President Obama’s case for striking Syria is perplexing and misguided. Here’s hoping that these attributes will become clear during the debate that will occur now that he has delayed acting and sought Congressional consent. Despite the massive death toll in Syria, which now exceeds one hundred thousand, Obama has been chary (wisely, in my view) of intervening in a complex and increasingly sectarian conflict between a brutal government and an assortment of armed groups animated by discordant visions of that country’s future—or, in the case of the Kurds, a future outside of it. What little Obama has done in support of the Syrian resistance, he has done reluctantly.
Then came the August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus suburb that, according to Secretary of State Kerry, killed 1,429 people, including more than four hundred children. President Obama soon tagged Assad’s government as the perpetrator and began preparations for a fusillade of air and missile strikes by naval vessels on patrol in the eastern Mediterranean.
The lives taken by the August 21 attack amount to less than 1.4 percent of total number of Syrians slaughtered by Assad’s security forces and the proregime thugs, the shabiha. So why did the killing of one-thousand-plus people (horrific no doubt) become unacceptable when over one hundred thousand have perished, and with no military response from the United States for over two years? Is there something about murdering people with chemicals that sets the act apart entirely from doing so with rifles, bombers, helicopter gunships and artillery barrages? If so, what is that difference, why does it necessitate an attack on Syria, and for what strategic purpose? The White House and those who call for an attack on Assad—or something even more substantial—act as if there is a difference but can’t quite articulate what it is.
Washington’s own attitude toward the use of chemical weapons has, by the way, been less than consistent. Some five thousand people perished when Saddam Hussein used these munitions in March 1988 against the Kurdish inhabitants of Halabjah (and elsewhere thereafter) as part of his infamous “Anfal” campaign. The Reagan administration responded by claiming that Iran too had used such weapons at Halabjah, a proposition for which it offered no evidence and for which none has since been found. The imperative guiding American policy then was to back Iraq in its long war with Iran. There was no forthright American condemnation of Saddam or call for sanctions, let alone punitive strikes. The White House even lobbied (successfully) against a condemnatory Congressional resolution.
Obama is hardly obligated to emulate Reagan, but he does need to explain why the August 21 attack warrants the response he has chosen, especially since Assad has not attacked the United States. He has not done this persuasively.
The president has raised the impermissibility of using weapons of mass destruction. But the United States itself has reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in a first strike, though in President Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that option was for the first time reserved for preventing a nuclear attack by another state. On occasion, administration officials have said that that Assad could launch another chemical attack if his wings aren’t clipped now. If he did, still more Syrians would be killed. But that would simply underscore the relentlessness of the carnage occurring in Syria. A limited strike (whatever that means) will not end the bloodbath itself, though it may give guilt-ridden leaders in the West solace that they have done something after all.
The president has also stated that it’s essential to ensure that the bans on chemical weapons are respected. Yet the 1925 Geneva Protocol contains no provisions for unilateral enforcement by states, let alone via military force. The same goes for the Chemical Weapons Convention (which Syria has not signed). It calls for “collective measures…in conformity with international law” to address serious breaches. There’s no basis for the United States to don the mantle of self-styled enforcer.
And the legal case for unilateral action is further weakened by the lack of a self-defense rationale under the terms of the UN Charter: Assad has not used chemical (or any other) weapons against the United States. French president Francois Hollande says that “international law must evolve with the times,” but if the evolution occurs because of unilateral moves that lack wider support, then we’re on a slippery slope. One day, the global balance of power may be different and the dominant power may want international law to evolve to suit its purposes and make the same argument. The issue is not whether there should be an evolution in light of new circumstances—of course there should be—but how it takes place: by fiat and unilateral action or (admittedly a slow and difficult process) consensus that confers legitimacy.
In making its case for a military strike, the White House has warned that Assad could attack neighboring countries with such munitions, though it’s hardly clear why he would, given that it would imperil whatever chance he has of prevailing against his armed opponents and make it hard for even his diehard supporters (Russia and Iran, who actively support him, and China which has also steadfastly opposed a military attack on his regime) to defend him. Besides, Turkey is a NATO ally and Jordan a state with close security ties with the United States.
Finally, the administration has hinted that the president has chosen to strike so that Assad’s chemical weapons don’t fall into the hands of hostile third parties, such as terrorist groups. But there’s no evidence that the Syrian state has lost control of its stockpile, let alone that it plans to offer up any of the contents to extremist groups. Besides, how would an air and missile attack secure the stockpile? Three other outcomes—all of them bad—are more likely. The lethal compounds could be dispersed into the air. Security at the chemical depots could be weakened, making the munitions easier to pilfer. Assad might opt to move some or all the stocks before the attack occurs; that too would increase the chance of loose chems.
Nor do any of the other explanations offered by the White House offers make much sense. For example, Obama has been explicit that his goal in using force is not to change the balance on the battlefield or to bring down Assad’s regime to clear the way for the opposition. Instead, he envisages an operation that’s conducted in a “limited manner” to deliver “a shot across the bow.”
But what would that accomplish? Assad would lose some of his military assets (aircraft, helicopters, artillery, and infrastructure) have enough to stay in the killing business and to retain the advantage against his foes. Even if the anti-Assad forces were somehow to benefit militarily from a limited American strike, the biggest gains would flow to the Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya. These are among the Syrian movements that Washington (and the proponents of more ambitious intervention: more on them below) least wants to see prevail, let alone capture the Syrian state.
Even if, despite Obama’s declared objective, the attack he proposes shakes Assad’s regime and causes it to start unraveling, Syria’s carnage would continue. The remnants of the regime would likely arm themselves, mutate into paramilitary units, fight on against their (largely) Sunni adversaries, and fortify the Alawite bastion between Syria’s coast and Jabal an-Nusayriyah massif. Their backs to the wall and facing the prospect of pitiless vengeance if vanquished, they would have no reason to quit.
The Sunni fighting groups of various political orientations would, for their part, be buoyed by the regime’s demise and hunt down the enemy with even greater zeal. Hezbollah fighters, armed Iraqi Shiites, and Iranian operatives would continue to assist the Alawite militias and even increase their role given the power vacuum.
The fighting between the Kurds (who regard the war as an opportunity to secede or to acquire a statelet like the one their kin in northern Iraq have carved out) and hard-line Sunni groups determined to prevent that outcome, will continue. It could even get worse if it looks like Sunni groups are going to shape Syria’s future and Kurdish forces from northern Iraq come to the aid of their brethren, whom they are already helping, although not with troops.
Some Christians, Druze and secular Syrians will form their own fighting forces; others will join the two million Syrians who have already fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
In short, the Syrian battlefield will change, becoming even more labyrinthine, but certainly no less dangerous. Though the tempo cannot be predicted, the killing will go on.
We are left with this: In an effort to deter Assad, President Obama proclaimed, unwisely, last August that his “calculus” would change were the Syrian strongman to cross the “red line” and use chemical weapons. Now its appears that a major chemical attack has occurred. The “red line” has been crossed, again, and Obama, trapped by his own rhetoric, risks looking toothless if he does not act.
Call this the credibility conundrum. The imperative of maintaining America’s reputation for resolve has been implicit in the administration’s case, but those outside government who favor a strike, or something even bigger, have also stressed it. Yet the purpose for which Obama wants to protect his credibility is hard to divine, particularly because the benefits (for the United States or for suffering Syrians) are not self-evident and haven’t been clarified by the administration or those backing its position.
This, along with the public’s inattentiveness to the war in Syria, explains why so many Americans (close to 80 percent, based on polling data) wanted Congress to weigh in even before Obama decided pause and seek its consent. As NPR’s Alan Greenblatt has observed, what’s going on here is not a sudden surge in public confidence in the Congress but an expression of Americans’ reticence and confusion. Who can blame them?
As for the folks pushing for a much grander version of intervention—bigger military strikes than Obama plans and the large-scale, sustained supply of arms and training to the Syrian opposition’s “moderates”—you have to hand it to them. They do have a strategy: toppling Assad, isolating the Islamist hardliners, and helping the Syrian groups that they deemed best suited to run Syria. QED.
This scheme is seriously flawed on several counts. Changing the balance of forces on the battlefield so that Syria’s weakest combatants become its strongest will require a lot of arms, training, and time. Even then the odds are long. The interventionists’ plan could ultimately (even quickly) necessitate the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria, the protection of “safe areas” established for training and for supply channels, and the deployment of American trainers. This would implicate the United States in the war as never before and increase its role in ways that haven’t been thought through by the interventionists, never mind that some are influential regarded strategists. Then there’s the blithe assumption that in Syria’s chaotic conditions, where weapons are free-flowing and bought and sold in all manner of ways, it’s possible to ensure that only those you favor get your guns and that those you oppose will not.
What’s also missing from this plan to prevail at the front (the battlefield) is a consideration of the significance of the rear (America’s polity and society), which is essential for its success. The American public does not want to wade deeper into Syria just as the United States has emerged from Iraq and is exiting Afghanistan. Only 50 percent support even a calibrated attack on Syria that’s limited to airpower and missiles. But once you start down the interventionists’ road, there’s no easy way back, especially if the favored groups turn out to require more support than was surmised. That’s why a strategy that focuses on the front alone is foolish.
Syria’s war is not simply a contest that pits Sunni insurgents against Assad, his Alawite base, and those Christians, secular Sunnis, and other communities that have stuck with him, fearing that the triumph of the most doctrinaire Sunni groups would leave them vulnerable. The Sunnis battling Assad are themselves divided. The fighting among them, though muted by the overriding imperative of ousting Assad, is part of the Syrian saga and will become an even more prominent part should the objective of the opposition groups shift from wrecking the House of Assad to ruling the new Syria.
This means that the other contestants will hardly sit still once the United States starts arming its favorite Sunni groups on a large scale; they have their patrons and their own ways of procuring weapons and will double their efforts in preparation for the endgame. They haven’t bled and died in large numbers in order to hand the house keys to others. So one (presumably unintended) consequence of the interventionists’ gambit will be continued war and Syria’s transmutation into a version of what Lebanon was during the worst years of its civil war—a process already discernible. Another will be the exacerbation of Sunni-Shia strife in Lebanon, Syria and parts beyond, as the war becomes further internationalized.
The bloodiest wars since 1945 have, in the main, occurred not among states but within them. The particulars are of course very different, but the conflicts in, for example, Rwanda, the Congo, and Darfur are comparable to Syria in this one respect. There is a natural inclination to “do something” in the face of massive bloodletting. But in Syria that “something,” if it is to be substantial rather than symbolic, will require a campaign involving not just airpower but also ground troops—unless the interventionists are prepared to say “thus far and no further” for a cause they insist is so morally and strategically important.
Moreover, if Assad is swept away, there will have to be a follow-on phase of peace brokering and institution building given the divisions among Syria’s opposition forces. The countries that intervene will have to play a big role—sooner than expected and with less and less approval from Syrians as time goes by. Then there’s the business of rebuilding an economically shattered Syria.
This is what a serious project for intervention would look like. No Western government—and very few Western citizens—want to be part of it. The idea that the task won’t be so complicated or take very long is fanciful. We’ve heard these happy reassurances before.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).