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Debating the Attack on Syria

With the G20 summit completed, the world is now focused on the United States Congress, and whether it will vote in favor of a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to launch military strikes on Syria.  Since the British Parliament voted down a similar motion by Prime Minister David Cameron to involve Britain with the U.S. in a military enterprise against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Obama decided to ask for Congressional support.  The outcome for support in the war-weary United States is far from certain.

Normally, the United Nations would be the ideal forum to debate any contraventions to the 1925 Geneva Convention, which made the use of chemical weapons a war crime.  However, both Russia and China have indicated they will use their veto power over any American resolution.  With UN inspectors soon to divulge their findings following the chemical attack on innocent victims, it may be a wise course for the U.S. to share its intelligence with the UN on who perpetrated this heinous act.  From all indications, the U.S. case is solid.

Clearly, President Obama understands the stakes.  He, who made the whole Iraq war imbroglio a defining element of his candidacy back in 2008, knows that his countrymen would remind him of his views regarding the Bush years.  To go to Congress was a wise and necessary choice. And it gives him needed time to explore backchannel diplomacy.

With polls showing little support for military action in Syria, the Obama administration will have to present a much more compelling case for engagement.  International support, while significant in some quarters, remains elusive.  Eleven of the G20 countries, including Canada, support the U.S. president’s intention to use military force, but a closer reading indicates the support is varied in tone and conditional in practice.  History can also be a guide in making the case, but it cannot be a doctrine, a strategy nor a policy.  It can only serve as a reference.

The Middle East is undoubtedly a troubled neighborhood, a powder keg to most expert observers.  Whether it is the Palestinian issue, radical Islamism, the Sunni-Shiite split, the contested presence of the State of Israel, terrorism, or the continuation of the unpredictable Arab Spring, there is no doubt that acting against the Assad regime could have widespread repercussions and produce greater uncertainty in the region.

The American president has been prudent since entering office.  He has concentrated on reducing and eliminating U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as combating terrorism.  Capturing and killing Bin Laden in 2011 was a major development.

In the early stage of 2009, he made overtures to the Arab world with the speech in Cairo.  The appeal, while eloquent and promising then, has generally been rejected.  Meanwhile, events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (including Benghazi) and now Syria have changed the dynamic, leading to greater uncertainty and more potential peril.  The use of drones by U.S. forces only added to an already complex and confusing picture.

Right now, the debate is U.S.-focused.  Secretary of State John Kerry has made a forceful case in Congress, arguing that no action will likely embolden the Assad regime and make Iran more certain that it can continue developing its nuclear capacity with impunity.  He points to a “Munich moment,” where appeasement can lead to far greater consequences and involvement.  Right now, the U.S. mantra is limited, strategic strikes with “no boots on the ground.”

The irony in all this is that the U.S. has backed off from any objective of “regime change” as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It appears from the point of view of international law that Syria’s Assad acted with complete disregard for the international community and committed a serious crime.  Yet, Russia and China are currently feeling no pressure. Hopefully, they will revise their approach and push for a diplomatic solution acceptable to the U.S. and those who favor the Geneva Convention.  The thought of a veto is forcing America to take all the risks.

It is to the credit of a mature democracy such as the U.S. that this debate is taking place before the cameras and in the social media.  At the end of the day, however, President Obama is the commander-in-chief, and if he stays within the framework of the resolution that passed the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee last week, it is probable he will act.  Whether or not he does, it will define his legacy—but more importantly, the future of peace in the world.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Syria, Barack Obama

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