The false lure of military intervention in Syria
THE criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to the war in Syria levelled by 51 midlevel State Department diplomats has raised again the issue of whether limited military strikes by the United States against the government of President Bashar al-Assad would help push it toward a peace deal. The escalating war in Syria has killed 400,000 Syrians, mostly by Mr. Assad’s forces, and displaced 12 million others. Efforts to maintain a cease-fire by the many sides involved in the fight — the Assad forces, their allies Russia and Iran and the various anti-Assad opposition groups — have crumbled, while the ISIS, which has established a stronghold in Syria, threatens the region and the world.
All this deeply frustrates many American diplomats. But describing the crisis is not the same as having a workable and rational alternative strategy. The diplomats have not made a case for direct American military action that President Obama and his senior aides have not already considered and wisely rejected. The administration believes that such action could lead to even greater chaos while committing the United States to a deeper role in yet another Middle East war.
The essence of the diplomats’ case, made in an internal memo, is that no peace deal is possible if the Assad regime is not confronted with the threat of military force. They were careful to advocate only the use of weapons like cruise missiles that would keep Americans out of the range of Syrian retaliation. They also rejected the idea of a large-scale American invasion. But what if the “limited” airstrikes did not work? And however calibrated the operation, would it not inevitably draw America into another Middle East morass and, quite possibly, a military confrontation with Russia? Moscow is playing a double game in Syria by giving lip service to diplomatic efforts while conducting airstrikes that have allowed Mr. Assad to regain the upper hand on the battlefield.
A no-fly zone that could offer a safe haven for civilians from Syrian and Russian air power could also be problematical. Research by Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations shows that airstrikes are responsible for only a portion of the deaths; most are caused by shootings, mortar, artillery and rocket attacks. A truly protective nofly zone would have to be quite large and extend to areas where there would be considerable risk of confrontation between American planes and Russian and Syrian planes. There is also the matter of the legal basis for an American intervention. Mr. Obama has no United Nations Security Council resolution or authorisation from Congress to justify military action against the Assad government. Some lawyers, like Harold Koh of Yale University, a former State Department legal counsel, suggest there is a case to be made for humanitarian intervention, but administration officials say they don’t see a basis for that in international law.
Russia remains of critical importance to any peace effort. Moscow’s support, as well as Iran’s, has allowed Mr. Assad to dig in his heels and resist compromise. Some administration officials still hope they can persuade President Vladimir Putin that he has much to lose by continuing to support Mr. Assad, not least by further alienating Sunni Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and forcing Moscow to commit more troops and weapons into defending Mr. Assad. A complete collapse of the cease-fire, followed by increased support by the Saudis and others for their proxies on the ground, would risk even greater bloodshed. There have never been good options in Syria, and the situation is getting worse. But no one has yet made a persuasive case that direct American military involvement against Mr. Assad is the answer. — The New York Times