Whatever the twisted path, whether by design or accident, the Obama administration has ended up in a better place on Syria than looked possible even days ago. The president was wise to take up and begin to test the Russian offer to remove and possibly destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. In fact, the offer has forced some clarity from a sometimes muddled U.S. foreign policy. For the president to turn this situation into a foreign policy success, he will have to maintain that clarity.
There are three distinct arguments for intervention in Syria, which are sometimes mixed together in calls for action. The first is regime change, which would require policies to help the rebels topple Bashar al-Assad’s government. The second is humanitarian, to do something to stop the enormous sufferingthere. The third is simply to underscore and enforce an international norm against the use of chemical weapons.
President Obama has now firmly committed himself to the third — and only the third — objective. In his speech Tuesday, he rejected the first, explaining that the United States “cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” His proposed military action would be even smaller in scale than the Libyan strikes, he noted, and, thus, would be unlikely to shift the balance of power much in Syria.
Obama’s proposals are also not likely to reduce the humanitarian crisis. Even his most muscular proposals — airstrikes and aid to the rebels — would probably intensify the conflict and increase the number of people killed or displaced. (Several studies of past military interventions, including as recently as from 2012, confirm this observation.) Nearly all of the deaths in Syria have come through conventional weapons and, as Time magazine’s Michael Crowley notes, “The images of children crippled by conventional bombs were sickening, too.”
So, Obama’s aim is solely to affirm an international norm. To this end, he already has achieved something important. He has mobilized world attention, and there is now a chance, albeit small, that he might get a process in place that monitors and even destroys Syrian chemical weapons. Almost certainly he has ensured that such weapons won’t be used again by the Assad regime. That’s more than he could have achieved through airstrikes — which are unlikely to have destroyed such weapons. (Bombing chemical weapons facilities could easily release toxins into the atmosphere.) This is a significant success.
But to maintain that success, the administration will have to be clear that it does not seek any other goals, at least for now. Washington will have to live with Assad as a negotiating partner and guarantor of agreements. Should international inspections get underway, it would be difficult to threaten the use of force because inspectors would be in Syria — in harm’s way. Recall that U.N. inspectors had to be pulled out of Iraq before the 1998 bombing of Operation Desert Fox; the result was that the entire inspection system ended.
The Obama administration is right to carefully and thoroughly pursue the diplomatic path — even though it will be difficult. While Syria and Russia are doing so as a way to avert an attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin might also be happy to see Assad’s weapons locked up or destroyed. In fact, this gambit might be a way for Russia to achieve its real goals in Syria: no regime change and no chemical weapons. Russia has always worried that these weapons could fall into the hands of jihadi groups, which could give them to compatriots in Russia’s south, which is teeming with religious militants. Syria’s other chief sponsor, Iran, historically has been strongly opposed to chemical weapons since Iranians were brutally gassed by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
If the Obama administration believes that the ban on chemical weapons really is an international norm in danger of erosion and that the threat of a military strike is the way to shore it up, it needs to build some support among Congress, the U.N. Security Council, NATO, the European Union, the Arab League or other such groups. Recall that the Bush administration in the run-up to Iraq got congressional authorization; as its basis for action, it could point to 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions that Iraq had broken. After the invasion, 38 countries sent troops. It is ironic that Washington’s sole goal is to uphold an international norm, but it faces opposition from most countries and international public opinion. The negotiations do buy time for Syria, but also for the Obama administration.