Special to Times of Oman
As a result of President Barack Obama's decision to ask the US Congress to support his call for "limited" strikes against the Syrian regime, we find ourselves in the throes of a much needed, but still incomplete, national debate on the wisdom of US policy toward Syria. During the past week, several themes have emerged in this discussion over the course of American policy toward the conflict that has ravaged that country and its people. What we know is that well over 100,000 have died at the hands of both the regime and the various groups fighting against it. More than two million refugees have fled the fighting, living in miserable conditions — in some instances, threatening the stability of their host countries. Another four million have been internally displaced.
As it has evolved the conflict has taken on a worrisome sectarian dimension fracturing not only Syrian society, but the region, as well. It is an enormous tragedy, not unlike last decade's horror in Iraq, and it is tearing at the heart of the Arab World.
And now, there is clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 civilians, bringing the US to the point of intervention. It is at this point, that the US debate begins.
There are a few themes that have become central to the arguments supporting the president's position for military action. First and foremost among these is the fact that this horrible crime of using of chemical weapons should not go unpunished.
In making the US case, Secretary of State John Kerry has presented evidence tying this attack to the regime in Syria, making the administration's argument that there must be accountability for this heinous act. The president and his supporters in Congress have argued that should the US stand by and allow this crime to go unpunished, there would be several negative consequences: the "international norm" against the use of chemical weapons would be breached, allowing other "rogue" states and non-state actors to feel that they too could act in such an unacceptable manner.
Finally, the White House has argued that if the US were not to act forcefully against this violation, after having declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" that must not be crossed, the credibility and leadership of US would be seriously compromised.
In making its case for action, the White House argued for "limited strikes" designed to "deter and degrade" the regime's capacity to carry out such attacks in the future. Initially the president described his intent to deliver "a shot across the bow" to send a message that would "deter" the Syrian regime from any further use of chemical weapons. But as the debate evolved, one detects the administration placing more emphasis on their intent to "degrade" the capacity of the regime to deliver such weapons. Such is the argument made by those who are supporting the White House call for military action against Syria.
Opponents to the use of force have raised several issues, which they note have not been fully factored into the administration's consideration. Both hawks and doves have questioned, each from their own vantage point, the advisability of "limited" strikes. Hawks have criticised the president for not doing enough, pressing their case for more decisive action. As framed by one Member of Congress, "doing more" would mean "ending the regime and replacing it with a secular moderate democracy."
Doves have warned of the dangers of another US military engagement in the Arab World. They argue that the proposed limited strike would place the US on a "slippery slope" with today's calls "to do something" being followed by tomorrow's calls "to do more." They point to the "Powell Doctrine" enunciated by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell.
Other issues that have been considered, but not always given sufficient attention, include: the consequence to diplomacy of the US becoming a combatant in this war; the impact that even the anticipation of military action has already had on accelerating the outflow of refugees — it is now estimated, for example, that one-half of Syria's Christians have fled the country; how Syria's allies will respond — not just Iran and Hezbullah, but Iraq, as well; and how Arab public opinion will react to any US military action.
Some opponents of the use of military force propose alternatives like: securing a broad-based UN General Assembly resolution referring the Syrian leadership to the International Criminal Court for war crimes; and demanding that the government in Syria join the 189 nations who have endorsed the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy its stockpile of these banned materials. Ideas, such as these, they argue, would isolate the regime, without compromising the US role or further exacerbating the conflict.
In any case, the debate is on and will be decided in the coming weeks. What should be a concern is that lost in this entire conversation is the impact US military action would have on the final resolution of this nearly three year old conflict.
Both hawks and doves, alike, pay insufficient attention to the reality that the only resolution to the conflict is a negotiated settlement. This is where the emphasis should be. It is toward realisation of this goal, that our pressure and diplomacy, should be focused. And this is what we should be debating.
The author is the president, Arab American Institute. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.