President Barack Obama said Wednesday he had not yet made a decision on taking action in Syria, but that taking a stand against that country’s use of chemical weapons on its own people can have a positive impact on the United States’ national security in the long run.
“We have not yet made a decision but the international norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be kept in place,” Obama said in an interview with PBS’ Newshour.
“I think it’s important that if in fact we make a choice to have repercussions for the use of chemical weapons, then the Assad regime .….will have received a pretty strong signal that in fact it better not do it again,” Obama added.
The former constitutional law professor, who came to office determined to end what critics called the cowboy foreign policy of George W. Bush, now is wrestling with some of the same moral and legal realities that led Bush to invade Iraq without clear U.N. consent in 2003. …
One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.
“They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic,” he said.
Obama and his top aides have shared intelligence with key members of Congress. But White House aides made it clear Tuesday that Obama would not wait for Congress to return from its monthlong recess on Sept. 9, and House and Senate leaders signaled no plans to call members back for an emergency session.
Dear Mr. President:
I deeply respect your role as our country’s commander-in-chief, and I am mindful that Syria is one of the few places where the immediate national security interests of the United States so visibly converge with broader U.S. security interests and objectives. …
In addition, it is essential you address on what basis any use of force would be legally justified and how the justification comports with the exclusive authority of Congressional authorization under Article I of the Constitution.
-What standard did the Administration use to determine that this scope of chemical weapons use warrants potential military action?
-Does the Administration consider such a response to be precedent-setting, should further humanitarian atrocities occur?
-What result is the Administration seeking from its response?
-What is the intended effect of the potential military strikes? …
I urge you to fully address the questions raised above.
Key lawmakers will get a classified briefing from the Obama administration on Thursday regarding Syria’s alleged slaughter of civilians using chemical weapons last week, two U.S. officials said.
The briefing, to be held by conference call because Congress is still out on its August recess, is expected to include the chairmen and ranking members of key committees as well as the top leaders from each party in each chamber, the sources said. One of the officials specified that chairs of the House and Senate committees on armed services, foreign relations and intelligence would likely take part. …
“The President continues to review options with his national security team, and senior administration officials from the White House, State Department, Defense Department and Intelligence Community are continuing to reach out to bipartisan House and Senate Leadership, Leadership of the relevant Committees, and other Members of Congress,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
If the United States was genuinely interested in preventing an escalation of violent conflict in Syria, we would impatiently pursue all preventive mechanisms available to us – from international law to international diplomacy to international weapons inspection – before adding more violence (e.g. Tomahawk Missiles) to an already combustible situation.
By all accounts this week, we’re not interested in prevention because we’re not pursuing it. Before we invade, as it sounds like the White House is itching to do by Thursday at the earliest, we must do due diligence in de-escalating, not escalating, violence in Syria. This is how to do it:
First, we should invite the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as stakeholders like Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah, for continued talks with Russia as part of the stalled Geneva II peace process. In recent months, we’ve primarily engaged Russia on the Geneva peace talks, a country that has some leverage over Syria, but an insufficient amount if we want to see Syrian President Bashar Assad act differently. That’s not enough. We have other potential allies at the ready. …
There are moral reasons for disregarding the law, and I believe the Obama administration should intervene in. But it should not pretend that there is a legal justification in existing law. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to do just that on Monday, when he said of the use of chemical weapons, “This international norm cannot be violated without consequences.” His use of the word “norm,” instead of “law,” is telling.
Syria is a party to neither the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 nor the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, and even if it were, the treaties rely on the United Nations Security Council to enforce them — a major flaw. Syria is a party to the Geneva Protocol, a 1925 treaty that bans the use of toxic gases in wars. But this treaty was designed after World War I with international war in mind, not internal conflicts.
What about the claim that, treaties aside, chemical weapons are inherently prohibited? While some acts —, slavery and piracy — are considered unlawful regardless of treaties, chemical weapons are not yet in this category. As many as 10 countries have stocks of chemical weapons today, with the largest held by Russia and by the United States. Both countries are slowly destroying their stockpiles, but missed what was supposed to be a final deadline last year for doing so.
A lot of commentators imagine that Operation Habitual Line-Stepper will look a lot like Operation Allied Force — the 78-day air war in which NATO supported the Kosovar Liberation Army in its efforts to stop the Serbian genocide — or the recent military operation against Libya. (That is, when they can keep straight our mid-1990s Balkan adventures.)
While a major air campaign remains a possibility, a more limited military action looks more plausible to me. In both Kosovo and Libya, there was an organized opposition capable of taking territory when supported by Western airpower. The situation in Syria is not nearly so promising. If the canonical test for using force is whether it contributes to a specific, desirable diplomatic settlement, Syria does not pass it. The opposition seems too fragmented to make use of the sort of air campaign of the sort we saw against Yugoslavia or Libya.
It seems far more likely that the Obama administration will settle for a one-off series of airstrikes, largely using cruise missiles, in order to reestablish deterrence against the further use of chemical weapons. (And, perhaps, make good on the president’s blustery talk.) There is a direct historical precedent to such an operation — Operation Desert Fox, which the Clinton administration launched against Iraq in 1998. Although Desert Fox was far from perfect, it offers a useful model of limited use of force over a period of days that might degrade Syria’s capability to use chemical weapons and discourage Assad’s commanders from repeating the carnage at Ghouta without committing the United States to long-term involvement in the country’s civil war.
In an operation some policy analysts have used as a template, the United States and NATO allies started a bombing campaign in 1999 in an effort to stop ethnic cleansing and drive Serbian forces from Kosovo. American diplomat Christopher R. Hill, who was dispatched as a special envoy to Kosovo, said there was an expectation that U.S. military intervention would be short and decisive. Some thought the bombing campaign would last a few days, Hill said, but it dragged on for 78.
“The problem is that people expect when U.S. military assets are deployed that we will do so until the regime goes away,” he said.
Hill said he understands and supports the White House’s desire to launch a strike, but with a major caveat.
“The problem with Syria is that it’s bombing in the absence of a political plan,” said Hill, who worries that the government of President Bashar al-Assad could respond with even more chemical attacks. “I think we’re opening a big door. Every time you drop bombs on something, you can’t entirely predict the results.”
Which makes us wonder why the Administration even bothers to pursue the likes of Edward Snowden when it is giving away its plan of attack to anyone in Damascus with an Internet connection. The answer, it seems, is that the attack in Syria isn’t really about damaging the Bashar Assad regime’s capacity to murder its own people, much less about ending the Assad regime for good.
“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday. Translation: We’re not coming for you, Bashar, so don’t worry. And by the way, you might want to fly those attack choppers off base, at least until next week.
So what is the purpose of a U.S. attack? Mr. Carney elaborated that it’s “about responding to [a] clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.” He added that the U.S. had a national security interest that Assad’s use of chemical weapons “not go unanswered.” This is another way of saying that the attacks are primarily about making a political statement, and vindicating President Obama’s ill-considered promise of “consequences,” rather than materially degrading Assad’s ability to continue to wage war against his own people.