Moving off ambivalence on Syria by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Like so many, I have been struggling with the Syrian dilemma of strike/no strike, reflected in my previous blog .  Congressman John Tierney, speaking to the New England Council yesterday morning, spoke of his own struggle to “do the right thing.”  Sen. Ed Markey struggled, voted present in committee, and only today released a statement of opposition to a military strike. Absent something surprisingly compelling from President Obama’s speech tonight, were I in Washington right now, I would vote no.  We might not have to, however, since President Obama is eagerly seeking a way to crawl back from the limb he was out on. And, with recent developments, any vote may be pushed back from this week.

One of the  best counter arguments I’ve read is the Saturday Boston Globe op ed by Nick Burns.  But despite images of nations standing by  as the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide, despite the prospect of  the proliferation of chemical weapons becoming just another tool to be used with impunity by brutal dictators killing their own people , and despite the potential consequences of an emboldened Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah viewing America as a paper tiger, the case for a largely symbolic strike has not yet been made.  And I doubt the President’s speech tonight will change many minds.

Unless he can show that his planned military action is linked to a larger and coherently articulated strategy, the likely costs of precipitous action to degrade and deter Assad’s powers appear to outweigh the benefits.

Practically speaking, a military strike wouldn’t necessarily make things better.  No matter how one speaks of a “surgical” strike, we’re not talking about a scalpel. These are bombs, and there will be collateral damage.  I can see the headlines and photos now.  Even those governments, including Arab governments which encouraged our action, will decry American savagery in killing  more Muslims.

Could this make the civil war worse? Could it turn Syria into a failed state ? If the attacks really  destabilized the government and Assad falls, can we deal with who will take over?  The most organized and therefore likely alternative could be the Islamist Salafists.  We’d have to anticipate their undermining neighbors Jordan and Israel.    If a strike were truly limited, barely affecting Assad, he might be emboldened to go further with chemical weapons.   Would that ultimately mean boots on the ground?  According to Tierney, the Administration is saying, “Those questions deserve answers, which we should discuss in classified session. So we go into classified session, and the classified sessions so far haven’t answered those questions.”

Bombing, surgical or otherwise, is a tactic, not a strategy. The “experts,” he notes, say this cannot be won by military force.  What’s needed is a strategy to bring everyone to the table and get some sort of accord. While the threat of bombing could have an impact on negotiations, actual bombing may not bring you closer to a positive resolution, and it could harden people’s positions with broader implications.  Russia, for example, could say they don’t really have to help get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Or Iran can decide to create trouble if we are taking our troops out through Pakistan.

The Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international supervision and then destroy them seems clearly  too good to be true. The President, Congress and others must vet the proposal carefully, both privately and publicly. There are no silver bullets here.

During the last 24 hours, we have seen nations and onlookers embracing the possibility of a quick and easy solution to a pernicious problem. But we must not be naive about the challenges ahead. Yes there were nice sounds from Moscow, Damascus and Washington, but just this afternoon French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who had been taking the lead at the UN Security Council  to prepare a “workable, precise and concrete plan”  said that:  ”the Russians at this stage were not necessarily enthusiastic, and I’m using euphemism, to put all that into the framework of a U.N. binding resolution.” Is this a serious proposal or a delaying tactic? [Assad’s bombing attacks this afternoon on a Damascus suburb may be a sign that he thinks that  American bombs are no an immediate threat and he can return to garden variety killings. ]

If UN inspectors cut and ran when it recently faced dangers in investigating chemical attacks near Damascus, how will they behave when asked to take “control” of up to 50 stockpiles scattered  in the middle of a civil war?  How many inspectors would it take, and who would provide the critical forces on the ground, the chemical experts and security details? And how long would it take to neutralize some 1,000 tons of chemical agents. Even if Assad agreed to the proposal,  how likely are the rebels, who want a US military strike, to facilitate inspector access to sites under their control?

The proposal seems a clever Russian ruse to appear statesman-like, divide the Western alliance, boost Iran and showcase American weakness. This is Russian payback for American behavior in Kosovo, the Ukraine, and Georgia and its incessant carping about human rights. It’s Putin’s attempt to mitigate two decades of  humiliation and assert, or pretend to assert, itself as a global power. But the proposal should not be dismissed out of hand.

This shouldn’t be an either-or situation, strike militarily or do nothing.  Which is why Putin’s gambit, however misleading,  offers an opportunity to move  in the right direction. At least it would buy time to find other diplomatic alternatives, and I’d like to think that the Obama Administration is behind the scenes exploring every non-military alternative. Its time to create more options. The operative metaphor should not be high stakes poker, but carefully strategized chess.

I welcome your comments in the section below.