Questions About War with Syria

Questions About War with Syria

The Obama administration should clarify several matters before launching a war.

· What are the Obama Administration’s aims in Syria?

· Administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have stated in Senate hearings that U.S. military action will punish the Assad regime, degrade its ability to launch further chemical attacks, and deter future chemical attacks.

· Yet, as Senator John McCain has noted, the Syrian government has had a head start of at least ten days to disperse and conceal its military assets. Given that Secretary Kerry and other senior officials have insisted that the administration does not “want to go to war,” how will President Obama direct U.S. forces to accomplish the mission he has defined while limiting the tools available?

· Similarly, why does President Obama believe that military action will deter future chemical weapons attacks? If Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is sufficiently desperate to use chemical weapons, knowing the probable international reaction, he must fear for the survival of his regime. The only way to deter Assad from using chemical weapons when he believes his survival may be at stake would be to threaten to accelerate his downfall. The administration does not appear prepared to do this and the Congress does not appear prepared to support it. Moreover, as Senator Rand Paul has asked, if Assad is acting irrationally, why would we expect a rational response to a U.S. attack?

· What could be the consequences of a U.S. attack on Syria?

· To the extent that the Obama administration is successful in degrading the Syrian government’s military capabilities, its actions may help the most powerful rebel factions—meaning Syria’s Islamist extremists, whether affiliated with Al Qaeda or not. A rebel victory in the current environment could contribute to the marginalization of moderate opposition groups and could further destabilize the region. Why does the administration believe that degrading Syria’s military capabilities will serve U.S. national interests?

· If U.S. action does not deter future chemical-weapons attacks, or other large-scale and high-profile violence against civilians, the Obama administration will face greater pressure from to do more in Syria—possibly drawing the United States into a costly and open-ended civil war with no clear resolution in sight. How does President Obama plan to respond if Syria does not change its conduct? What if Syria retaliates against the United States directly or indirectly, through terrorist proxies?

· Will a U.S. attack on Syria strengthen U.S. credibility in dealing with Iran and North Korea?

· U.S. officials have argued that failing to take military action against Syria’s chemical weapons attack weakens our credibility in confronting Iran over its nuclear program. Nuclear weapons can be far more destructive than chemical weapons. Also, there is a considerable difference between developing nuclear weapons that may threaten the United States or its allies and using chemical weapons in an internal conflict inside a country hostile to America. Why do administration officials believe that U.S. action in Syria will reinforce U.S. credibility in dealing with Iran?

· What matters most is not our credibility today, but our credibility over time. Limited strikes that do little to punish, degrade or deter might contribute only marginally to U.S. credibility and could actually undermine it if the Syrian regime is not actually deterred from future chemical weapons use or large-scale violence against civilians. How do administration officials believe the conflict in Syria will evolve and why do they believe that U.S. action now will increase U.S. credibility not only at this time, but in the future?

· Paradoxically, efforts to strengthen U.S. credibility by attacking Syria may actually backfire by encouraging Iran accelerate efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, which many in Iran may view as their country’s only reliable means to deter a U.S. attack, and by provoking counterproductive responses from others. Why does President Obama believe that this will not happen? Do administration officials believe that China and Russia will continue to assist in applying pressure on Iran after an attack on Syria? Will derailing international cooperation on Iran increase U.S. credibility? What if Russia decides in response to a U.S. attack in Syria to provide Iran with sophisticated air-defense systems? Would that not reduce the credibility of a U.S. military option in Iran?

· Why has President Obama sought Congressional debate on military action in Syria?

· Politically, President Obama has created a no-lose scenario in which he can escape blame for inaction (if the Congress opposes action) or for failure (if the Congress imposes conditions on it) while taking credit for any appearance of success.

· Diplomatically, Mr. Obama has found a plausible reason to delay any possible attacks until after the September 5-6 G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, avoiding potential high-visibility condemnations from Chinese, Russian, or other world leaders at the summit.

· Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand how President Obama’s decision is consistent with his other foreign-policy choices. If Mr. Obama believes that Congressional authorization is important to U.S. military action in Syria, why did he avoid seeking Congressional support before attacking Libya?

· Given these inconsistencies, and the weakened credibility of senior administration officials such as National Security Adviser Susan Rice following the embassy attack in Benghazi, why has the administration made its case for war primarily in classified briefings inaccessible to the American public? Likewise, given past skepticism toward military action by Secretary Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, how do they explain their support for attacks on Syria?

· Does the United States have an obligation to attack Syria to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention?

· Although Syria is not a signatory to the treaty, Secretary Kerry described the Chemical Weapons Convention as “the world’s red line” and argued that the world was watching the United States to see whether America would act.

· However, the sole remedy under the Chemical Weapons Convention is for its signatories to bring their concerns and evidence to the United Nations Security Council or the United Nations General Assembly. The treaty does not authorize the use of military force or other sanctions. How can the administration argue that it is upholding international law and standards while clearly operating outside the parameters of the agreements it cites? Why do U.S. officials believe that other nations will accept this argument even if they oppose the use of chemical weapons? Many appear to see the use of force without UN Security Council approval and absent clear self-defense as crossing an international red line.

· Taking into account that President Obama believes that the U.S. can delay military action against Syria to allow for Congressional debate, why is there no time for the administration simultaneously to present detailed evidence publicly at the United Nations Security Council like the Kennedy Administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Bush Administration prior to the Iraq war? While such a presentation may not persuade officials in Beijing or Moscow, could it not build broader international support for U.S. action among both governments and populations? Similarly, why was there no time to wait for the report of the United Nations inspectors? Would pursuing UN procedures not help to strengthen U.S. credibility in dealing with Syria?

· Will the United States go to war with Syria?

· Secretary Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the President is not asking you to go to war” and that “a hundred percent of Americans will say no” if asked whether they want to go to war with Syria. He argued that since the U.S. would not be “training troops and sending people abroad and putting young Americans in harm’s way,” America would not be at war if it attacks Syria. Despite this, it is difficult to see how the United States will not be at war with Syria if the administration takes the steps it has described. Most important is Syria’s response: if Syria decides to retaliate against America or Americans, we will be at war whether or not we deploy ground forces.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005. Ryan Evans is the Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest and the Editor of War on the Rocks. The views expressed here are their own.