The false lure of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Syria

Pakistan Observer - - EDITORIALS & COMMENTS -

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

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