September 3, 2013
NTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP – NEW STATEMENT
Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people. The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons – a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence. The administration also refers to the need, given President Obama’s asserted “redline” against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington’s credibility – again an understandable objective though unlikely to reso nate much with Syrians. Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.
To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool’s errand. In a conflict that has settled into a deadly if familiar pattern – and in a region close to boiling point – it inevitably will introduce a powerful element of uncertainty. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable. Still, several observations can be made about what it might and might not do:
Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath. Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible.
Whether or not the U.S. chooses to launch a military offensive, its responsibility should be to try to optimize chances of a diplomatic breakthrough. This requires a two-fold effort lacking to date: developing a realistic compromise political offer as well as genuinely reaching out to both Russia and Iran in a manner capable of eliciting their interest – rather than investing in a prolonged conflict that has a seemingly bottomless capacity to escalate.
In this spirit, the U.S. should present – and Syria’s allies should seriously and constructively consider – a proposal based on the following elements:
Such a proposal should then form the basis for renewed efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint United Nations/Arab League envoy, and lead to rapid convening of a Geneva II conference.
Debate over a possible strike – its wisdom, preferred scope and legitimacy in the absence of UN Security Council approval – has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalise the search for a political settlement. Discussions about its legality aside, any contemplated military action should be judged based on whether it advances that goal or further postpones it.