August 27, 2013
The Syria Conundrum (Cont).
I truly cannot recall a foreign policy challenge in recent memory as confounding as the Syria conundrum. There are no good options, as we are all painfully aware. I have been on the record since April 2011 that once Bashar began massacring his own people, his legitimacy evaporated and he would ultimately be swept from power. I still believe this, quite apart from what the U.S. and its allies may or may not do in the coming days. I also attempted some time ago, to sketch out the beginnings of a more robust, internationalized response, including buffer zones near the Turkish border, working to better consolidate the Syrian opposition, as well more unrelenting diplomacy with both friends and foes on the dossier. Events since have only rendered talk of easy fixes more fantastical. We have seen the radicalization of many fighters on the ground, an obdurate Russian stance rendering diplomacy frustrating, as well as an arguably unexpectedly high degree of support from Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, among other impeding factors.
As the months of conflict turned to years, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions has mushroomed, with approximately 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons, not to mention over 100,000 dead. Somehow, a larger regional conflagration has not erupted (yet) in the midst of this terrible specter of violence and displacement, although clearly Iraq’s security has deteriorated (mostly but not only because of U.S. troop withdrawals), Jordan is under tremendous strain, Lebanon looks inordinately fragile even by its perennial standard of fragility, Israel is on hair-trigger, while Turkey’s Syria border has been a matter of steadily increasing concern for Ankara. Still, despite these growing risks, Washington and other Western chancelleries were mostly content to lean back amidst mostly vapid efforts and half-hearted action.
A supposed exception was the initial hullabaloo around so-called ‘red-lines’, originally depicted by the Obama Administration as not only use of chemical weapons (“CW”) but even merely movement of CW. This red line turned pink likely in Q4 2012, given reported CW usage by regime forces in Homs. Even after protracted ‘chain of custody’ cogitations that appeared to evidence regime CW usage, the Obama Administration still more or less did nothing, except a tepid decision to arm the rebels--delayed and ultimately still today an unconvincing policy change. Important to note too, I suspect it was the fall of Qusayr--with the regime and Hezbollah increasingly cleaning up the battlefield at the time with vigor --that had panicked some in Washington to begin arming the rebels directly, rather than the initial ‘red-line’ violations. Regardless, we were certainly not witnessing a robust policy with convincing strategic purpose.
Much of the above backdrop looks set to change with the apparent CW usage in Ghouta last week on a far larger scale than anything witnessed to date in Syria. Assuming the Assad regime is behind the attack—of which I have little doubt given the apparent delivery mechanism making a ‘false flag’ operation immensely doubtful—even a transparently reluctant President has been thrust into the vortex of imminent military action. Before turning to whether one might think military action warranted, or not, first, some quick predictions on what is likely to happen in the next days:
• Obama will make a statement to the nation touting the U.N. inspectors findings, our own investigative work (already a “near air-tight circumstantial case”, we are told), how broad the coalition supporting action (there will be countries beyond the usual suspects like U.K. France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc., if not the El Salvadors this go around) and the legal grounds (around violations of international legal ‘norms’—if not laws—given the Syrians not a signatory of the CW Convention, bonus points also for any non-ironic mentions of Geneva Convention), while perhaps making token mention of retroactive Congressional authorization given timing imperatives;
• He will go on to say given robust legitimacy/authorizations per “1” above he has directed limited, calibrated strikes in response to Assad’s regime odious violation of the international taboo against CW usage, a military action that will involve cruise missiles (easiest) and possibly long-range bombers (still reasonably low risk), and likely include U.S., U.K. and French direct action (I would be surprised this is cloaked as a NATO operation as that would only unduly humiliate the Russians more, quite unwise, as I’ll touch on below);
• The targets will likely include artillery batteries such as those used to deliver the CW into the environs of Ghouta, similar type ‘delivery’/transport/logistical military assets elsewhere, but will not include ‘shock and awe’ type direct hits on extremely strategic/high prestige regime targets, nor large-scale destruction of the air force, airports, air-defense systems and such (calibrated to try to not overly agitate the Iranians, who rely on air transport to aid the Syrians, nor overly rub it in the face of Moscow), although final target selection may well include some limited degree of air-force related assets as warning salvo;
• Obama will go on to message that the military action has been undertaken to protect something akin to the ‘core interests’ of, not only the United States, but also the entire civilized world, in that we cannot accept a 21st Century in which states—including non-signatories to the CW Convention—feel emboldened to use such hideous weapons (even if this has sometimes been exaggerated), and that Assad has hereby been warned should he do so again increasingly ‘high-value’ targets will be decimated (to keep a moving forward deterrent effect in place); and
• Finally, Obama will make mention that he well understands the U.S. public is tired of Middle East wars, this was the last thing he wanted to do, especially given critical tasks at home, etc. but that he has successfully deescalated us from Iraq and (supposedly) Afghanistan, and that given the egregious implications to standards of international conduct Ghouta presented, he had no choice but to lead the international community (drawing a line on the ‘leading from behind’ Libya precedent while he’s at it) in something akin to a ‘coalition of conscience’, by buttressing the strict taboo against chemical weapons use.
While this all sounds fine and dandy, the problems are many, although I will highlight just a few:
o Even such a calibrated initial campaign (say lasting approximately 36-48 hours) may lead to reactions from Moscow, Tehran or Hezbollah that may materially differ from our expectations (unless we are reaching private understandings in advance whereby Moscow is beginning to drop its client, for example), leading to the risk of greater geopolitical shocks;
o The Assad regime has effectively already gone rogue, and could become more desperate. Despite regime momentum these past months around Qusayr, Homs etc, the past weeks have seen a rebounding resiliency by the opposition, this in conjunction with Obama’s dismal reaction to Sisi’s massacre in Egypt may have led to Damascus’ miscalculation and overly cocksure use of CW, but now feeling more cornered and enfeebled it may calculate it has little to lose via additional, unpredictable actions even post-strikes (I worry about trying to change the ‘narrative’ via ‘damn the torpedoes’ adventurism in Israel, for example);
o It is important that a strategic roadmap be maintained for possible negotiations in Geneva, while no one can snap their fingers and resurrect a Dayton II (hard to believe, but a diplomatic resolution to the Syria conflict would be far more complex than ending the Bosnian conflict for a variety of reasons, nor is Dick Holbrooke around, may he RIP), we should not completely vitiate the prospects of resurrecting a diplomatic track because of the military action we are apparently imminently undertaking;
o There will doubtless be non-military casualties at the hands of American bombs, so-called ‘collateral damage’. Yes, holding Assad accountable for his ghastly CW use is certainly not an ignoble cause, but a death is a death however it comes about, and make no mistake, civilians will die (recall there was a fatality even in Bill Clinton’s dead-of-night pin-prick attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical facility); and
o What else we just don’t know. Once the die is cast, in what is arguably the most volatile tinder-box on the planet these days, we would be naïve not to expect the unexpected. Most of the time, alas, these are negative, complicating dynamics, not helpful extra tidings of good luck.
All this said, why do I find myself ever so slightly contemplating an apparent bias towards action despite my disgust at the palpable excitement emitting from Washington about our latest Middle East adventure (my Twitter feed will likely soon start updating me on specific national security team member's bowel-movements and what they might portend for Syria war coordination & planning) and trying my best to reckon head-on with our apparent tendency to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?
Here are a half-dozen reasons:
1) I do believe indiscriminate CW use against innocent civilians a terrible disgrace in our day and age, one which cannot be tolerated, even in the context of the painful hypocrisies that more likely died at Sisi’s hands in Rabaa than Assad’s at Ghouta, and we cannot even bring ourselves to suspend aid re the former, whilst we effectively go to war re the latter!;
2) The constant whinging around “credibility” apart (it is true we exaggerate and trot it out too willy-nilly), Assad all but dared Obama on this one, using CW a year after the red-line speech to the very day; to have not done anything would have truly revealed the emperor to have no clothes and sooner or later precipitated an even larger mass chemical attack (read: a ‘Srebrenica moment’);
3) I fear the IDP and refugee flows are becoming so large, and given the additional context of growing instability in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and points beyond, we’d have had to grapple with the Syria situation sooner rather than later regardless, so that if the strikes can achieve some deterrent while providing the rebels greater short-term momentum this could achieve dynamics on the ground more amenable to diplomatic follow-on;
4) With most U.S. troops out of Iraq and Israel prepared to deal Hezbollah a devastatingly brutal retaliatory blow, I do not see particularly easy options for Iran to retaliate, nor do I think Rouhani would be keen to do so regardless;
5) I believe Moscow can be mollified if the strikes are contained, proportionate and we energetically attempt to reinsert Moscow into the Geneva process to try to forge some U.S.-Russian condominium on a post-Assad Syria at some future point once the dust settles; and
6) Assad might find himself so consumed with self-preservation he may rein in any temptation towards regional trouble-making (also to try to keep his Russian patron on side as more pliable, predictable client), and revert back to more conventional tactics mostly aimed at literally saving his own skin, as in the end, he could well suffer an inglorious Gadaffi-like, brutish end, while perhaps refraining from more CW-use to avoid further military action from the West.
In short, you might say I could be persuaded the risks of inaction (or, perhaps better stated, long-term implications of doing nothing) could be worse—or at least run neck in neck--with doing something, but I say this frankly extremely torn, very concerned and with tremendous humility looking at our misadventures since 9/11 in each of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and points beyond. This is truly a problem from hell, but I do not believe we can dither from the sidelines any longer, unless we are prepared to more or less wipe our hands of the entire sorry affair. However, cosmetic, feel-good strikes without concerted strategic follow through on pressing issues such as more of a U.S. leadership role and ‘adult supervision’ over the sourcing, training, equipping, funding, and logistics around rebel assistance, aimed at building up the moderates’ capacities as contrasted with the more radical groups (less to necessarily assure 'victory' by the 'good guys'--all moronic concepts here--more to create leverage for resurrection of diplomatic initiatives by pressuring Damascus more on our terms), as well related painstaking diplomatic initiatives revamped at an appropriate juncture and heightened humanitarian assistance, all of these and more will be critical.
We responsibly should not simply bomb for 36 hours, and then go away again. This would likely prove worse than doing nothing. We need to re-engage in a holistic Syria policy that squarely grapples with broader regional dynamics and that ultimately leads to a negotiated solution, a task we’d shirked, but where Assad’s use of CW appears to have forced a reluctant President to more forcefully engage. So if we are going in, we’re going in for more than a few Tomahawks so everyone can get a late August pat on the back that ‘something was done’. It’s not quite Colin Powell’s old so-called Pottery Barn rule: ‘you break it, you own it’. It’s perhaps more here, ‘you bomb it, the breakage is yours too’. Are we up to this? Our national security team? The strategic follow-through? The countless hours of spade-work with allies and, yes, foes? I just don’t know. I am straddling the fence and unsure, but it is one man ultimately who will decide. My thoughts are with him, this may be a more momentous decision than he may wholly realize. I would not begrudge him standing aside, if he feels the ‘roll-in the cavalry’ noises to date have caused Assad to blink already creating a sufficient enough deterrent impact (though this is dubious). He must also ask himself, when he thinks honestly taking his private counsel, whether he believes he and his team really have the appetite and abilities once embarking on this course to actually succeed in it. These are not easy questions. Yet they demand answers and realistic appraisal. As part of that analysis, one must honestly reckon too with the emerging school of thought that we can bifurcate a military action aimed purely to deter on CW, but without enmeshing ourselves in the conflict and attempting to influence broader outcomes. One doubts it could play out so neatly, and such assumptions should be amply stress-tested.
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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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