President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to seek congressional authorization for punitive cruise missile strikes against Syrian government targets presents the West with a perhaps final opportunity to align rhetoric with reality, and policy with purpose, in its response to the Syrian civil war.
The bad news is that the White House, by gambling on its ability to convince a recalcitrant Congress to go against an isolationist public mood, has opened itself up to the very real possibility of defeat as its opponents will seek to embarrass what they consider a reluctant, irresolute Commander-in-Chief. The good news is that that path to winning the vote in Washington is paved with setting out a new and credible course for a diplomatic solution to the crisis that can justify an act of war.
This is not the contradiction in terms that the debates in Western capitals to date might suggest. If anything, the complete absence of a definition of strategic success is the single most important source of the disarray that defines the status quo. The schizophrenia at the heart of Western policy to date was on full display throughout the shambolic events in Westminster and Washington over the past week. The failure of David Cameron’s government to win a parliamentary mandate for action, and of the Obama White House to carry through promptly on its red line rhetoric was, in truth, far less about the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war than about the lack of answers to the most basic questions regarding the use of force in Syria.
What are the “strictly limited” cruise missile strikes intended to achieve, besides a vague and inherently intangible attempt to “uphold international norms” — even as they would constitute a clear violation of the U.N. Charter? What do we expect the strikes to have done to the balance of power in the civil war once the dust settles? Is there any evidence to suggest that such pin-prick attacks will change the strategic calculus among Assad’s top generals — the only real threat to his rule? The uncomfortable reality is that no one seems to know, or even care very much — as long the West is seen to have “done something.”
Two years after the beginning of the conflict — and countless lost opportunities to create the genuine global coalition for a political transition in Syria later — the unspoken prevailing sentiment among Western security and intelligence officials is that the only outcome worse than Assad prevailing in the civil war is a victory by a rebel coalition increasingly judged to be dominated by extremists and jihadists whose model for a future Syria looks a lot more like Taliban-era Afghanistan than a pluralist democracy. But to assume that a bloody, deteriorating stalemate between two scorpions in a bottle is the best of a series of bad options mocks our ostensible concern for the people of Syria, ignores the risks of further regional instability and, most importantly, misses the opportunity — even at this late hour — to forge a global alliance for change in Damascus, and an end to the war.