The steps that Obama must now take on Syria
The repugnant moral crime perpetrated against fellow Syrians, in all probability by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, gives President Barack Obama a unique opportunity: first, to mobilise global opinion against the increasingly destructive sectarian war in Syria; and second to seek broader international participation in a more comprehensive effort to prevent a region-wide explosion.
Civil wars are always brutal. The one in Syria is simultaneously a fanatical religious conflict and a violent internal ethnic collision, abetted from outside by regional rivals who in turn benefit from the support of competing major powers. That gives the conflict dynamic potential for rapid expansion both in territorial scope and in the scale of the violence itself.
It follows that a punitive response to the extraordinarily savage chemical attack on Syrian civilians should be part of a wider strategy designed to engage world opinion in a condemnation of the war itself, and also to generate the emergence of a broader coalition of states that share an overriding self-interest in the avoidance of a region-wide explosion.
It has been argued that taking the issue to the UN risks a veto by some states, and perhaps also limited support in the General Assembly. That is a wise assessment but the wrong conclusion. What should be done at this stage is quite simple: the General Assembly should be asked simply to endorse a resolution unequivocally condemning the chemical attack on civilians as being beyond the pale of civilised humanity – but at this stage without identifying the perpetrators. Could any state – of whatever geopolitical or religious orientation – refuse to associate itself with a collective condemnation of the inhuman mass murder of civilians through chemical agents fired by modern weaponry?
A vote to that effect would clarify and dramatise the moral dimensions of the tragic conflict. How that conflict arose, who sponsored it, and how that conflict has been waged with increasing brutality, can be addressed in due time. But it is imperative that humanity, acting through the UN, condemn without equivocation the moral evil involved in the abhorrent act itself. In addition to punitive military action, and a complementary branding of the crime committed as totally vile, the US should seize the initiative to generate a wider international engagement in the urgently needed effort to prevent the eruption of a region-wide conflict with potentially grave geopolitical and economic consequences. It has already been noted by a number of observers that the Syrian sectarian civil war can escalate into a regional upheaval. It can engulf Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Israel, Turkey and Kurdistan, as well as eventually suck in Iran and the US.
In some fashion also Russia could be drawn into escalating regional violence, especially if Iran and the US were to collide. In addition, violence might then spread to the Caucasus region of Russia. (President Vladimir Putin’s planned Sochi Winter Olympics would be an inevitable casualty as well.)
Much more serious would be the potential economic consequences for the key Asian states so dependent on stable access to Middle Eastern oil. Any interruption in its flow would have an impact on the global economy. In a worst-case scenario, the Syrian crisis could become reminiscent of the initially trivial violence in the Balkans a century ago.
It follows that an intensifying Syrian crisis calls for a wider response that implicitly, if not explicitly, addresses the dynamic connection between Sunni-Shia violence, the growing risks inherent in Israeli suppression of Palestinian restlessness, the internal and external ambiguities of Iran’s convoluted politics, and the mounting challenges to Turkey’s till now seemingly solid identification with western-type democracy.
That response should be initiated by the US, because no one else can do so. But Washington needs more than the backing of the UK and France, the old colonial powers in the region. The EU needs to be more visible.
Also, the moment is especially ripe for a broader engagement in the effort of the potentially directly affected Asian powers, notably China, India and Japan. Drawing them into increased diplomatic engagement could encourage Moscow to abandon the notion that a crisis in the Middle East may hurt US interests the most, and to join instead a coalition of states most interested in supporting several interacting and gradual accommodations. These include an internationally supervised ceasefire in Syria, serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations currently encouraged primarily by the US, and exploration of a possible normalisation of relations with the democratically elected new Iranian government in which mutual demonisation becomes a relic of the past.
None of this can be done quickly. But the alternative is certainly grim.
The writer was national security adviser to US president Jimmy Carter and is the author of ‘Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power’