What To Do In Syria

There are no good options left in Syria. The recent chemical attack in Douma and the response by the United States, United Kingdom, and France to that attack highlighted this point. The attack by the three Western powers raised many questions. In the United States, we are rightly debating the legality of the use of force in Syria without congressional approval. We are also debating the goals of such action, both what they are and what they should be. Read more at LobeLog

Obama Punts Syria Question To Congress

US President Barack Obama’s decision to use force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons but to seek Congressional approval before doing so was very surprising. It is a major reversal of the behavior of every president since the 1973 War Powers Resolution was enacted. That Resolution, which set limits on the President’s ability to embroil the United States in a lengthy military action in the wake of two extended but undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam, has been a point of contention for presidents ever since, with all of them without exception calling the resolution unconstitutional.

The constitutionality of the resolution has never been tested in court, like whenever it has been violated (as Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon and Bill Clinton did in the Balkans). Congress has merely voiced its disapproval, but taken no further action. Neither side can be sure of how the Supreme Court would decide the question. But every Chief Executive from Nixon to Obama have claimed that it violates the separation of powers by impinging on the president’s purview as Commander in Chief. Others claim, with some justification, that it actually codifies presidential impingement on Congress’ exclusive authority to declare war.

Obama surely knows that the War Powers Resolution would not have even come into play in his proposed action. The resolution does not stop the president from taking a limited action that would last, at most a few days, although the constitutional question is considerably more complicated. But the tug of war between the legislative and executive branches that it represents is an ongoing one, with Congress always pushing for more involvement in foreign policy and the president jealously guarding his prerogatives. It is absolutely unprecedented for a president to give any ground on this without a fight.

That, however, is what Obama has done. He knows well that the US public does not want to see us involved in another Middle East war; that, as despised as Bashar al-Assad is, the Syrian rebel forces are no longer identified with the Syrian people Assad is hurting in the minds of many Americans, and that some of the most radical elements among them scare Americans more than Assad does; that Russia will veto any action against its Syrian ally at the UN Security Council; and that, especially after the vote in Britain’s House of Commons against action, the president has few allies abroad to offer international legitimacy to American actions.

Given that he surely knows Congress has no legal right to vote on this question, Obama’s decision is a purely political one. He is quite likely unhappy that his foolish declaration of a red line at chemical weapons has put him in this position, and he is being attacked from all sides, either for not acting right away or for bringing the US closer to a new intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts. He knows that his credibility in the region is now at stake and that allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as adversaries like Iran, will lose even more faith in him if he fails to act. So he is sharing that burden with Congress.

I suspect that, given that the red line has been drawn and most members of Congress will not want the US to look weak and indecisive — however much the Republicans might enjoy Obama looking that way — Congress will vote to support a strike. There will also very likely be a lobbying push in support of Congressional support for Obama. Saudi Arabia opposes Assad, so it would certainly want to see an attack. Israel is much less interested in seeing Assad ousted because a new Syrian government is unlikely to keep the Syrian-Israeli border as quiet as the Assad dynasty has for four decades now. But, despite his being the devil Israelis know, the Israelis don’t have any stake in seeing Assad emerge triumphant at this point, since that would represent a major victory for Iran and, especially, Hezbollah, and there is no way of knowing how Assad would deal with Israel after a victory. Still, while Israel has no great stake in the victor of this conflict, it very much wants to see the chemical and biological weapons Assad has destroyed. Israel does not want those weapons in Syria at all, whoever might have them. So, AIPAC will spur into action, although they may do so quietly, not wanting to be perceived as pushing the US into a war for Israel.

If Obama is wise, he will use the time he now has to try to, at best, find some common ground with Russia where they can come together on a diplomatic plan or, at least, shore up more international support for his “limited attack” on Syria. What seems unlikely, unless Congress does vote against the attack, is any other way to avoid a strike on Syria. Obama has committed the US with his red line declaration, and now, if he doesn’t act, not only does it damage his credibility; it will also tempt the Assad regime to do it again.

No doubt, Iran will be a major part of the debate. A major argument for striking Syria — and it is likely to be very persuasive on the Hill — will be that if we don’t, it will destroy our credibility with respect to “all options” being on the table in preventing Iran from a nuclear weapon. The more productive place for Iran to occupy in this discussion is much more of a long shot. That is, that Iran, if brought into the diplomatic process as a partner, can help find an actual resolution that stops, or at least curtails the massive violence in Syria. Such an engagement with Iran could also help solve the ongoing nuclear conflict and give Washington time to test the intentions of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. That course seems to have been hinted at by Obama in recent statements, and some excellent analysts, including Jim Lobe and Barbara Slavin believe he may be trying to open the door to including Iran in the process. I would applaud loudly if this turns out to be the case, but it still seems far too risky a political move to me.

In the end, I think Congress will approve the resolution. Having gotten an unprecedented gift from Obama in the form of a president asking for congressional authorization when he doesn’t have to, lawmakers will want to encourage such behavior in the future. Combined with the credibility question and Saudi and Israeli lobbying, that should bring a sufficient number of votes into his column. I suspect Obama must have done some informal gauging of Congressional opinion on this question in the days before he made this announcement.

It is unclear what Obama will do if the vote goes against him. It would seem unlikely that he would defy such a vote, but he might if the House and Senate split on it. That’s a possibility, as the House GOP is more virulently anti-Obama and isolationist in orientation.

But if Obama gets his stamp of approval, then the lasting legacy of this episode will be his decision to ask Congress at all. There’s a real double-edged sword here. On the one hand, it is obviously a more democratic way of operating. On the other hand, a major reason for keeping foreign policy in the hands of the executive is that Congress is much more subject to political pressure and lobbying. Increasing Congress’ role in foreign policy means increasing that role for lobbying groups, and not only AIPAC. It lessens the role of strategic thinking in the process, a role which is already far too small. As with many other aspects of life in the United States, it will only work well if people get involved on a much larger scale than they are now.

Syria Spotlights Problematic International Law

Russia is not staying silent as the US appears to be positioning itself for an attack on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Defending its last key ally in the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against intervention. Western nations should avoid repeating “past mistakes,” said Lavrov.

More importantly, Lavrov illustrates just how broken and vaporous the system of “international law” is when it comes to conflict and protecting civilians. “The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a very grave violation of international law,” he said. And there is no question that he is correct.

An intervention in Syria requires the approval of the Security Council in order to be comply with international law. Such authorizations are, quite naturally, exceedingly rare. Not only does it require a majority vote in the Council, but, more importantly, all five permanent members of the Council (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain and France) must also agree. Any one of those countries can exercise its right to veto any resolution before the Council.

The idea, in 1945, made some sense. In the post-World War II era, there was still some question as to whether the US and USSR would perhaps build on their wartime alliance and find a way to work together, but it seemed unlikely. An incentive to maintain some sense of order in the world by working together on such matters and being able to block one-sided moves might have seemed sensible. It’s even worked out that way from time to time. But for the most part, it’s been a recipe for paralysis and a means to prevent action on matters of global concern, rather than to promote it.

The most obvious example of this is the matter on which there has been, by far, more Security Council vetoes than any other: Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 war. From 1946-1971, the USSR was the overwhelming leader in Security Council vetoes; no other country was even close. These were, of course, mostly Cold War-related resolutions that directly or indirectly took aim at Soviet actions and policies in various parts of the world. Since then, the overwhelming leader has been the United States, with the clear majority of those vetoes being made on behalf of Israel, protecting its occupation and concomitant violence and settlement expansion.

Indeed, in recent years, the problem has gotten so bad that most resolutions regarding Israel-Palestine have been withdrawn in advance, knowing the US will veto as a matter of course. The matter reached its ultimate absurdity in 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UNSC resolution that stated nothing at all that was not already official US policy. But the veto was expected and required. The fact that it was such a moderate resolution raised fears among AIPAC and its various fellow travellers in the Israel lobby, and there was a lot of public pressure on Obama to veto. But there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have done so anyway.

Politics and power, not international law, govern international matters. The fact is that legality will have no bearing on the US decision to attack Syria or refrain from taking action. The decision will be based on strategy and politics.

The system of international law is irreparably broken. Ultimately, any system of law depends entirely on the ability of the judicial body to enact penalties and sanctions on lawbreakers. Such penalties don’t exist for the United States, nor for Russia or China or the other members of the Security Council. Britain and France are more compliant with international law than the others, but this is due not to fear of censure but because their own situations (including widespread European support for abiding by international law, as well as the experience of the two World Wars and the end of colonialism, the latter having removed a lot of European disincentives toward international law) push them in that direction.

Indeed, it is worth asking this question: if one believes that intervention in Syria is needed to stop what is already a humanitarian disaster from getting much worse, should international law be ignored in doing so? It seems inescapable that the answer to that question is yes, and one is then left with only the question of whether military intervention will help or hurt the millions of Syrians in the crossfire.

But at what point can we claim with reasonable certainty that the moral imperative trumps the law? Particularly in a hypothetical world where the law actually matters, where should that line be drawn? In point of fact, few people are so naïve as to believe that military intervention ever occurs for purely humanitarian reasons. It is generally done in order to pursue the invading country’s interests, and if some humanitarian good is done on the way, well that is just fine. And most of the time, the humanitarian interests are only a cover for other goals; the situation is often oversimplified so the public will support the intervention, which is sometimes vastly distorted.

In this instance, it is Russia warning the United States against violating international law, but the US has played the same game on many occasions — the 2003 push for a UN imprimatur for the invasion of Iraq being perhaps the most prominent and revolting instance.

The alternative to a world governed by international law is a world where might makes right. That is, indeed, the world in which we live. The point here is not that international law should be done away with. On the contrary, it must be strengthened exponentially. A legal system that can enjoy at least some insulation from the whims of politics, both domestic and international, is crucial, and the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice have at least some of that. But more importantly, there must be a mechanism where even the most powerful country can be held accountable for violating the law.

Such a system will never be perfect, of course. Even in the realm of domestic law, we regularly see differences in how it is applied and defied by the rich and the poor. But even the wealthiest individuals have to at least consider their actions when breaking the law. Some system where powerful actors are treated the same as everyone else must be put into place. The answer to how that can be achieved is for better minds than mine, but asking the question is the first step.

Other aspects need revision or at least revisiting as well. Sovereignty is a crucial principle, without a doubt, but it is also used by tyrants to shield themselves from, for example, reprisals under international human rights law. The debate over intervening in Syria following alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government is inherently related to the current system of international law, which is broken far beyond the point of having any effectiveness. In many ways, it is an obstacle. It needs to be rebuilt, before more Syrias confront us.

Obama Running Out Of Options On Syrian Intervention

The Obama Administration’s options for avoiding deeper involvement in Syria are dwindling fast. With Russia and Hezbollah increasing their activities on the Syrian front, Obama may have a very hard time fending off the growing domestic and international pressure to take action, if that is what he still wants to do.

The forces pushing Obama to act have gained a lot of momentum in the past week. Russia is unyielding in its support of the Assad regime. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah issued what amounted to his clearest declaration of war on behalf of the Syrian regime over the weekend. The European Union allowed their arms embargo against the Syrian rebels to elapse, clearing the way for Britain and France to eventually begin arming the rebels if they choose to do so. And Senator John McCain, who has from the beginning been perhaps the loudest voice calling for much heavier US involvement, slipped into Syria yesterday to meet with some of the rebel leaders.

Yet through all of this, the question of what good the US can do by intervening persists. Even McCain isn’t advocating a US ground invasion, and anything less is far from certain to topple Assad. Ray Tayekh of the Council on Foreign Relations writing in the New York Times today gives a good summation of the dilemma facing Obama. “There is something curious about the debate gripping Washington,” he writes. “Although more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the civil war began and the Assad regime appears to have violated all norms of warfare by using chemical weapons against civilians, calls for robust intervention are muted. The legacy of Iraq looms large…Neither the Obama administration nor its Congressional critics seem to have an appetite for nation-building. And there is a reluctance to admit that half measures like arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone are unlikely to end the suffering of the Syrian people…”

Tayekh argues that the United States must take the lead on toppling Assad and rebuilding Syria, mediating among the various sectarian groups who would be grappling for control after Assad’s ouster. Incredibly, Tayekh urges this course not forgetting the lessons of Iraq, but despite them. He sees an added incentive in this case, claiming that anything less would demonstrate to Iran that US threats of military action have no real basis, and therefore would embolden Tehran in its nuclear pursuits, whereas a full-scale invasion would, in Tayekh’s mind, make Iran back off.

But if we leave aside Tayekh’s less than credible assessment of how Tehran is viewing things (the Iranians are not ignorant of the fact that the US has a much more direct interest in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon than in the Syrian war’s outcome) and his eagerness to ignore the lessons of Iraq, he is correct on one point: minor assistance to the rebels is not likely to do much more than prolong the conflict. Yet, the political conditions are squeezing President Obama into doing just that.

Russia’s insistence on shipping S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria is provoking escalating tensions. Israel has threatened to take out such missiles if Syria receives them. The potential there for a dangerous escalation is enhanced by Nasrallah’s rhetoric this past weekend, where he issued his strongest pledge of military support for the Assad regime to date. Nasrallah cast the Syrian conflict as one where the Syrian regime was fighting for its life against a coalition of “America, Israel and the takfiris (those who accuse others of apostasy, which is itself an act of illegitimacy in Islam).” His words don’t just promise increased Hezbollah involvement in Syria, but will also rankle many Lebanese, increasing the tensions there. Nasrallah’s statement that “if Syria falls, Palestine will be lost” also serves to stoke the flames, and to encourage Israeli skittishness over the boiling conflict.

Russia, for its part, cannot possibly believe the rhetoric of its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, who said that the shipment of missiles to Syria was meant to deter “hotheads,” referring to British and French plans to arm the rebels in the near future, should the hoped-for peace summit fail or fail to transpire at all. He is surely aware that the increased flow of arms to Assad will only strengthen calls for greater Western intervention, both within the US and Europe, and from various local actors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan, who are already involved in backing various rebel militias.

Russia is desperate to prop up the Assad regime, its last foothold in the Middle East, and it will go to great lengths to do so. Responding to the EU’s decision to allow the arms embargo against the rebels to expire, Ryabkov, in an astounding bit of bald hypocrisy said: “You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed, on one hand, and continue to pump armaments into Syria on the other hand.” Britain and France both say they have no immediate plans to ship arms to the rebels, and they face considerable political obstacles in doing so. Much of the EU remains opposed to arming the rebels, preferring to stay away from the mushrooming catastrophe in Syria.

Much of this brinksmanship revolves around positioning for the proposed peace conference in Geneva, tentatively scheduled for next month. The Syrian opposition is making plans to attend, but continues to object to any part of the Assad regime being involved in a Syrian transition, and is also struggling with internal divisions, driven both by sectarianism and by competing foreign interests, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The conference is strongly supported by Russia, which insists on both Assad’s participation and Iran’s. While the West is generally agreeable to involvement of some parts of Assad’s Baathist regime, it opposes Iranian involvement. Russia hopes to maintain some sort of Baathist control in Syria and thus maintain its own foothold in the region, which necessarily also benefits Iran and Hezbollah.

One of the issues at hand is that Western goals are far less clear. Despite his alliance with Iran and support for Hezbollah, the Assad dynasty has maintained an uneasy quiet with Israel for four decades, something that is far from guaranteed even with the Western-backed factions. Any new leadership in Syria would need to, at minimum, make clear its determination to regain the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation, and may need to prove its bona fides in that regard more forcefully than Assad has.

But there can be little doubt that Assad’s fall would be a blow to Iran and, now that Nasrallah has gone all-in on Syria, could very well cripple Hezbollah. But while Ray Tayekh may have chosen to ignore the lessons of Iraq, Obama cannot afford to. The United States has no appetite for another Middle East war, and even less for the sectarian fighting in its aftermath while attempting to rebuild a state that has collapsed under the weight of war.

But Obama also will not want to be seen as acquiescing to a Russian-Iranian victory if Assad prevails thanks to those countries’ willingness to intervene where the US would not. Despite their own domestic opposition, Britain and France seem to want to intervene. They will expect US support, and if they don’t get it, the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the US will berate Obama mercilessly. John McCain is clearly laying the groundwork for US intervention and will surely attack Obama for backing away from a fight despite having the arrangements made for him by the kindly, old Republican Senator.

The peace conference, if it happens in June, may be Obama’s last chance to stave off the forces of intervention. But considering the difficulties the summit is already encountering, he might want to come up with a Plan B, and soon.

Israel Unlikely to Stay on Syrian Sidelines for Much Longer

All eyes are on US President Barack Obama as he contemplates how to deal with the fact that the Syrian government might have crossed a red line he never should have drawn. The Israelis, even while abstaining from pressuring Obama to act in Syria, meanwhile know their own decisions are no less troublesome.

Obama dug himself a hole when he declared that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a casus belli. Now that it appears that Sarin gas was used in Syria (although such use is certainly not as destructive as some of the “conventional” bombardment that has been employed), Obama is in a quandary. There is no more or less of a reason to significantly increase the US’ involvement in Syria than there was before, but the forces that have been calling for intervention have an enormous new chip to play.

This might be comforting to Israel, because they have to be very concerned about what is happening in Syria right now, and that concern is not based on whether or not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used sarin gas. The Syria situation is everything the issue with Iran is not.

Iran represents a potential threat to Israel’s position as a nuclear hegemon and to the whole US-Israel-Saudi matrix of power in the region. But despite the hysteria, those in charge in Israel know very well that Iran has not yet made the decision to construct a nuclear weapon and that, even if they got one, the situation would be one of a nuclear standoff, not an imminent Iranian attack on Israel.

Public rhetoric reflects something different, but no one in the halls of the Israeli Knesset or in Washington thinks Iran will simply decide to push the nuclear button. That reality is precisely why it was so important for AIPAC and other anti-Iran forces to eliminate a containment strategy early on; they knew it was by far the most sensible policy in terms of avoiding war, but would weaken the regional position of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf compatriots.

Syria is, from the Israeli point of view, a completely different matter. The chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are surely a real concern, but the issue is much wider than that.

While Israelis view Assad as an enemy, they’re well aware that their border with Syria has been basically quiet for forty years. Assad kept things stable while supporting Hezbollah’s activities in Southern Lebanon. Now that situation will likely drastically change.

It remains possible that Assad will prevail, but even if he does, the status quo ante is lost forever. It is very difficult to predict what an Assad regime will look like if he does win. One thing we know is that after all the anti-Assad rhetoric and repeated calls for him to step down, the international community will not be able to simply accept his victory. So Syria will be isolated, at least for a while, even from the rest of the Arab League. How does that affect Syria’s behavior vis-a-vis Israel, Hezbollah, Jordan, Turkey and Iran? Much will depend on the circumstances of any Assad victory, but in any case, it’s currently unpredictable.

The far more likely scenario, though, is that Assad will eventually be toppled and the various opposition groups will begin vying for power. That contest will undoubtedly prolong the extreme violence in Syria, but it will also be a battle for the hearts and minds of the Syrian people. That could well mean engaging Israel directly or by increasing support for Hezbollah. Do we really expect that Israel will just sit back and wait to see what will happen?

The fighting groups in Syria are certainly not all Salafist, al-Qaeda-type groups. But that does describe a number of them, and others are highly sectarian. Various groups are being backed by competing outside powers, including Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, with the US and its allies being a peripheral player even among those who are involving themselves from a distance. Iran and Hezbollah have also been working to support groups friendly to them so that they will continue to have an influential presence in the event Assad falls.

Now things get even more complicated. Israel had wisely avoided pushing the US toward intervention, until they announced their finding of the use of chemical weapons, which was likely a way to try to get the US to carry out or go along with an Israeli operation specifically targeting such weapons. Israel is really not anxious to see the US get more involved in Syria, another striking contrast with the Iran situation. It may turn out that US involvement is the best of a host of unpalatable options, but Israel is well aware that escalation in Syria is not in its interest.

The problem is that Hezbollah yesterday raised the possibility of their own direct intervention. A long-term Hezbollah presence in Syria is not likely something that Israel will sit still for. Tensions are flaring on the Israel-Lebanese border, not to mention the ongoing pressure cooker within Lebanon itself, which has been turned up much higher because of the Syrian civil war.

It is impossible to conceive of Israel sitting by quietly if Hezbollah becomes an active participant in Syria. That impossibility stems from the concern Israel has held from the day the armed conflict began, namely that Hezbollah would have access to Syrian weapons, chemical and conventional. Moreover, Israel would be quite concerned that Hezbollah would then have an established fighting presence on both the Lebanese and Syrian borders.

At this stage, there is no reason to believe that Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s implication that direct intervention in Syria is on the table is anything more than bluster. Still, it cannot be dismissed. With each day, the likelihood of Assad holding on to power becomes dimmer and dimmer, and just from the sheer numbers, the greatest possibility by far is that a subsequent Syrian regime, or even a conglomeration of mini-states, is not going to be friendly to the Shi’ite militia/party. That’s why Iran continues to back Assad, and Hezbollah has a compelling reason to involve itself more directly in Syria: to bolster the minority forces that might be aligned with them in a post-Assad Syria.

With or without US involvement, these concerns are going to be present for Israel. The Israelis are not totally blind to the ramifications of taking action on their own, of course. But even though rumors of a recent Israeli strike on a chemical weapons depot in Syria appear unfounded, the dual concerns of chemical weapons falling into hands more likely to use them against Israel than Assad, and of a new regime with Salafist or similar tendencies taking power in Syria, are going to compel dramatic Israeli action sooner or later.

Though the Israeli-Syrian border has been quiet for decades, Israel is mindful of the role the pre-Assad Syrian state played in the run-up to the 1967 war. The early Ba’athist regime was more aggressive, consistently engaging Israel and causing then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to take many of the steps that eventually led to Israel launching the war, steps that he vainly hoped would mollify Syria and convince them to let Nasser handle the confrontation with Israel.

The Assad regime, both father and son, avoided such actions. A new Syrian regime may well embrace them, and given the widespread changes in the region, that prospect is sure to make Israel extremely anxious. Of course, an agreement with the Palestinians would go a long way toward blunting that threat, but that’s nothing but a pipe dream at this point.

Ultimately, the fact that the Israelis believe they have real and immediate reasons to act in Syria (unlike with Iran) — even if they’re reluctant to do so — might be the factor that eventually pushes the US and/or Europe to intervene. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make intervention any wiser or more likely to bring about positive results.