President Barack Obama’s strategy for dealing with Syria has demonstrably failed.
That strategy consisted mainly in looking the other way, providing fitful and ineffectual covert support, and actively blocking the efforts of others to mount some form of military action that might have brought the widespread commission by the al-Assad regime of war crimes and crimes against humanity to a halt. These have now culminated in the use of chemical weapons by al-Assad on a large scale against his own people.
The covert action has had minimal results, involving coordination of the supply of arms by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the insurgents, apparently with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The results of this policy, as long predicted here and by knowledgeable experts, has been a brutal civil war in Syria whose death toll now exceeds 100,000, according to the latest U.N. update. However, the number is growing by hundreds if not thousands every week, and likely to be much higher than even this appalling number.
Military action to stop the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the al-Assad regime in Syria has been needed for a long time, but now must be undertaken by the West and allied Arab countries in order to avoid an exploding regional conflict between Shi’a and Sunni militias and regimes, on the one hand, and to prevent Syria from becoming the first chemical weapons battleground since the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), if not since World War I, with the concomitant acquisition of chemical WMD by al-Qaeda affiliated and other terrorists groups, on the other.
The options available to the West and the Arab states, following two and a half years of dithering and blocking actions by the Obama administration, are not enviable.
Nonetheless, what is needed is a military and diplomatic strategy that will produce results and outcomes that safeguard the vital interests of the West, the Arab countries, and other civilized nations in the world.
Before considering that strategy, it will be useful to highlight mistakes that have been made and which must not be repeated.
First, the illusion of a negotiated agreement with Bashar al-Assad should be discarded at the outset. Al-Assad has not kept a single agreement with the international community, from the Arab League peace plan of November 2, 2011, to the agreements reached with Kofi Annan regarding the cessation of hostilities in the first half of 2012. Moreover, al-Assad has proven, time and time again, that he is a master of playing off different countries one against the other, with promises of this or that, or negotiations on this or that to get his approval, all coming to naught.
The lesson is clear: The new strategy should not seek al-Assad’s agreement to any kind of peace agreement short of an agreement to hand administration of the country over to a NATO or United Nations Authority under the protection of a NATO-led or United Nations Peacekeeping Force, in a manner similar to the establishment of IFOR under the agreements reached with Slobodan Milosovich of Serbia and the leaders of Bosnia and Croatia by Richard Holbrooke and the United States in Dayton, Ohio on November 21, 1995.
Second, with over a year and a half of experience with the Russians following their and the Chinese veto of a mild U.N. Resolution on February 4, 2012, the West and the Arab states should not waste their efforts on negotiating anything with the Russians in the Security Council which does not include:
1) the immediate authorization of the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria; and
2) immediate steps for the implementation of a binding cease-fire in Syria, which is obligatory on Syria with or without its consent under the terms of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
The use of military force should be aimed at securing these objectives, not the agreement of al-Assad to this or that proposal. Above all, no negotiation of the final political and military arrangements should be undertaken before a cease-fire takes effect. The disastrous precedent of Kofi Annan and the U.N. seeking to negotiate elements of the outcome with al-Assad in exchange for his cessation of the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity should not be repeated. Ever.
The military campaign against al-Assad’s government and its ongoing atrocities should be pressed until the commission of these crimes ceases, and a NATO-led or U.N. force and accompanying International Authority for Syria are established and put in place.
The military actions required to achieve the above strategic objectives should be publicly justified under international law, along the lines suggested here in earlier articles, as temporary measures of protection undertaken to protect the population of Syria against the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity and their effects. The justification should be very narrowly tailored to the facts of the Syrian case, as suggested previously here.
On justifications under international law for military intervention in Syria, see the following articles by The Trenchant Observer:
Syrian Options: The White House’s sophomoric understanding of International Law, June 14, 2013.
The U.N. Charter, International Law, and Legal Justifications for Military Intervention in Syria—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #83 (September 1), September 1, 2012.
Continuing massacres in Syria, at Daraya and elsewhere; legal justification for military intervention — Obama’s Debacle in Syria —Update #78 (August 26), August 26, 2012
REPRISE: Humanitarian Intervention in Syria Without Security Council Authorization—Obama’s Debacle in Syria— Update #68 (July 25), July 25, 2012
Military Intervention to establish “no-kill zones” and humanitarian corridors—Syria Update #9 (February 25), February 24, 2012
Military action without clear strategic objectives will not be effective. The sooner the West comes to grip with these harsh realities, the better the outcome will be.
When a strategy has failed, spectacularly, the most important thing is that it not be pursued further, and that it be abandoned as an approach to the solution of the conflict.
Military action is now urgently required. But it should be undertaken as a means for securing the goals of an effective strategy, not just to satisfy the demands of the press or other countries to take some action in response to the massacre of Syrian citizens by the use of chemical weapons on a large scale.
The Trenchant Observer
For previous articles on Syria by The Trenchant Observer, see the Articles on Syria Page, or click here.