BERLIN – Pacifist doctrines may say otherwise, but combining diplomacy with the threat of military force is a highly effective tactic, as we have just seen in Syria. It was the credibility of the United States’ threat of military intervention that seems to have led Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cut a deal brokered by his main allies, Russia and, less directly, Iran. Assad now appears prepared to give up his chemical weapons in exchange for remaining in power. But what will happen to America’s credibility, and that of the West, if the agreement falls apart?
The deal struck by the US and Russia triggered widespread relief in most Western capitals, where political leaders simply are not prepared for military intervention, even if Syria’s government is killing its own people with poison gas (on this score, the agreement amounts to a confession by Assad). After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the West would rather stay at home; neither the US nor the United Kingdom – nor most other NATO members – wants to become entangled in another Middle East conflict that cannot be won.
Indeed, there are only bad options for the US in Syria. Military intervention has no visible end point and would only increase chaos. But staying out will produce nearly the same result and dramatically shake America’s credibility in a crisis-ridden region, with serious consequences for the future. Furthermore, deployment of chemical weapons invites escalation.
Most people in the West regard Syria’s civil war as a continuation of the sectarian violence in Iraq. But Syria is not Iraq. America’s president is not searching for excuses to start a war; Assad’s chemical weapons are not a fanciful pretext. The scale of the violence in Syria underscores the risk implied by inaction.
Of course, there is no denying the dangers associated with a military intervention: regional expansion of the conflict, the deaths of many more innocent people, and the strengthening of extremist forces among the rebels, to name only a few. But all of this has been happening already, and it will continue to happen, especially without American military intervention. The civil war will escalate further, because it is part of a larger contest for supremacy between Iran and its Shia allies and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the other Sunni countries.
If the US had not responded to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the entire world would have asked what a US guarantee is worth if an American president’s “red line” is crossed without consequences. In Jerusalem, Tehran, and other Middle East capitals, as well as on the Korean Peninsula and in other global hotspots, the consequences would be (and probably already are) dire.
From the outset of the Syrian conflict, the US and its European allies have lacked a strategy. Is their goal to end the civil war or bring about regime change? And who or what should take Assad’s place? Or does the West aspire to reach a compromise with Russia and Iran that would leave Assad’s regime in place? The latter goal would shift the axis of US policy in the Middle East, with far-reaching strategic consequences, because such a compromise could only be reached at the expense of America’s Sunni allies.
Even if Russia and Iran are pursuing separate agendas in supporting Assad, both countries’ interests are inextricably connected to the continuation of the regime, not necessarily to Assad’s political survival. For Russia, regime change in Syria – its last military outpost in the region – would be another bitter defeat; for Iran, it would mean losing its most important ally in the Arab world, implying even deeper isolation.
Thus, in contrast to the West’s temporizing, the strategy of Assad’s allies is clearly defined: military victory for the regime, backed by ample supplies of weapons and, in the case of Iran, Lebanese proxy troops from Hezbollah on the ground.
Obama committed a fateful error when, for domestic political reasons, he decided to ask the US Congress to agree to a limited punitive military strike. A defeat in Congress – entirely foreseeable – would have been a foreign-policy disaster. And, though the Russian diplomatic initiative (based on a joint proposal with Iran) averted this disaster, everything has its price.
That price is not necessarily a gain in prestige for the Kremlin. The true risk implied by the US deal with Russia lies elsewhere.
It was not weakness or helplessness that induced Obama to play for high stakes. If he succeeds – Syria’s chemical weapons are destroyed, a peace conference ends the civil war, a transitional government takes power, and the US and Iran launch direct negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program and regional stability in the Middle East – he will truly deserve his Nobel Peace Prize.
If Obama fails, however, Syria will not be a second Iraq, but more likely a repetition of the Bosnian calamity. For years, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina escalated, alongside a “diplomatic process” marked by a series of broken promises, culminating in the massacre at Srebrenica of thousands of civilians supposedly under United Nations protection. In the end, intervention was necessary anyway.
Are the US and its European allies prepared for a scenario in which the agreement with Russia breaks down and Syria’s chemical weapons are not destroyed under international control?
This is the decisive moral and political question for the West. If and when the time comes, they had better have an answer.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2013.
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