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The Syrian Civil War: What Is To Be Done?

By Eugene Goodheart

The government shutdown and debt ceiling mess deflected attention from the Syria crisis. But Eugene Goodheart's careful analysis of that situation is still on time. We begin his latest dispatch on Obama's "trimming" with a forward-looking "postscript" the author added to his original piece.

As for Obama’s ambivalence about going to war and his openness about it (unusual in a president), I find it admirable in its authenticity. In acting in a crisis, however, one has to overcome ambivalence. Obama has already shown himself on other occasions capable of acting decisively. Our role in the Syrian civil war has not yet played itself out. Final judgments are premature...

From the very beginning, Obama has not wanted to intervene in Syria for obvious reasons. He did not want to repeat the disaster of our invasion of Iraq. An outsider’s intervention in what was increasingly becoming a civil war would only worsen matters. Yet it was becoming harder and harder to simply stand by while a regime was slaughtering its own citizens. The international community, as embodied in the Security Council of the United Nations, was not ready or willing to act, since Russia and China have the veto power to prevent any effort against its client, the Syrian regime. In such a situation, the task seems to fall to the world’s superpower. Obama felt he had to draw a red line, hoping that the drawing of the line would be enough to prevent it from being crossed. The line was the use of chemical weapons, and to his dismay and perhaps surprise it was crossed. It is not clear that he had a strategy in mind if the line was crossed. Should he have drawn a line? It has been argued that the use of chemical weapons to kill more than one hundred thousand civilians is no worse than the killing of over a hundred thousand and yet no action from the United States was forthcoming. To which, one might respond, that death by chemical weapons is a form of torture much worse than death incurred by other means of warfare—and more indiscriminate in its effect on the civilian population. Moreover, if the universally agreed upon prohibition against their use is not enforced, it sets a precedent against the enforcement of other prohibitions like the one against the use of nuclear weapons. Should the US then act unilaterally?

Clearly, Obama is a reluctant warrior. In threatening a brief but robust missile strike, he insists that the US will not be going to war, which for him means “boots on the ground.” But a missile strike is an act of war, notwithstanding John Kerry’s silly remark that it will be “unbelievably small.” Unbelievable indeed. Obama seems to acknowledge the predicament he’s in with respect to Syria, only partly the result of his own making. Even if he had not set the red line over the use of chemical weapons, there would be the constant expectation that he would have to act at some point in response to Assad’s massacring of his own people, whether or not by chemical weapons. In every one of his utterances, both content and tone reflect ambivalence about the prospect of intervening. We hear it in the hesitations of his speech, its muted tone (contrast it with the very aggressive tone of Secretary of State Kerry’s speech), his acknowledgement of the war weariness of the American public and his confession of his own war weariness. And understandably so, since the outcomes of any and all actions that might be taken as well as action would be, as one commentator put it, terrible. Ballistic missiles fired at selective sites would probably be hit and miss with collateral damage to civilians without necessarily succeeding; they would provoke retaliation from the regime and other actors sympathetic with the regime. Even if a military strike had the rare good fortune of eliminating chemical weapons or deterring their further use, it would not end the civil war and probably force a more sustained involvement of our military. Our inability to end the killing by intervening would only confirm our ineffectuality as a superpower. If we do nothing, we will also be telegraphing our ineffectuality and, as conventional wisdom has it, Obama will lose credibility in his conduct of domestic as well as foreign affairs. He knows that he needs to avoid acting unilaterally and with support from Congress and the public. He is to be praised for having broken a pattern of presidents going to war without congressional support. Saying that he has the authorization to act if he doesn’t get support, but wanting support and not getting it, has, however, put him in an awkward position. If he acts or doesn’t act—in either case, he is in a vulnerable position. Dilemmas abound.

Have the Russians provided the Administration with a way out by their call for international control and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons? Yes, if the Syrian acceptance of the proposal is genuine and a system of convincing verification can be implemented. It may indeed turn out that Obama’s threat has already had a deterrent effect. In which case, kudos to Obama! If, however, the joint American/Russian effort fails, the problems outlined above remain. The elimination of chemical weapons during a civil war will be very difficult and take months and even years to accomplish—even if the Russians and Syrians are in good faith. Even so, the Russian proposal should strengthen Obama’s position since he can reasonably claim that without the military threat, it would never have been made. What the realization of the Russian proposal does not accomplish is the end of the civil war. The killing and the massive exodus of refugees will continue. Both the United States and Russia agree that the only possible solution is a politically negotiated one, but the chances of that occurring in the near future are virtually nil. The Assad regime and the rebels in all their diversity are mortal enemies. The prospect of a victory on either side is appalling. If Assad triumphs, we should expect the kind of brutal ruthlessness to the defeated that would guarantee that no one would ever rise against him again. If the rebels win, the Al Nusra Front, the Al Quaeda affiliated group, would be in a strong position to take over, or the result might be chaos and a failed state as rival groups vie for power. We should have no illusions about the rebels, even those of secularist persuasion, of how they would treat the Alawites, Assad’s constituency, if they triumphed. There is considerable evidence of rebel brutality toward Christians and captured government troops. I know an educated and reasonable Syrian American who refers to the Alawites as thugs who should all be deported when Assad is defeated. Some pundits have suggested that the least terrible (but still terrible) outcome would be “a managed stalemate,” which would prolong the war, preventing either side from winning. Such a stalemate would be possible if the US provides significant military support for the rebel side. Would a stalemate push both sides to the negotiating table? Who knows?

The fact is that the international community does not have the will or the ability to prevent wars between nations or to combat brutal dictatorships. It is even less capable of ending civil wars and stateless terrorism. As I have already said, the failure of the international community is the reason that the responsibility for taking action so often falls to the United States and the countries willing to support action. It is no argument against intervening that there are many places where atrocities are taking place and we have not acted: why single out Syria? We cannot intervene everywhere; certain places provide better opportunities than others. Unfortunately, a moral imperative to do something is not a sufficient condition for action when the consequences, intended and unintended, could make matters worse. If the arguments for and against using military force are equally strong or weak, the decision should be not to directly intervene. Given the situation that Obama finds himself it, a decision either way will be very difficult. The best decision, it seems to me, would be providing secularist rebels with military aid as well as humanitarian help for the civilian population inside Syria and in the refugee camps. Right now there is an asymmetry between Russian support of the Assad regime and the lack of support from us. Help to the rebels would not require Congressional authorization because it is not strictly speaking an act of war. I am, of course, aware of the risks that the weapons we supply might fall into the hand of the wrong groups and that we may get involved in a proxy conflict with the Russians. Before passing judgment on the utterances and actions of others in this terribly difficult situation, we need to acknowledge how uncertain and fraught with danger is any action that might be taken.

From October, 2013

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