatives to surefire failure.

Neither does the president nor his critics see the use of force per se as a sign of presidential leadership. Whether or not circumscribed military strikes (as part of a larger policy portfolio) can usefully stop or mitigate mass murder (and perhaps change for the better the Assad regime’s calculation with respect to negotiated political transition) is certainly debatable. The New York Times editorial board and the Obama administration would do well to join the debate, and to do so without caricaturing the positions of critics who have cared enough to offer alternatives. They can do so secure in the knowledge that those critics – certainly those who have served their country in uniform—are not in search of an open-ended military mission for those few who today have the decency and courage to serve. Indeed, for the administration to persist on its current course is to conjure the surefire possibility that massive military intervention may well be required in the future.

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

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Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shaking hands at the Munich Security Conference in January 2014. (Photo: US State Department)