Making the Real Case for U.S. Action in Syria: The Issues the President and Administration Must Still Address
September 9, 2013
The President’s speech on Tuesday will be a key factor in shaping U.S. willingness to strike Syria, and perceptions of U.S. strength throughout the world. It will come at a point where the Administration has so far focused all too vaguely on chemical weapons but has not laid out any coherent strategy for dealing with follow-on attacks or with the Syrian civil war.
Moreover, the Administration has not made a particularly good unclassified case regarding Assad’s use of chemical weapons – although it may well have made such a case at the classified level. It has not said what it would do if Assad did make further use of chemical weapons or shifted to broaden his use of artillery strikes on civilians. It has made a weak case in terms of international law – but more through carelessness than because of legal constraints. It has given conflicting pictures of the extent to which it is or is not broadening the target list for the strike to aid the rebels, but said nothing meaningful about its follow-on strategy for dealing with the post-strike situation in Syria.
And here, Americans need to remember that the President speaks to a deeply divided and doubting world, not simply to the United States. Even the populations of our closest allies doubt our credibility and/or competence. The Middle East is filled with hostile conspiracy theories, the developing world in general is uncertain, and both friends and rivals question American willingness to act at the same time that they question whether we are again overreacting without adequate plans and evidence.
Politics are politics. The President’s ability to deal with war fatigue, partisanship -- and the combination of opposition from the Republicans and the Democrats may well prove to be far more important in practice than demonstrating the merits of a U.S. strike. At the same time, the President’s coming speech – and the all-important need for factual, detailed, follow up –raises substantive issues that the Administration must also address in ways that provide convincing detail, rather than an emphasis on rhetoric and pushing emotional buttons.
What is the full case against Syria and what is the future U.S. policy in dealing with chemical weapons and the Responsibility to Protect civilians against any form of mass attacks? Focusing on the emotive impact of videos is not enough, nor is strident political rhetoric. The President needs to touch on the full range of evidence, and ideally to provide the credibility that the previous background papers have not.
- Where do the casualty estimates come from and how credible are they? How real are the numbers of more than 1,400 and more than 400 children. Is the evidence really convincing?
- How hard is the evidence identifying Sarin? Is the evidence so firm that there is no prospect the UN Team will reach different results or contribute any more information? Can we firmly state that no other agent might have been used?
- How hard is the evidence on delivery systems and showing that they came from Assad’s forces? A few vague rocket photos and letting the media explain the possible technical details is no substitute from detailed descriptions and evidence.
- What is the full range of evidence showing it was pro-Assad forces and not rebel elements that used the weapons? The United States should be able to make a much more detailed case without giving away key sources and methods.
- Exactly why is there no reason to wait on the UN if that is the U.S. plan? Why is it clear that the UN team’s report cannot clarify the situation beyond what we already know, and will not trigger any more international consensus or willingness to act?
- How good is the evidence on previous smaller uses of chemical weapons? Talking vaguely about 10-14 previous possible uses is no substitute for credible detail on the extent the intelligence community estimates this actually happened on a case-by-case basis.
- What are Assad’s remaining chemical assets? The United States should not rely on think tanks, media, and outside sources to warn in vague terms about the scale of Assad’s remaining capabilities. It should provide an official estimate of Syria’s inventory and weapons, and how real the threat remains.
- Is there a future red line? On Syrian use of chemical weapons? On major attacks using conventional weapons on civilians? On the use of chemical weapons in warfare?
- What does this precedent really mean for the future? What will the U.S. now do to set a policy on the future use of chemical weapons? Is this a red line for Iran and North Korea as well? What will the United States do to try to strengthen the UN, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and on inspection and control efforts to create some kind of post strike international institutions that can be effective? Will these be linked to efforts to create new barriers to the use of biological and nuclear weapons?
- Why will U.S. strikes not push nations like Iran and North Korea to even more reliance on nuclear weapons? Secretary Kerry has not addressed the key problem raised by our attacks on Iraq and Libya: is the message don’t proliferate or proliferate with nuclear and biological weapons so dangerous that no one will risk using force against you?
What is the U.S. case in international law and in terms of morality and ethics?
- What are the key elements of the case allowing the U.S. to act? Be specific in every speech to at least name the key laws, precedents, and reasons consistently.
- What are the full details? Follow up on the President’s word and those of other senior officials. Don’t leave the argument at so shallow a level that virtually anyone can argue in vague terms that the United States is acting illegally, needs to wait on the UN, potentially is committing war crimes, etc. Lay out the case, highlight the limits to UN action and the International Court, and the case for reforming or improving international institutions. Provide a legal, moral, and ethical case that can be used in every post-strike argument and in the future.
What are the strengths and limits to our international support?
• What are the real world reasons we can’t rely on international bodies like the UN, Arab League, NATO, etc.? Make the real world case about the limits to international action and consensus. Follow up the speeches and briefings with a history of U.S. efforts and analysis of the problems involved.
• What are the problems our allies face and what is the level of support from the nations that are willing to supports and or act? Give credit where it is due. Praise Britain and France for trying, highlight the extent to which some nations have provided support, and show why it is so difficult to get international support.
What is our broader policy and strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war?
- Will we strike in ways that support the moderate rebels, and are we prepared to follow up in the future? What is the full purpose of our strike plan? Are we going to confront Assad with the fact each new set of attacks on civilians will cost him far more than it is worth?
- Do we now have a credible strategy for aiding the moderate rebels after the strikes? The Administration has done a dismal job of explaining its humanitarian support to date and talking about its effects rather than its cost. Its efforts to arm the rebels have faltered, been extremely expensive, and been offset by limits on some of our Arab allies that have limited aid to moderates while money and weapons went to extremists. Do we now actually have a policy now that will have a consistent impact? Do we have support from key neighboring states? No one should have to wait 30 days for the administration to make this case.
- What is the overall humanitarian policy? Some 1,400 dead are important, but what will we do about some 1.7 million refugees outside Syria and some 4.25 million displaced in Syria? About the more than 117,000 dead and something like twice that in wounded? How can you single out one horrible, but relatively small event, and not have an overall policy involving measurable resources and effects?
- How real are the risks of supporting the rebel side? Vague rhetoric about 75% of the rebels being moderate does not support a strategy or provide a valid picture of the cost-benefits of supporting the rebels. What is the current mix of rebel capabilities? What can we do to boost the moderates and ensure that extremists do not take control of rebellion or post victory government? How will we control and monitor the flow of support?
- Do we have a clear commitment and plan to seek a negotiated solution? We may never be able to get a meaningful international effort to establish a negotiation, but the issue arises as to whether we have a credible plan to try. Equally important, will we seek to get a negotiated solution with or without formal international support rather than seek an unstable rebel victory? Can we show we are not creating a situation that will prolong a stalemate and immense human suffering or leave Syria a divided source of sectarian and ethnic tensions and anger affecting the entire region.
- What are the limits to U.S. action? Is the United States firmly committed to not deploying ground troops other than small elements of Special Forces and intelligence units? Will the United States set firm limits to support of the rebels than put the weight of responsibility and effort on them? Will it require allied support for humanitarian and military action as criteria for its own efforts? Are there definable limits and conditions for the use of air strikes and restrikes with cruise missiles?
What is the cost of not acting?
Regardless of any past mistakes or misjudgments, the acid test in many ways is the level of relative risk if the United States does not act. It is the comparative strategic impact of acting versus not acting on our regional Arab allies, Turkey, and Israel. It is the impact on regional stability and the growing conflict between Sunni and non-Sunni and between the vast majority of Sunni moderates and Islamist extremists. It is the impact on the credibility of U.S. sanctions, deterrence, and containment, and U.S. efforts to build up regional military partnerships. This case needs to be laid out in depth.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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