President Obama’s decision to ask for congressional backing for a limited military strike against the Assad government in Syria has taken by surprise both supporters and opponents of such a move.
This comes in the aftermath of the British Parliament’s decision against the use of force in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Opinion polls in the West also indicate a low appetite of the public for a new military adventure in the Middle East.
The US President’s decision may therefore be seen as a diplomatic way of postponing or even abandoning intervention plans, or as an attempt to add legality to an eventual strike through bipartisan support in Congress. Even if the latter is the case and the President gets authorization from Congress, such intervention will remain illegal under international law, lacking Security Council authorization or a plausible claim to individual or collective self-defence.
In the meantime, Syrian civilians will continue to be slaughtered, whether by conventional or unconventional means, caught in the midst of fighting between the army, pro-government militias and assorted opposition forces. And the gruesome pictures will continue to stream on our TVs, more refugees will flock into neighbouring countries, and the impasse will drag on.
Is there no way out of this quagmire? Is there no alternative to unilateral military intervention – which is not meant to solve the problem in the first place – and endless killing? With the war spilling over the Syrian border, to Lebanon and Turkey for example, whatever happened to the collective responsibility to maintain international peace and security, bestowed upon the UN Security Council? And what about “the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”, adopted by the world’s leaders as part of the 2005 World Summit Outcome?
Unfortunately, great power competition and regional power rivalries have undermined efforts by successive UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi to bring about an end to the conflict by peaceful means. Kofi Annan’s Six-Point Proposal was unanimously supported by the Security Council but had no effect on the ground, as the Syrian parties but also their respective regional and global supporters continued with business as usual.
One way or another, though, we may now be in a situation mature enough to allow for progress. Here are some indications:
- The situation on the ground remains messy, with no clear winner. Although the government has made some advances in recent weeks it cannot realistically hope to reassert its authority on the entire country, which has splintered possibly beyond repair. The government may be getting direct assistance from strategic partners like Hezbollah and Iran, but has no real affinity to their beliefs and does not necessarily want to surrender to their interests, to which though it becomes increasingly beholden out of necessity. In turn, those external supporters can feel the toll on their interests, notably by the gradual destabilization of Lebanon and by undermining the new Iranian President’s intention to normalize relations with the West.
- The Syrian opposition, from its side, is fragmented and heterogeneous, only temporarily bound into fleeting alliances of secularists with jihadists and all shades of sectarian militants, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Anti-Assad diasporas in the West may continue to claim the high moral ground and to command significant support in Western media, deftly using graphic footage of government-perpetrated atrocities, but their own respect for human rights on the battle field is also questioned by UN, Human Rights Watch and other human rights observers. And sober voices in the West caution against any entanglement in the conflict through troops or other long-term commitment, pointing to the human and material cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Russia has been the most vocal global supporter of the Assad regime but it does not want this to become the only issue the world associates it with. It wants to enjoy respect, for the G20 summit it is about to chair and for other endeavours like the 2014 winter Olympics. It also understands that it has a big stake in maintaining at least a semblance of global order. Russia has not condoned the use of chemical weapons in any way but claims that it was not the Assad government that used them. And it sees that it cannot expect President Assad to reassert his authority over Syria in a way that would safeguard Russian interests in the Middle East reliably and for the long term.
- The US, like the rest of its Western allies, is living through the belated backlash of recent wars, especially the invasion of Iraq. In 2003 international legality was trampled upon and Saddam Hussein was toppled. But years of intervention and huge costs have arguably created an even bigger mess and threat to international security than was there before. A limited and reluctant intervention seems to be all that is on the cards , as it is understood that the US public, like the British and others, do not want any further adventures at the moment. Heeding this sentiment President Obama has been very cautious in practice, while responding to pro-intervention interests and media pressure with strong statements about redlines and possible strikes. He now has to find a way to look and be proactive without risking national security and global order, hopefully also averting an embarrassing for him defeat in Congress.
With the above in mind, it would make good global sense for President Obama to use the time left till the US Congress reconvenes not so much to ensure a positive vote for his limited strikes proposal but rather to revive efforts at a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Together with President Putin they should convene the long delayed Geneva talks – in Geneva, St. Petersburg or elsewhere – with all key players present, from the main Syrian parties to the other three permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Turkey, Iran, the European Union and key Arab states. That would at least press the reset button for international cooperation vis-à-vis Syria.
A plan involving a national unity government with moderate members of the Assad regime and the opposition and focusing on a return to normalcy, resumption of public services, disarmament, reconstruction and return of refugees could be put to the table as take-it-or-leave-it for the Syrian parties. It could be backed by serious international guarantees, including collective action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter for those refusing to comply. The Syrian people of all creeds and political affiliations, as well as the global public that is watching aghast, would certainly breathe a sigh of relief if something like this happened, and the peacemakers would be blessed.
 See UN General Assembly resolution 60/1, paras. 138-140.
 See UN Security Council Resolution 2042 (2012).