News / Middle East

Column: US Strike on Syria Could Be Prelude to Diplomacy

A Tomahawk cruise missile takes off from the USS Barry in 2011 during operations against Libya. The Barry is one of four U.S. Navy destroyers now in position to take part in any U.S. attack on Syria.
A Tomahawk cruise missile takes off from the USS Barry in 2011 during operations against Libya. The Barry is one of four U.S. Navy destroyers now in position to take part in any U.S. attack on Syria.
It’s hard to accuse the Barack Obama administration of being trigger happy.
 
While Obama has been willing to use force to kill Taliban and al-Qaida militants, he has studiously avoided embroiling the United States in another war in the Middle East or South Asia.
 
The apparent U.S. decision to strike Syria for what appears to have been a wide-scale and lethal use of chemical weapons on a Damascus suburb is in keeping with the Obama doctrine of selected use of force for carefully defined reasons.
 
According to White House officials, any strikes will not be meant to topple the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. However despicable the Syrian leader’s behavior has become, the opposition to him is apparently not yet capable of running the country in a less brutal and more coherent fashion. And the Obama administration is not willing to commit the ground forces necessary to remove Assad. So instead of regime change, U.S.-led military action now would have three important goals:
 
1. To deter further use of chemical weapons. While critics accurately note that Assad has killed more than 100,000 people, mainly through the use of conventional arms, there is a legal and moral taboo about chemical weapons that dates from their first use during World War I. As Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday (Aug. 26), “there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” (This appeared to be a play on George W. Bush’s famous 2002 State of the Union formulation that “the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”)
 
2. To shore up the Obama administration’s credibility as a significant actor in global affairs. The United States may not be the world’s policeman, but when the president clearly defines a red line – in Syria’s case, no large-scale use of chemical weapons – there must be major consequences if that line is crossed. The message will not be lost on others, including Iran, which may have considered crossing other Obama red lines involving the development of nuclear weapons. It will also reassure Israel that Obama is not bluffing about Iran.
 
3. To prepare the ground for more intensive diplomacy with the aim of achieving a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war. The only solution to the Syrian war is a political one, but military action can push recalcitrant actors to the negotiating table.
 
War outcome still uncertain
 
Over the past two years, the advantage in the Syrian civil war has oscillated between the Assad regime and its myriad opposition. Assad – with the assistance of Iranian weapons and Hezbollah forces – achieved a major victory in June, retaking the western city of Qusair and shoring up the border with Lebanon.
 
Earlier in August, however, Syrian rebels captured the Menagh air base north of Aleppo and seized large caches of heavy weapons there and at an army depot outside Damascus. It is possible that last week’s chemical attack on East Ghouta – a Damascus suburb heavily populated by Sunni Muslims -- was in part in response to this rebel victory.
 
A cease-fire is urgently needed in Syria for the sake of both Syrians and their neighbors. As the fighting continues, the country is being destroyed and de facto partitioned into Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Alawite-Shiite Arab slices. Refugee flows are intensifying.
 
One-third of Syria’s 22 million people are now displaced and the burden on Lebanon and Jordan, in particular, is becoming unbearable. The object for outside powers is expected to be to stabilize the situation while working intensively to strengthen the most reasonable elements of the Syrian opposition and to identify those within the Assad regime who are serious about achieving an end to bloodshed.
With the latest chemical weapons reports from Syria, President Barak Obama is facing some heavy decisions in the coming days.With the latest chemical weapons reports from Syria, President Barak Obama is facing some heavy decisions in the coming days.
x
With the latest chemical weapons reports from Syria, President Barak Obama is facing some heavy decisions in the coming days.
With the latest chemical weapons reports from Syria, President Barak Obama is facing some heavy decisions in the coming days.

The Obama administration – in addition to assembling a multilateral “coalition of the willing” in support of selected military strikes – is expected to be consulting with the United Nations, the Russians and the Iranians about organizing a second Geneva conference to negotiate a cease-fire later this year. While the U.S. has had many disputes and disappointments with the government of Vladimir Putin, the U.S. and Russia, with UN help, are still best equipped to de-escalate the Syrian crisis.
 
Iran could play a role
 
Iran is another vital player that Obama has sought, unsuccessfully, to marginalize. With the inauguration of a new president, Hassan Rouhani, known for his diplomatic skill, the United States may accept Iran as a participant in Geneva II. U.N. Undersecretary General Jeffrey Feltman, who was in Tehran this week, has been discussing Syria with Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Feltman, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East and former ambassador to Lebanon, is well qualified to convey messages about Syria and other matters between Iran and the United States, which lack formal diplomatic ties.
 
Nothing in this column is meant to suggest that U.S. military action against Syria will be easy or “surgical.” Innocent people are almost certain to be killed. Syria and its allies could retaliate against American civilians in grisly and unpredictable ways. But the Syrian civil war is not a vintage wine that will improve with age. U.S. actions so far have failed to shape the crisis in any beneficial way. Instead, Syria is becoming more chaotic. Islamic extremists are metastasizing and the Assad regime is becoming even more brutal.
 
U.S. strikes should be seen as part of a broader strategy intended to deter further use of chemical weapons and convince Assad and the opposition that negotiations will achieve more than killing. Chuck Hagel, before he was defense secretary, told me that in “the kind of complicated world we live in, I’m not sure there’s a solution to everything right now. What you have to do is manage it so it doesn’t get worse, manage it toward a higher ground of solution possibilities.”
 
Limited U.S. military strikes can serve that purpose while upholding one of the few firmly established norms of civilized nations.

(To see more of Barbara Slavin's columns, click on the link below)

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Video Experts Warn World Losing Ebola Fight

Doctors Without Borders says world is losing battle against Ebola, unless wealthy nations dispatch specialized biological disaster response teams More

Video Experts: Rise of Islamic State Significant Development in Jihadism

Many analysts contend the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years More

US-Based Hong Kongers Pledge Support for Pro-Democracy Activists

Democracy advocates call on Chinese living abroad to join them in opposing new election rules for their home territory More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearancei
X
Elizabeth Lee
September 02, 2014 8:57 PM
Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearance

Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Experts See Rise of ISIS as Significant Development

The Islamic State’s rise seems sudden. It caught the U.S. by surprise this summer when it captured large portions of northern Iraq and spread its wings in neighboring Syria. But many analysts contend that the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years. VOA's Jela de Franceschi takes a closer look at the rise of ISIS and its implications for the Middle East and beyond.
Video

Video Israel Concerned Over Syrian Rebels in Golan

Israeli officials are following with concern the recent fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces near the contested Golan Heights. Forty-four U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji have been seized by Syrian Islamist rebels and the clashes occasionally have spilled into Israel. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.

AppleAndroid