Walking a fine line on Syria

One consequence of President Obama's decision to refer the Syrian chemical weapons issue to Congress is that any action the US eventually decides upon risks being shaped more by the need for congressional votes than an objective assessment of what would be most effective.

As Wells Bennett points out on the Lawfare blog, any statute authorising force "must be broad enough to win support from intervention-ish Senators like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, but also narrow enough to command votes from congressional democrats". 

This could result in a jumbled compromise that satisfies nobody. Not that it necessarily will, but there's a possibility. Let's see how it's going so far.

A few days ago, Obama set out his own position: no open-ended commitment, no boots on the ground, and consideration of options "that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons".

That's how it should be. Regardless of everything else that is happening in Syria, use of chemical weapons – anywhere – ought to be a red line, but not an excuse to join in the broader conflict. It should not become a backdoor way, as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently advocated, of achieving other goals such as "limiting the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence". 

The latest draft of the senate resolution (full text here) does appear to follow Obama's preferred line quite closely, though it also opens up the possibility of broadening the goals. The current text, of course, may well be amended again in the days to come. Section 2(a) currently states:

The President is authorised ... to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria, only to:

(1) respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government in the conflict in Syria;

(2) deter Syria's use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect our allies and partners against the use of such weapons; and

(3) degrade Syria's capacity to use such weapons in the future.

The draft sets a time limit of 60 days for this authorisation, with one possible extension of a further 30 days.

The draft specifically limits military action to Syrian territory (a previous draft did not do so – opening up the possibility of strikes elsewere, such as Lebanon or Iran).

It has also been widely reported that the draft rules out "boots on the ground". That is not quite accurate. The document actually says it "does not authorise the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations". In other words, troops could be sent to Syria in a non-combat role, such as "advising" and training rebel fighters.

While insisting that the issue is chemical weapons, the draft does allow scope for blurring of goals. It notes, for example, that the use of military force is "consistent with and furthers" the goals of the US strategy towards Syria, including achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict. Thus, degrading Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons, while not intended to overthrow him, is seen as assisting more general American objectives.

This is spelled out in more detail in Section 5 of the draft, which says:

Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this resolution, the President shall consult with Congress and submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives an integrated United States Government strategy for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria, including a comprehensive review of current and planned US diplomatic, political, economic, and military policy towards Syria, including: 

(1) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States; 

(2) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian political opposition, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition; 

(3) efforts to isolate extremist and terrorist groups in Syria to prevent their influence on the future transitional and permanent Syrian governments; 

(4) coordination with allies and partners; and 

(5) efforts to limit support from the Government of Iran and others for the Syrian regime.

This is where it all gets rather tricky. The plan, while tackling chemical weapons, is also to pursue a "negotiated political settlement" by means that are at least partly military.

Referring to the chemical weapons issue yesterday, Obama said: "What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad's capabilities," but then added: "At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition."

So the US is pursuing two Syria strategies at the same time – one related to chemical weapons, the other to the wider conflict. Obviously it would be madness to have these two strategies working at cross-purposes, and if the response to chemical weapons helps to bring the general conflict to a swifter conclusion no one can complain. 

Equally, though, trying to maintain the worldwide ban on chemical weapons is a matter of principle and other policy considerations regarding Syria should not be allowed to get in the way of that. 

Pursuing these two strategies in parallel may just be possible but the more they become merged the more what was originally a principled stand on chemical weapons will be seen as an excuse for something else.

It's an extremely fine line. Will Obama be able to stick to it?

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 4 September 2013