The Obama administration made an abrupt about face this week, temporarily shelving what appeared to be an imminent strike on Syria in favor of a diplomatic response to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. This move attracted a chorus of criticisms, ranging from accusing Secretary of State John Kerry of engaging in foreign policy by gaffe to depicting the Obama administration as a motley crew of diplomatic amateurs easily tricked by Assad and Putin’s machinations. However, regardless of whether it got there through a serendipitous accident or clever design, the Obama administration now faces a clear opportunity (assuming the Syrian leader unambiguously and promptly endorses the ongoing diplomatic initiative).
Putting aside questions about US diplomatic competence, there are two related key objections to the administration’s new approach. First, Assad may have put forth a disingenuous offer in the hopes of staving off a strike and thus buying time without any real intention to give up chemical weapons. Second, the challenges involved in monitoring, securing and destroying a large chemical arsenal (in particular during an ongoing civil war) are formidable, thus providing the Syrian government with myriad opportunities to frustrate any enforcement efforts of the prospective agreement. While both of these concerns are justified, they are beside the point: holding off a military strike will not amount to a license for Assad to use chemical weapons in the future and enforcement problems would exist even in the case of successful coercion of the Syrian government through a bombing campaign.
The policy implication of the observation that Assad is just buying time would be that the United States should launch a bombing campaign regardless of the recent diplomatic opening. However, the concession currently on the table—relinquishing Syria’s chemical arsenal—goes well beyond the previously stated goal of the limited strike envisioned by Obama: to deter the future use of chemical weapons. Thus, even the best-case scenario (which military analysts consider implausible based on the historical record) of limited strikes deterring Assad from using chemical weapons in the future falls short of what could be achieved through diplomacy. The challenges of enforcing a disarmament deal are all too real, but they are not specific to a non-military solution. Short of an all-out invasion and prolonged occupation of the country, any military measure to persuade Assad to get rid of Syria’s chemical arsenal would have to confront those problems. Furthermore, if the Obama administration were to bomb after Syria’s high-ranking officials publicly expressed interest in a diplomatic solution without exploring Assad’s seriousness, then US leverage toward Syria down the road could be significantly undermined. Assad may come to believe that any further attempt to fulfill the terms of a threat issued by the United States would be futile because the latter was determined to harm the Syrian regime irrespective of its actions.
Moreover, the crucial question—“Buying time for what?”—is largely unaddressed by critics of the administration’s turnabout. One possible answer is that Assad could further disperse Syria’s chemical arsenal and move high-value military assets to urban areas with plenty of human shields, thus making a future bombing campaign much more difficult. Another possible answer is that the Syrian government could take advantage of the receded threat of a military strike to continue or intensify the killing of its own people with conventional arms or even use chemical weapons again. For several reasons, neither answer is convincing. First, it is unlikely that the strike would have directly targeted Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities due to the risk of setting them off in the process of destroying them. Second, regardless of the regime’s ability to relocate high-value military assets (such as missile launchers), a sufficient number of fixed targets would remain to destroy in a limited bombing campaign—things like air-force bases and military complexes tend to be difficult to move. Thus, the political benefits of a diplomatic solution would not be offset by a marginal reduction (if any) in the effectiveness of a possible future strike. Third, the goal of the planned bombing campaign was not to stop the killing of civilians with conventional weapons, noble as that objective may be. Therefore, the strike would not have seriously impaired the regime’s ability to kill civilians. Fourth, it is extremely unlikely that the Syrian regime would resort to chemical weapons after signaling willingness to disarm, as Assad should be aware that this would produce the heretofore lacking political will in the United States and the international community for a robust intervention. Even Putin would be hard-pressed to exercise Russia’s veto over a strike in the face of a blatant Syrian violation of the spirit of the diplomatic initiative that Russia spearheaded.
For all of these reasons, the Obama administration should give diplomacy a chance. Even if diplomacy fails to achieve the ambitious goal of Syria’s complete chemical disarmament, it promises to deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future without paying the steep costs of military action.
Erica D. Borghard is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University. Her dissertation concerns proxy warfare and the conditions under which allies are drawn into foreign policy misadventures.
Costantino Pischedda is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University. His dissertation focuses on civil war alliances.