Special Update: Considerations for Syria Response

August 28, 2013

Great Britain will present a draft resolution to the UN Security Council today “authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians,” including force, in Syria and condemning alleged chemical weapons attacks. This follows Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement earlier this week, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” The White House has said that it is focused on limited strikes to punish the regime for its reported use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, as the Center for American Progress states, “There are no good policy options in Syria, and the reports of likely chemical-weapons use by the Assad regime only reinforce this conclusion.” American and global publics will need clarity on the goals of any military action; the long-term U.S. strategy for Syria and the region; how it meshes with political and humanitarian goals; and the views of Syria’s neighbors and the international community.

Gathering the facts about what happened. As U.S. and global publics wait for definitive evidence that can be publicly debated, and a team of UN inspectors visits the site of the attack, Foreign Policy’s Noah Shachtman reports, “Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days. But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? ‘It’s unclear where control lies,’ one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. ‘Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?’ Nor are U.S. analysts sure of the Syrian military’s rationale for launching the strike — if it had a rationale at all. Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; perhaps it was a miscalculation by the Assad government.”

Shachtman adds, “There is an ongoing debate within the Obama administration about whether to strike Assad immediately — or whether to allow United Nations inspectors to try and collect that proof before the bombing begins.” [Noah Shachtman, 8/27/13]

Goals of any intervention must be clearly defined and attainable. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko writes, “Any discussion about a U.S.-led military intervention into Syria’s civil war should begin with the articulation of what the United States intends to achieve strategically.” The Washington Post reports “Obama is weighing a response focused narrowly on punishing Assad for violating international agreements that ban the use of chemical weapons, an act the president repeatedly has said would cross a ‘red line.’ Officials said the goal was not to drive the Syrian leader from power or impact the broader trajectory of Syria’s bloody civil war, which is now in its third year.”

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “the reasons for a strong response transcend Syria. It will be a very different 21st century if weapons of mass destruction – whether they are chemical, biological or nuclear – come to be seen as just another type of weapon. There needs to be a robust taboo surrounding their use. Any leader must know that a decision to deploy them will sacrifice sovereign immunity and result in many in the world accepting nothing less than ousting and arrest.” Bush White House official and Duke Professor Peter Feaver adds, “A limited strike against Syrian military targets would punish the Assad regime for its defiance of the red line, which might affect Assad’s calculations on the margins when contemplating using such weapons again. If there are such strikes, it would send a very clear message to Assad: The international community will not get decisively involved if you keep your battle with the rebels at a conventional level, but if you escalate to chemical weapons in a dramatic way, we will bomb you. Such punitive strikes could ‘do the trick,’ in the sense of redirecting Assad back to the conventional level.”

However it is also important to note, “neither the U.S. nor its allies know where Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is keeping his cache of hundreds of tons of sarin, mustard gas and other chemical agents. That means that any military strike to take them out will surely leave some untouched,” reports Mark Thompson. [Micah Zenko, 8/26/13. Richard Haas, 8/22/13. Peter Feaver, 8/26/13. Mark Thompson, 8/27/13]

Any intervention must be part of a long-term strategy for Syria. As Middle East expert and Senior Fellow at CAP Brian Katulis writes, “Ending the conflict in Syria will require a broad range of tactics cohesively integrated in an overall strategy.”

There are no good options. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, said yesterday, “I do not see an easy way forward for Syria. The opposition is not ready to govern and I don’t see America occupying or any other power occupying and creating a system of governance… There are no good options for Syria.” [James Zogby, 8/27/13]

Goal is to contain instability, extremists, and human suffering. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated in April, “The most likely scenario that we see, even after Assad falls, is probably more fractionalization, if I can use that word, both geographically and on a sectarian basis, for some period of time…at least a year, a year and a half.”  Clapper said Islamist extremist groups within the opposition remain powerful far beyond their actual numbers and “have a presence in 13 of the 14 provinces in Syria.” [James Clapper via the Washington Post 4/11/13]

Whether a military campaign is short, the road to the end of the conflict is long. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark, who oversaw the Kosovo operation, tells NPR, “’When you start something like this you have to be prepared for an indeterminate length if you have a political objective,’ Clark said. However, if the objective is punishment, it can be over quickly with a few missile strikes.” [Wesley Clark via NPR, 8/27/13]

[Brian Katulis, 6/14/13]

Maintaining focus on a political solution. Laura Rozen of al Monitor reports, “Even amid mounting signs the U.S. will soon conduct strikes in Syria, the White House made clear Tuesday that the purpose of the intervention would be limited and narrow, to uphold the universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. There were also signs of intensifying UN diplomacy behind the scenes to make way for a Syria peace conference in Geneva this fall. ‘I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,’ White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at a White House press conference Tuesday… ‘We believe…that resolution of this conflict has to come through political negotiation and settlement,’ Carney said. Indeed, even as the U.S. advanced its public case for a limited air campaign in Syria, there were signs of intensifying United Nations preparations for a Geneva 2 Syria transition talks conference. UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former top U.S. diplomat, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Monday on Syria.” [Laura Rozen, 8/27/13]

Addressing the continuing humanitarian crisis. The Center for American Progress noted earlier this year that “more than 1.3 million Syrians have fled their homes and country.”  The British Security Council resolution calls for protecting civilians; more can be done to assist refugees and sanction abusers apart from the debate over U.S. missiles. As a group of House Democrats wrote in a letter yesterday, “It is clear that millions of Syrians are in need of immediate assistance, and that more must be done to help Syrian IDPs [internally displaced persons]… Expanding the provision of aid inside Syria can help people remain safely in their communities, but greater coordination and support are needed.”  [Center for American Progress, 4/26/13. BBC, 8/28/13. The Hill, 8/27/13]

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