Terms of Engagement

You Got a Better Idea?

The case for bombs, talks, and everything else in Syria.


I would like to believe — or maybe I would just like to pretend for a moment that I believe — that the many congressmen and foreign-policy sages who flat-out oppose President Barack Obama’s plan to bomb Syria in response to the regime’s use of poison gas have an alternative in mind. Surely they don’t think, "Let those crazy Muslims kill each other," or "It’s none of our business." That would be callous. It would be un-American.

But since very few of the critics have actually bothered to say what they would like the president to do instead, I will propose what I imagine to be their alternative in order to examine whether Obama is, in fact, making a colossal mistake. 

If the United States should not be resorting to force to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from killing his people, wrecking his country, engulfing his region in chaos, and releasing the genie of chemical weapons, then he should be using diplomacy. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says that "we should avoid further militarization of the conflict, revitalize the search for a political settlement." The International Crisis Group has echoed this sentiment, as has Alex de Waal, the Africa scholar who now runs the World Peace Foundation at Tufts.

One of the strongest arguments against military action (though Sens. Rand Paul and Tom Udall and other Obama opponents left and the right haven’t bothered to make it) is that it may preclude a political settlement. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has said that a U.S. strike would "put the planned Geneva-2" peace conference "a long way back or even kill it altogether." I asked Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the publication Russia In Global Affairs, whether he took Lavrov at his word, and he said, "It may seem strange, but there is a widespread belief here that if America is allowed to settle every conflict by intervening in other countries, sooner or later it will come to Russia. This is a very, very deep belief." The foreign minister, says Lukyanov, is not bluffing.

That’s a serious problem. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressing Russia for months to participate in Geneva-2. The draft Senate resolution authorizing hostilities in Syria states that "It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict…" But maybe the resolution is self-defeating: since no political settlement in Syria is even imaginable unless Russia puts pressure on the Assad regime to compromise with the rebels, bombing Syria may not hasten a political settlement but rather make it unattainable.

The International Crisis Group makes precisely this argument in proposing that the United States stay its hand in order to help foster a political settlement which allows Assad to stay in power, though not "indefinitely," while an inclusive transitional process moves forward. ICG spelled out the plan in detail in an earlier document: outside powers must demand that the Syrian antagonists on both sides lower their expectations, and then press the rebels and the regime to form an interim government with an inclusive committee to establish broad constitutional principles. Core institutions like the army must be reformed and preserved. Power should be devolved to the governorates in order to ensure that all major communities feel included. And Iran must receive guarantees of a future role.

So why is Obama bombing instead of talking? Has America’s arch-diplomat lost faith in diplomacy, as Vali Nasr charges in Dispensable Nation? Maybe he has. In the spring of 2012, when the U.N. was trying to organize a political settlement, Russia might have been able to bring Damascus to the table if the United States and its allies had pressured the rebels to accept a gradual political transition rather than Assad’s immediate ouster. They didn’t; Assad looked doomed, and the rebels were in no mood to compromise. That moment may come to be seen as one of the war’s many could-have-beens. But we’re not there any more. It’s hard to see any reason why Assad would now accept his own demise; why the supremely embittered rebels would agree to let him stay, but not "indefinitely"; why Iran would stop shipping arms to Damascus and call off Hezbollah. And it’s hard to foresee any settlement, at all, short of dismembering Syria and distributing the pieces to the antagonists.  

I called the ICG to ask why they thought a political settlement was not only necessary but possible, but the organization declined to make an analyst available. But you can understand the logic: If war is not going to lead to diplomacy, and if diplomacy is the only way to end the current savage stalemate short of an outright defeat of the rebels or, much more improbably, the regime, then the answer is Geneva-2. That may be impossible, but everything possible will only make the situation worse. Delusory hope may thus be the least bad option.

But it’s fundamentally specious to argue against U.S. airstrikes in order not to jeopardize a diplomatic option which has long since disappeared. If Syria should not be allowed to use chemical weapons on its citizens, and if the United States can not permit its "red line" to be so grossly violated — whether or not Obama should have drawn it in the first place — then it makes no sense to oppose the attack on the grounds that it precludes diplomacy. This is functionally the same as saying that the U.S. shouldn’t use force — even sharply limited force — to prevent mass atrocities or punish proliferation.

There is, however, a harder question for those of us who believe that the United States should mount a campaign to not just cripple Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons but to reduce its capacity to kill its citizens through conventional means, as well. The ultimate goal of such an effort would be both to protect Syrians and to force Assad to negotiate. This is what Kerry means when he talks about changing Assad’s "calculus," and it is the principle which Sen. John McCain has embedded in the Senate resolution, which also speaks of aiding the Syrian political and military opposition.

But is that as remote a possibility as negotiations today would be? That’s what Lavrov says, and perhaps he means it. In the aftermath of an attack, Russia and Iran will double down on their support to Assad, and the regime itself will be convinced that it must win or die. The ICG asserts that the regime is an "inseparable whole," and thus that no one part will turn against another even as its fortunes dwindle. There will be no military "tipping-point."

That may be so; there’s no way of knowing for sure in advance of the event. All choices in Syria are not simply bad but discreditable; that’s why doing nothing seems so appealing. Those of us who advocate doing something are all left with our possibly delusory hopes. Perhaps the best answer is to try everything: degrading the regime’s capacity and enhancing the rebels’, talking to Russia and Iran, even shaming the government, as Thomas Friedman recently suggested. Will all that, taken together, make a political settlement of any kind at all more rather than less likely? I don’t know. It’s the best answer I can come up with.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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