Foreign Policy Spotlight: U.S. Fumbling on Syria Guarantees a Dissatisfying Outcome

The U.S. has provided a host of rationales for intervention in Syria, but almost all of them are inadequate or too difficult to accomplish. Worse yet, any potential course of action may give Assad tacit approval for the continued slaughter of civilians — provided that slaughter does not come via the fumes of chemical weapons.

The most positive development since the devastating chemical weapons attack that killed as many as 1,429 Syrians began with Secretary of State John Kerry’s sarcastic remark and somehow blossomed into a relative diplomatic breakthrough with Russia. Given the chaotic past couple of weeks and this seemingly accidental diplomatic maneuver, it is useful to review how the original arguments for limited military intervention developed.

In handling the Syrian crisis, the United States has largely failed to prioritize its interests in a potential intervention. Instead, various American officials have made arguments for intervention that range from upholding humanitarian principles to restraining Iranian aggression. The unfortunate lesson here is that the United States tried to tackle too many issues on too many fronts. Making matters worse is that whatever action America decides to take in Syria, the likelihood of failure is exceedingly high.

With Syria, one of the most troubling — yet common — justifications for military intervention came from those who thought the Syrian Civil War would be an appropriate opportunity to launch a proxy war against Iran. In an interview with Fox News, Senator John McCain made the case for military intervention in Syria, saying “this is really about Iran and their continued development of nuclear weapons, and if we stand by and watch the chemical weapons being used, what signal do you think that sends to Iran and North Korea?”

President Barack Obama, while addressing the nation and advocating for a limited military strike on Syria, also brought up the specter of Iranian nuclear capabilities by warning that failure to act would “embolden Assad’s ally, Iran.” This logic has spread over to some in think tank spheres, like Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Tabler argues the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Syria “is an opportunity to pressure Iran into making hard choices not only in Syria, but regarding its nuclear program as well.”

The past several years have seen increasing tensions between Iran and the United States as calls for strikes on the former to deter its nuclear program have come to ebb and flow with other developments in the Middle East. As the more hawkish demands for a military strike on Iran have not panned out under Obama’s administration, there are those who view the tragic events in Syria as an opportune time to play geopolitics with Iran.

In an incredibly complex conflict that has already taken the lives of 100,000 people and led to the displacement of more than 2 million others, now is not the time to opportunistically use this tragedy to fight a proxy battle with Iran. Still, this strain of thought is prominent in some justifications for military intervention in Syria.

Another argument in favor of intervention is that the United States must uphold international norms regarding the use of chemical weapons in warfare. In the same speech referenced above, President Obama refers to the “basic rules” and “our common sense of humanity” that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad violated by launching the August 21 chemical weapons attack. The United States is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which admirably prohibits using and producing chemical weapons. Yet logical inconsistencies and a recent history of chemical weapons use undermine the United States’ outrage over chemical weapons in particular.

I fully agree with President Obama’s statement that chemical weapons are so vile because there is “no distinction between soldier and infant.” But President Assad’s months-long siege of Homs did not distinguish between civilians and combatants either. Chemical weapons are indeed dangerous for Syrian civilians, but President Assad’s relentlessly brutal assault on his citizens with gunfire and bombs has been even more so.

Another troubling inconsistency in America’s messaging has been our lack of response to previous chemical attacks. When Iraq under Saddam Hussein was gassing Iranians during the horrifying Iran-Iraq war, the United States was silent, as a Foreign Policy investigation has revealed. When Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds as part of his genocidal Anfal campaign, the United States turned a blind eye. Previous inaction does not justify further inaction, but it is a weak spot in American arguments for why this is the moment to intervene.

A final common rationale for intervention in Syria is made on humanitarian grounds, which is an argument that is simultaneously persuasive and the most challenging. Arguments for humanitarian intervention seem more and more like a persuasive tactic and less like an actual motivation to intervene. When John Kerry made assurances that any intervention would be “unbelievably small,” it became essential to critique America’s true interests in intervention. If a military strike would be so limited, than how could it possibly be effective enough to save any lives? It is difficult to see how there could be any humanitarian benefits from a “small” military strike.

Furthermore, after the recent deal struck by the United States and Russia, Assad has agreed to turn over control of his chemical weapons. But I fear that he has also been given the green light to continue killing civilians with impunity, so long as he uses only the “less barbaric” methods of gunfire and bombs.

The arguments the United States used as rationale for military intervention were scattered and not cohesive. For example, saving civilian lives while deterring Iran and North Korea and keeping any military strike “incredibly small” would be impossible to accomplish. Whatever potential solutions the United States developed to help resolve the Syrian crisis were going to be a disappointment, because our articulated priorities played as mere talking points instead of real, achievable goals.

Truthfully, the central priority of the United States in the past couple of weeks has been the entwined passive goals of avoiding a weak appearance and clinging to the legitimacy the United States continues to assert. President Obama created a trap for himself when he drew a red line at the use of chemical weapons, because now the United States is required to act—one way or another—to save face.

Whether that is a military strike that would fall far short of all our stated goals, or a diplomatic agreement that grants Assad permission to continue killing his people, an important lesson of this ordeal is that the United States must articulate realistic foreign policy goals, and it must be willing to follow through, both on a national level and on the level of the international community.


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