Syria: An Arab Rwanda?
President Obama stunned the world and paused his march to war on Saturday by asking Congress to give him authorization before he launches a limited military strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
In an afternoon appearance in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama said he had decided that the United States should use force but would wait for a vote from lawmakers, who are not due to return to town until Sept. 9. Mr. Obama said he believed he had the authority to act on his own, but he did not say whether he would if Congress rejects his plan.
“I’m prepared to give that order,” Mr. Obama said. “But having made my decision as commander in chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interest, I’m also mindful that I’m president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.”
The President’s entire statement is here.
Excellent. This, I’m convinced, is because the British Parliament refused to endorse the PM’s plans. Thank you, Parliament. Will Congress stand behind Obama? The American people had better be burning up the phone lines in the next week giving their Congressman a piece of their mind on this act of war. I cannot see Obama going forward if Congress won’t back him. This is a face-saving act, and I say let’s allow him to save face. Vote down war on Syria, and give the president the room to do what David Cameron did: say the people have spoken, and he will honor their will.
By the way, I read last night Bill Kristol’s advice to Obama that nothing will stop Assad short of regime change. To that, here’s the advice of Joshua Landis, one of the top academic experts on Syria, and a man who is married to a Syrian, and who has family there. Landis believes that if it can be determined that the Assad government used chemical weapons against its people, there should be a “forceful” response from the US targeting Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities alone. How one might do that precisely I have no idea, but here’s why Landis believes broader US involvement in Syria, including regime change, would be a terrible idea:
1) Bombing is not a solution: Mere bombing will not provide a solution; in order to disarm militias and protect Syrians, the U.S. would have to put peace-keeping forces on the ground to end revenge killings and provide security, yet Washington has ruled out sending occupation troops into Syria.
2) The financial burden is too high: The U.S. lacks the resources or will to spend enough money to do the necessary nation-building in Syria. This is why having an international coalition willing to send troops into Syria is so important. Militias have to be disarmed and a new state has to be built. Suppressing competing militias and building new central governments in both Iraq and Afghanistan has cost in excess of one trillion dollars apiece.
3) The lack of desire on the part of Americans for another long-term Middle East entanglement without a foreseeable end.
4) The opposition is incapable of providing government services: Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. The government continues to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians with salaries & retirement benefits. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can get worse.
Most militias are drawn from the poorer, rural districts of Syria. Most wealth is concentrated in the city centers that remain integral (such as Damascus, Lattakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Hama, etc.), which have survived largely unscathed in this conflict, and have not opted to continue the struggle. If the militias take these cities, there will be widespread looting and lawlessness which will threaten many more civilians who have managed to escape the worst until now.
Many in these urban centers have managed to continue leading fairly stable lives up to the present; despite the tremendous level of destruction seen so far, many areas are still a long way from the bottom. It would be preferable to avoid a Somalia-like scenario in the remaining cities and provinces.
It’s not at all clear that U.S. intervention can improve the economic or security situation for Syrians.
5) Entering the conflict would mean America battling on multiple fronts, not only against the regime: The U.S. has declared itself at war with al-Qaida. If we were to intervene, we would have to enter a new front against the most powerful and effective Syrian opposition militias, in addition to the war against Assad. Our forces would be targeted by extremists and more radically-Islamist militias. We would be fighting a multi-front war.
6) The potential for ethnic cleansing and revenge killings is high: The different ethno-sectarian communities and socio-economic classes are renegotiating the dynamics of their relationship inside Syria. For the last 50 years, Alawites have monopolized the ramparts of power in Syria. They have allied themselves with other minorities and important segments of the Sunni majority, and the regime has preserved its power through a careful sectarian strategy. The rebellion, led primarily by Sunni Arabs of the countryside, aims to supplant the Alawite hold on power. The US cannot adjudicate the new balance of power that will emerge in Syria. It is not prudent to dramatically tip the balance of power in such a supercharged environment of sectarian hatred and class warfare.
I think Kristol is basically right: nothing short of regime change will stop Assad from using chemical weapons. Assad is fighting for his life. Is he really more worried about American missiles than about the rebels who want to overthrow him? I can’t see that he is, or should be. I would love to believe that he would refuse to use chemical weapons out of fear of America or out of basic human decency, but that is not going to happen. So what happens if we throw missiles at Damascus for three days, and Assad’s army uses chemical weapons again (assuming that it used them this time)? What then? And what happens if our missile strikes help bring down the Assad regime, setting off mass killings of Alawites, Christians, and anyone associated with the Assad government? Do we really want to have had any part in turning that country, already approaching an abbatoire, into an Arab Rwanda?
UPDATE:John Podhoretz is right:
On the face of it, this is literally nonsensical. If Obama has the authority, he does not need Congressional authorization, and since he is characterizing his need to act in moral terms, a useful punitive strike in the midst of a civil war in which thousands can be killed in a day must as a moral matter be undertaken as soon as possible in order to punish the regime and degrade its ability to kill its own people at will. Instead, he has declared his intention to wait until Congress comes back in session—in eight days—and then debate the matter for a couple of days and then vote. At which time he will act. Unless of course it votes against him. In which case…what? He has said he has the authority to strike; what does he do then?