What Assad's chemical attack and the failure of Obama's Syria policy really mean.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The reason it is now commonly assumed that it’s only a matter of time before the United States and its allies launch an attack against the Syrian regime is that President Bashar al-Assad has left President Barack Obama with no other choice. He must either attack or lose what little remaining influence he might have both in the Middle East and with potential enemies and friends worldwide.
While the rhetoric around the attack has been — and will continue to be — about the intolerability of chemical weapons, that is hardly the only reason the United States will finally take action. Given that, according to reports like those in today’s Washington Post, the U.S. and allied military initiative is almost certainly to be both brief and narrow in scope — and therefore of limited effect as a deterrent against future WMD use — one can only conclude that the effort must also serve another purpose.
The pending action is as much intended to protect the president’s credibility as it is the people of Syria.
Months ago, Obama declared the existence of a "red line" with respect to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Then, despite repeated evidence that such weapons had been used, Obama failed to act as he had implied that he would. As the red line faded, so too did his standing.
Now, with the evidence surrounding the most recent attack, in Damascus, as strong as it is and the death toll significantly higher than in past attacks, were he not to act, the president might as well publicly acknowledge that the United States is accepting a role in the balcony of the theater of global affairs, as a spectator and no longer a player.
If you doubt this and feel that the U.S. and allied action is based on the principle of humanitarian relief, you need only note that while the estimated toll from this recent attack, according to Doctors Without Borders, is 355, the total death toll from Syria’s civil war has now likely exceeded 100,000. Principle has nothing to do with this. Surely it makes no difference to the families and friends of the Syrian dead whether their loved ones die from chemical weapons, bullets, bombs, or disease. The idea that somehow chemical weapons are a special prohibited category of ways by which a government can murder its own people rings as hollow as a crypt.
We have clearly waited too long to act in Syria. The international community bears at least some responsibility for the losses associated with this most recent gas attack, because in failing to respond to prior attacks it sent a message to Assad that such abuses would be tolerated. (Russia’s role as enabler and protector of Assad has earned it a much greater share of culpability.) And while our guilt over the massive death toll and the suffering caused by the broader humanitarian crisis in Syria is clear, we’ve done precious little to effectively abate it. It is remarkable how little shame there is among U.S. officials, such that even the paltry commitments we made to assist those fighting the criminal regime in Damascus — including providing light weapons and equipment support — have yet to make their way to the conflict zone.
There is a chorus of criticism over the pending action from those who argue that it will not resolve the conflict in Syria and fear that any action taken will lead to the kind of protracted on-the-ground involvement that has proved so costly and fruitless in Iraq and Afghanistan. These critiques are misguided. There is no reason why targeted and carefully proscribed, but nonetheless potent, air attacks could not effectively deliver a message to Assad that these abuses must stop. His air defenses can be targeted. His weapons stores can be targeted. Economic assets associated with his closest associates, upon which his regime depends, can be targeted. This last approach — targeting the financial backers and cutting off money stream — is what ultimately proved to tip the scales most effectively in the former Yugoslavia during the 1999 bombings known within NATO as Operation Allied Force. This was an example of successful but limited use of air power without ground support that advanced a specific goal — in that case, the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. (Ironically, tellingly, the rationale President Bill Clinton’s administration gave for the bombing included the fear that failing to undertake it could be a disaster in Kosovo that could claim some 100,000 lives — the same total lost to date in Syria.)
Such massive attacks as those that took place during the two and a half months of the 1999 campaign are impossible to imagine in the current situation given the will of the United States and its allies. Based on current reports, it seems that when it comes to planning for the limited use of force in this instance, more emphasis has been placed on "limits" than on "use of force." This will be a problem if the message to Assad is not clearly that the cost of using WMDs is so high that it must be avoided in future.
But at this late date, regardless of the exact details of the mission we undertake, the message to Assad is: "We don’t care so much if you kill your people. We primarily care how you kill your people." (This argument will be made doubly uncomfortable for Americans who take the time to read Shane Harris and Matthew Aid’s recent piece for Foreign Policy about how the United States supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s ability to launch gas attacks on the Iranians in the late 1980s.) That is not to say that the United States should have invaded Syria in a replay of our folly in Iraq. Rather, it is to underscore that, just as we should have responded to the chemical weapons use much sooner, we could have, through international intervention, sent a much stronger message to Assad much earlier. After all, part of what brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia was naming him as a war criminal, something that should have been undertaken re: Assad long ago.
One clear lesson of this whole sorry episode is that it’s essential for the international community to set clear standards for the early identification of and response to atrocities. While it is impossible to set a threshold number of casualties that should trigger action, suffice it to say that 100,000 is too many to die before effective action is taken. Leaders or insurgents who wantonly slaughter civilians need to know that they will instantly and assuredly become international pariahs, be prosecuted for their crimes, not be acknowledged as leaders, and, should they claim or seek to retain high office, see their governments suffer severe sanctions. Military protocols can be just as clear: The systems and military or paramilitary units that carry out such crimes are legitimate targets, as are the assets that protect them and the economic entities that support them. Responses also must be severe enough that any would-be war criminal realizes that the cost of such behavior is far too high to undertake. Empty gestures that do more to create the illusion of action than they do to truly deter future wrongdoing — like brief fusillades of cruise missiles — must be avoided.
The current initiative and any undertaking in the foreseeable future in Syria certainly will not have regime change as a goal. Not only is enforcing regime change considered too messy, but the alternatives to Assad are either too unclear or equally as odious. Still, we need to be honest with ourselves: If humanitarian relief is the goal and the regime is a repeated mass abuser of its people, it must go. We will have to come to terms with the possibility of a successor regime we don’t much like sooner or later. Given the lessons of Syria to date, we should be thinking ahead and crafting what we want a strong international message to that new regime to look like, especially if we want to ensure that it doesn’t pose the same kind of destabilizing threat as Assad or this war.
If we knew such a strong message were in place, if we knew successor governments would have to conform to basic international norms of behavior, we would almost certainly not fear the transition away from indisputably evil governments such as this one quite as much. In cases like Syria (or, for example, Congo or the sites of other horrors), the absence of international will and clarity is as responsible for festering crimes, like the ones in Syria, as the actions of bad actors. Any society without the will to create laws and a police force to protect against crimes they know are coming must be seen as an enabler of those crimes.
But if the message we send is too little, too late — as may well be the case with the upcoming attack — we are right to fear transition, because any successor government could also become a threat. In such a case, we may well have to accept the current horrors of Syria indefinitely. This is the cost of having an international system that, despite the lessons of history, lacks the will or the foresight to have created clear, dependable, potent mechanisms for identifying evolving atrocities and then immediately and assuredly penalizing those who undertake them. Any system of law that protects state actors — or those who cloak themselves in the protections of acting on behalf of a nation state, to the degree ours still does — is fundamentally and profoundly flawed.
Finally, in the case of Syria, we must also consider what the "too little, too late" message sends to others in the region who might consider violating the most important norms of international behavior — like the Iranians with regard to their nuclear weapons development program — if they assume they can act with impunity with very few real limitations. Alternatively, if we recognize that early, effective, coordinated, targeted, tough international responses can be a worthwhile investment and a more humane approach to managing global affairs, perhaps there’s still time to make a useful lesson out of the carnage of Syria. In any event, it must make us hope that our efforts going forward in Syria are not limited to what seems likely to amount to little more than a military gesture, made via cruise missile.