President Obama and Congress have no good options in Syria. Tolerating genocide is the worst option of all.
Little doubt remains, except among Vladimir Putin and others whose capacity for denial is equally broad, that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad used chemical weapons last month to kill 1,400 helpless civilians — more than 400 of them children — in the course of waging the country’s brutal civil war.
The evidence presented by the State Department is persuasive, not the sort of trumped-up nonsense (at least in retrospect) that the George W. Bush administration offered as a pretext for invading Iraq a decade ago. The only issue now is what response America and the rest of the world will make to this outrage against humanity.
If Assad gets away with using weapons that international treaties have forbidden for nearly a century, how many of his people will he slaughter next time in his quest to turn the Arab Spring — and its democratic aspirations — into a lifeless winter? The two-year war has killed more than 100,000 people, sent millions more into desperate exile, and spread to neighboring countries. How many more deaths and atrocities can we consider nobody’s business but Syria’s?
Will unhinged autocrats in places such as Iran and North Korea, or retailers of terrorism such as Hezbollah, adopt Assad’s model of unleashing chemical weapons — or worse — to keep their populations in line or pursue other power plays? Will other nations lose confidence in America’s ability to ensure global security and cut their own deals with well-armed tyrants? Will our troops face nerve-gas attacks on battlefields?
Contrary to the voices of isolationists on the left and right, Americans have a direct and imminent stake in these questions. If the United States does not enforce international law and standards against Syria — preferably with the support of our allies, but unilaterally if necessary — no one else will.
It was disappointing that the British Parliament chose not to support military action against Syria, largely because of a poor presentation by Prime Minister David Cameron. But its actions do not, and should not, determine what the United States will do.
President Obama pledges limited, strategic airstrikes against Syria to “deter and degrade” its ability to use chemical weapons. He insists, properly, that the action he takes will not be a precursor to deploying U.S. ground troops.
A resolution approved last week by a Senate committee limits any military action to 60 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension. Congress is expected to vote on the resolution soon after its return to Washington this week.
Some critics portray the President’s decision to seek congressional authorization of the Syrian strikes — even though he insists he doesn’t need it — as an admission of weakness. I think it was an inspired gesture.
Involving Congress belies the oft-stated claim by Mr. Obama’s antagonists that he is running an imperial presidency. This action, which respects the too-often ignored War Powers Resolution, acknowledges the need for a robust, bipartisan debate by Americans’ elected representatives on the use of force.
Participation by Congress might even cause those Republican lawmakers and their allies whose sole political principle consists of rejecting anything Mr. Obama proposes to think a bit more critically this time. That could be a useful exercise, if it doesn’t cause their heads to explode.
If the President is to maintain his and the nation’s credibility, he still needs to frame and articulate to Americans the longer-term goals of his Syrian policy. What is he prepared to do if Assad again resorts to banned poison gas, even after the initial punitive response? He hasn’t said.
Mr. Obama asserts he still seeks Assad’s ouster, but says that is not the purpose of the military strikes. Hawks such as Sen. John McCain say they won’t be satisfied with pinprick strikes against Syria, and insist that the goal of the U.S. operation must be to overthrow Assad.
That doesn’t seem possible just now, given the weakness and division of the Syrian opposition. So what is the President’s vision of a political solution that will create a peaceful, democratic, and functioning Syria if and when Assad goes? How does he propose to deliver that outcome without bogging down this country again in a war in the Middle East?
One element of the broader strategy is arming the rebels in Syria, to equip them to challenge Assad’s forces more effectively. That creates the nightmare prospect: Weapons provided by the United States wind up in the hands of al-Qaeda, just as some of the arms we sent to Afghan rebels in the 1980s to battle their Soviet occupiers were later used against U.S. troops.
But the Syrian opposition isn’t monolithic — far from it. Secretary of State John Kerry and others say they know who the (relatively) good and moderate guys are, who deserve our help and can use it responsibly. That remains to be demonstrated.
Imposing a no-fly zone over Syria can’t be ruled out, although it shouldn’t be the first tool out of the box. That would require repeated engagement of Syrian forces, involving our military on a broad scale in the conflict.
And military action can’t be the only response to Assad’s war crimes. There need to be further economic sanctions, and not just against Syria. The cynical leaders of Russia — Syria’s arms dealer of choice — and China must pay a price, economically and diplomatically, for blocking action in the United Nations Security Council to punish Assad.
The United States can’t exact that price alone; it needs international support. The European Union, NATO, and the Arab League must speak out, and act, far more forcefully against Syria than they have so far.
For now, though, Assad remains to be called to account, and that task falls to the United States. No one can say for certain how military intervention will turn out. But the risks inherent in doing nothing in the face of official mass murder outweigh those of the limited application of force.
Combating global terrorism, whether state-sponsored or freelance, isn’t America’s fight? It isn’t an issue of our national security?
Check your calendar, count off three days from now, and remember the anniversary.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.