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Syria Demands Prudence

Don't rush to launch missiles—let the UN conduct a thorough chemical-weapons investigation.
obama situation room syria
President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder: Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

In 1950, the great American diplomat George F. Kennan gave a series of lectures, subsequently published under the title American Diplomacy, which was once required reading for foreign and domestic policymakers alike. As in all of his works, Kennan emphasized the need for certain virtues in foreign policy that seem alien to our own age, prudence foremost among them. The series begins with the Spanish-American War (1898). On the origins of that conflict, Kennan wrote the following:

The Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, who was also a doctor, once observed that when a large variety of remedies were recommended for the same disease, it was a pretty sure sign that none of them was any good and that the disease was incurable. Similarly, when one notes the variety of arguments [for the Spanish-American War], one has the impression that none of them was the real one—that at bottom of it all lay something deeper, something less easy to express.

This passage seems particularly salient as America ponders military intervention in Syria. The recent claim that Assad’s government used chemical weapons against civilians thrust the legislative bodies of the U.K. and U.S. into debate. The former voted against intervention, following the apparent general will; the U.S. Congress, as of this writing, will be putting it to a vote, though President Obama has indicated he may initiate military action with or without Congress. In the meantime, intelligence leaks have failed to convince the international community and apparently even some in the intelligence community. If the intelligence is persuasive, the administration ought to make a more detailed disclosure.

Like the people of the U.K., the American people have thus far leaned strongly against intervention in Syria. The lack of popular support is not surprising, especially as Americans become increasingly aware of the persecution of Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, the birthplace of Christianity. The violence against Christians in Syria is reminiscent of that in Iraq in the last decade, where Sunni Islamists systematically eradicated the Chaldo-Assyrian Christian community. American policy in Iraq, Egypt, and now Syria has, regrettably, contributed to this trend. Al-Qaeda recently targeted a Christian village—likely emboldened by the prospect of U.S. military support in its effort to topple Assad’s regime for using chemical weapons.

The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria is, of course, a serious matter. The evidence ought to be disclosed and subjected to scrutiny. Surely whatever methodologies this might reveal are outweighed by restoring American credibility, achieving rational policy objectives, and curbing the violence in Syria. Yet the media has not demanded that the administration make public its intelligence—the basis for the proposed unilateral military intervention. This lack of curiosity reminded me of the recent observation that the most compelling argument for having a Republican in the White House is that it prompts American journalists to do their jobs.

There will likely be equal journalistic disinterest in Secretary of State John Kerry’s revelation that several Sunni Arab Gulf states would be willing to foot the bill for American military intervention, implying that the United States is essentially the hired gun of the Gulf states. These same erstwhile backwaters, America’s putative allies, have been funding the Sunni jihadi rebels from Libya to the Levant for the past several years, including those with ties to Al Qaeda—in other words, they fund those who hunt down and kill not only Middle Eastern Christians, but also Americans. Now the Gulf states are keen to pay the United States to overthrow Bashar Al Assad, whom Kerry once described as “generous,” and “my dear friend,” but now likens to Hitler. It seems that dinner with America’s top diplomat can be a deadly date—especially when the Gulf states are picking up the check. That America has even entertained accepting compensation for military action from the same Gulf regimes that fund al-Qaeda’s affiliates is reprehensible.

The reach of the Gulf states into American foreign policy demands now more than ever that a careful analysis of the casus belli be undertaken. Based on the information made public to date, there are three possible explanations of what happened. The first is that Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons. The second is that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons independently. The third is that one of Syria’s myriad rebel factions obtained and utilized chemical weapons to provoke military intervention by Western powers. The first possibility seems the least likely. The Russians have presumably advised Assad that if he were to use chemical weapons, they could no longer support him. As Scottish MP George Galloway put it during the British debate in the House of Commons: “Everybody knows they’re bad enough to do it; the question is, are they mad enough to do it?” Galloway also noted that the attack coincided with the arrival in Damascus of a United Nations inspection team—“a new definition of madness.” No one has argued that Assad is anything other than a rational actor. Using chemical weapons would mean the end of his rule and possibly his life. The truth, then, is likely in possibility two or three.

The second possibility barely looks better for Assad but must be distinguished from the first. If government forces have the means to launch chemical weapons independent of command and control structures, this would demand an international response of some sort—all the more reason to disclose the intelligence. But first, the international community must rule out the third possibility. Syria’s disparate rebel factions, which are dominated by al-Qaeda affiliates, have the most to gain from Western military intervention, and so must be numbered among the suspects. Youssef Bodansky makes the case that this is precisely what happened. Supposing the third possibility: Would the U.S. then launch an air strike against the rebels in Syria? Or at least stop sending the rebels aid and arms?

As a UN diplomat told me this week, “An American administration is again insisting on intervention in the Middle East with dubious legal justification and based on opaque intelligence assessments. We’ve seen this before.” If the intelligence is as flawed as Kerry’s mischaracterization of Syria’s rebels as “moderates,” one readily understands the skepticism of the international community. Even if Assad is responsible for the attacks, the proposed U.S. intervention is problematic. One congressman put it bluntly this week: “Nobody believes this is going to be a couple surgical strikes.”

Supposing otherwise would be naïve in the extreme. Syria is more than a place engulfed in a civil war. It is the epicenter of a broader intra-civilizational Sunni-Shia conflict, with Hezbollah manning the front lines against al-Qaeda, as Iran and the Sunni Arab Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar make war by proxy. It can, however, get worse. The Obama administration might consider that a conflict of this sort was anticipated in a warning to his predecessor, which was dismissed at the time as unrealistic. Religious leaders are today voicing similar concerns about the potentially catastrophic consequences of military intervention. Even Pope Francis, who prefers the role of pastor to politician, has become a vocal opponent to American military intervention.

The Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory III, captured the futility of American military intervention in a statement this week: “[F]or the last two and a half years, Eastern and Western countries have not stopped sending weapons, money, military experts, secret service agents and Salafist fundamentalist armed gangs of thugs and criminals, who have fallen on Syria like a destructive new flood, far more dangerous even than destructive chemical weapons.” Prelates are not taken seriously in the halls of power these days, but the Christian churches have 2,000 years of cumulative experience in the region. The U.S. Congress should consider hearing them out, even if the administration does not.

Since there is no reason to suppose that another chemical weapons strike is imminent, there is time for the administration and Congress to let the UN finish its investigation, and for the international community to scrutinize the intelligence community’s findings. Haste is no virtue in such circumstances. As Kennan would counsel, prudence is what the moment demands.

Andrew Doran served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State. His views are his own.