Let’s return to the immediate aftermath of the deployment of chemical weapons on rebel-held areas of Syria attack on August 21, 2013.
Given the Obama administration’s previously stated “red line” that a chemical weapons attack represented, speculation began almost immediately that the U.S. would increase it military engagement in the conflict, likely by bombing Syrian government targets. And by August 23, reports indicated a high-level meeting at the White House to discuss this option—with the diplomats, notably, Susan Rice, representing a pro-bombing position, and the military, in the person of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, against it.
At the UN Security Council, Russia, the crucial Syrian government ally, insisted on a full investigation, claiming it had evidence that the bombs were launched by rebel groups. Enough consensus was achieved to allow UN inspectors, already on the ground to investigate accusations of a previous chemical weapon attack, to investigate the current charges on August 26.
What if at this moment, instead of adopting the military approach, the Obama administration had chosen a different path?
For instance, immediately pushing for a full investigation of the facts, including support for the UN inspectors (for which it has offered only wavering support) and for intelligence sharing among all the key countries, including Russia which continues to dispute the idea that the Syria government was behind the attacks. Russia is not alone in doubting proof that the U.S. has heretofore presented, lingering questions influenced the British Parliamentary debate. U.S. presentation of evidence does not need to produce universal agreement, but the questions need to be taken seriously. A thorough independent investigation would have forged a stronger international consensus for any actions taken as direct punishment for use of chemical weapons, be they military, legal or other.
This approach to punishment could have been bolstered by a simultaneous diplomatic surge behind a political process that engaged all the relevant actors–and for an overview of these actors, their roles and positions, look here. Since Hezbollah entered the fray in full force, the Syrian government, has, been by most accounts gained the upper hand militarily, but seems incapable of re-claiming the bulk of rebel-held grounds. The rebels, at odds with each other as well as the state, are also unable to make further advances. Capitalizing on the global disgust with the blatant attack against civilians, a new push to force serious concessions could have been made—and might have represented the first serious diplomatic instead of what some experts have termed, “diplomacy lite.”
The use of chemical weapons has made the Syrian regime more vulnerable to pressure; this pressure might have been leveraged–not allowed to dissipate in the name of air strikes that are further polarizing the key international actors. This would have required talking to Iran and Russia, and maximizing their influence with the Syrian government. Neither the Russians nor the Iranians have shown any signs of approving use of chemical weapons; their opposition has been to the US plan to bomb Syria. One might not agree with them, but their positions have not, thus far, been articulated in irresponsible ways. The most irresponsible position at the UN thus far has come from by the US ambassador to the organization, Samantha Power, who managed in a single briefing to dismiss Russia, the UN Security Council, and, thereby, political resolution of the conflict.
The other actors that the U.S. might have put pressure on are the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks, the primary sponsors of different rebel groups. Talk of the wide-ranging goals and nature of the rebel groups is disingenuous if it fails to acknowledge that U.S. allies are supporting some of the most radical elements who are opposed to any sort of compromise, and a political solution will require this. The US might also have evaluated how its covert support for rebel groups might be pointed towards a peace table. The longevity of the Syrian war follows well-established patterns whereby outside interventions in support of armed groups with multiple agendas and in the context of a stalemate increases the duration of conflict (see scholarly articles by Balch-Lindsay & Enterline 2002, Cunningham 2010, Regan 2010).
Quickly and deftly leveraging outrage at the use of chemical weapons in order to spearhead a strong diplomatic initiative was an option and might yet be one. It is not my idea; it comes from the former Syrian opposition chief, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib. Such a move would require the U.S. to articulate its interest in resolution of the Syrian conflict in a way that best enables a capable new political dispensation to emerge. The longer this conflict endures the less likely is this outcome, the more civilians will die, and the more Syrian communities will be torn apart.
The war must end. Responsible leadership would do what it takes to seize the moment to achieve this. There are serious discussions out there about how to do it: from the EU, UN Security General Ban-ki Moon, the International Crisis Group, William Polk, Stephen Weissman, Alia Brahimi, Christopher Hill and Brent Scrowcroft, to name only a few.
The world is not a safer place when the only vision that the U.S. government can summon for strong action to reduce violence is to increase it without offering a companion political plan for what comes next.