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As President Barack Obama looks to Congress to approve military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, many different and conflicting interests and issues have been raised in media commentary and public debate. One interest at the forefront of Washington’s thinking, of course, is U.S. national security. There are three specific issues that are of primary concern.
Enforcing weapons convention
The first is the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, which crossed the “red line” that Obama drew in August 2012 as a warning to Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that the administration has solid evidence of the regime’s use of sarin gas against civilians in Ghouta, an area east of Damascus, on Aug. 21.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international treaty banning the use of such arms, has been signed and implemented by all but seven of the world’s nations. Although Syria has not signed the treaty, its acceptance by such an overwhelming majority of the world’s states gives it the status of an international norm to which Syria can be held accountable. It was precisely this consideration that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referenced in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 3, when he said, “weakening this norm could embolden other regimes to acquire or use chemical weapons.”
In the eyes of many U.S. policy makers — particularly those whose work touches upon weapons of mass destruction and international treaties — enforcing the CWC’s terms is a critical national interest. Some commentators have argued that the gas attack, in which “only” 1,500 Syrians were killed, should not generate special concern, because more than 100,000 have been killed by conventional means. But the international norm expressed in the CWC does mark a difference. The norm has been violated, and so the perpetrators must be held accountable. While conventional weapons raise other humanitarian concerns, their use remains permissible.
Some commentators, such as journalist David Cay Johnston, have questioned why the U.S. must take it upon itself to enforce an international norm. The U.S. is the one country not only with the capacity to uphold this standard, but also the will to take action to enforce it (likely with French assistance). To be sure, the enforcement mechanism for violations of the CWC — who enforces, how much, and under what authority — is not ideal. This issue remains perhaps the most troubling aspect of a proposed military strike. Absent a clear rationale based on national self-defense (this would be easier were a neighboring state to strike) or a Chapter 7 mandate from the United Nations against threats to world peace and acts of aggression by states, the enforcement of such norms will remain contentious.
Regime change in Syria is still — at least officially — U.S. policy. The president has never formally revoked the goal he declared on Aug. 11, 2011 of “a democratic Syria, without Bashar al-Assad.” The large-scale civilian killings perpetrated by Assad’s regime have only reinforced the importance of his ouster.
However, the failure to secure a United Nations mandate for intervention in Syria, which has been blocked in the Security Council by Syrian ally and patron Russia, has complicated any coordinated international response. In addition, the fractious nature of the Syrian opposition has given pause to wholesale endorsement of regime change. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that he is uncertain which faction of the Syrian opposition the U.S. should support.
The administration has stated that the planned strikes are not intended to promote regime change. It does seems likely that the strikes could not help but change, however slightly, the military balance by weakening Assad’s forces.
Those leaders promoting regime change , such as Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham and the representatives of the Syrian opposition, have, with some justification, criticized the narrow scope of Obama’s response. The slight change in the balance of power within Syria that air strikes could establish may be more than offset by a bump in Assad’s popularity for “standing up” to the United States. When Sen. Graham asks for a “strategy” in Syria, he means a strategy for regime change — which is not, at least for the time being, the administration’s goal in recommending limited military intervention.
The Syrian presence of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist elements has been known at least since the beginning of 2012. But it is only in the last several months that the U.S. and its allies have acknowledged the seriousness of this problem. It is one thing for jihadists to join the rebel forces; it is quite another when jihadists control territory. Many analysts believe that al-Qaeda affiliates now enjoy an almost total safe haven in the northern “liberated” areas of Syria in a manner that recalls pre-9/11 Afghanistan. But only in the past week, for example in the work of journalist Peter Bergen and in an interview with former Obama adviser Bruce Reidel, have we seen proper attention to the problem in the mainstream media. Although many members of the Syrian opposition have taken stands against violent Islamists, it remains unclear whether the opposition would have either the strength or the will to purge them in a post-Assad Syria.
Calibrating the correct response to the situation is extremely difficult. Any action that weakens the regime may also increase the scope and scale of safe havens extremists enjoy. Similarly, any attacks against al-Qaeda-linked groups may also help strengthen the regime by eliminating some of the allegedly most effective forces fighting against it.
The balance of interests
The administration’s stated goal is to use the impending missile strikes to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, it is difficult not to see elements of the other two interests becoming conflated as the debate continues in Congress, particularly given the conflicting plans of some in Congress either to defeat the president’s proposal or to push for a more severe military option. The interplay of these three interests — let alone those who are opposed to military action on any grounds — could make for high drama in the coming days.
The general script may run as follows: The administration will continue to push for authority for CWC enforcement. Those members of the House and Senate who favor regime change will point out — correctly — that merely enforcing the CWC will do little to the Assad regime and attempt to push for more comprehensive measures. Those legislators concerned about al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups will oppose those backing regime change and may well ally with anti-interventionists. This result, in turn, may force the administration to band with regime-change advocates to avoid outright defeat of its plans, but at the cost of a more aggressive policy than they would have preferred.
In other words, there is a distinct possibility that the interplay of these interests may result in a policy that is preferred by almost no one, and that is sub-optimal from the perspective of everyone.