Next Steps: Obama, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, must now take steps to deal with the Syrian crisis—ALL OF IT

The publication by the U.K. on August 29 of a summary of its legal justification for taking military action against Syria is a most welcome development. It also highlights the ad hoc and uncoordinated nature of President Barack Obama’s and his administration’s decision making on Syria.

Obama, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, said publicly yesterday that he had not yet decided whether to take military action against Syria–a declaration which seems disingenuous at best, particularly as David Cameron was going before the House of Commons to secure approval for undertaking such action.

Whether or not he has taken a decision to use military force, Obama has not articulated a clear diplomatic and military strategy regarding Syria within which the proposed military actions would make sense. Moreover, the details of such actions–however unwisely–have been and are being discussed widely and in detail by government officials in background conversations with reporters.

Obama is like a football player who, excited about playing in a championship game, forgot to bring his shoulder pads to the locker room. Now he needs to go back and get them and get fully suited up for the game.

Given the delays being caused by David Cameron’s difficulties in the House of Commons, Republican demands that Congress play a role, and the fact that it will take still some days before the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors depart Syria and come up with a preliminary report of their findings, Obama needs to carefully consider and take the following steps:

1. Think through a coherent strategy toward Syria;

2. Develop a narrow but cogent legal justification under international law for military actions that may be taken pursuant to that strategy;

3. Develop a broad and strong coalition among NATO allies and allies in the Arab countries and other civilized nations in the world that will support, and to the extent that can be achieved, participate in any military actions that might be taken;

4. Develop support for a U.N. Security Council Resolution which, even if vetoed by Russia and possibly China, will enlist the support of the remaining members of the Security Council;

5. Develop broad suport among the other countries of the world who might be persuaded to support such action by voting in favor of a General Assembly resolution; and

6. Secure the support of Republicans, Democrats, and the U.S. Congress for undertaking military action in Syria.

To achieve these objectives, the strength of the U.S. legal case for taking military action will be of vital importance.

And, it turns out that, contrary to what Obama may have thought before (operating in the covert world of secret actions), the U.S. can’t build a strong legal case for just any action, since the views of other countries as to what is permissible under international law are of decisive importance here.

To build a strong legal case, he will need to explain how the military action he and the “Coalition of the Willing” plan to undertake will contribute to halting al-Assad’s commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including but not limited to those involving the use of chemical weapons.

All of this will take some time. Time will work in Obama’s favor, if he has a strong case. Time will allow the members of the Security Council to get the U.N. inspectors’ preliminary report on whether chemical weapons were used in Syria last week. Time will help David Cameron in securing Labor Party support for U.K. military action in Syria. Time will allow for the diplomatic efforts that will be required to build a real international “Coalition of the Willing”, including NATO (and in particular NATO members such as Italy), and leading Arab states and other countries.

This process should be allowed to play out for another week or two, but not longer.

Then, when everything is set, the U.S. and its coalition partners should undertake appropriate military action at a time of their own choosing, employing military assets and strategems that have not been previously telegraphed to Bashar al-Assad and the band of war criminals who now run Syria.

If, in the interim, genuine Russian cooperation could be secured for, e.g., a Security Council resolution, under Chapter VII, mandating that Syria dismantle and surrender all of its chemical weapons stocks and programs, under U.N. supervision, then the equation might change.

Otherwise, what is outlined above is what is required. To be done successfully, Obama will have to stop sharing his internal thought processes with reporters and the public, and devote all of his and his administration’s energies to coming up with a viable strategy for Syria, a cogent legal defense of any military action, and the diplomacy necessary to develop support from U.S. allies and other civilized nations in the world.

Despite his best efforts to avoid dealing with what was going on in Syria for over two and a half years, Syria has caught up with Obama. Vital national security interests have become engaged. Now he will have to deal with it, all of it, not just the chemical weapons part or the fact that al-Assad crossed his “red line”.

The Trenchant Observer

For previous articles on Syria by The Trenchant Observer, see the Articles on Syria Page, or click here.

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.