US President Barack Obama says he's not yet made a decision about how to proceed in Syria. But statements by his administration suggest the president is leaning heavily toward military intervention, in concert with other Western nations, to target military assets belonging to Bashar al-Assad's regime.
To get a better understanding of how Washington's decisions on Syria are likely to impact the diplomatic balance in the Middle East, we spoke with GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist and former US diplomat extraordinaire Nicholas Burns.
Is US military action a good idea?
There are multiple reasons for the US to act now in Syria. First, Assad's chemical weapons attacks against civilians are a war crime and cross a vital line established nearly a century ago — no country can use poison gas and get away with it. A US military strike would be a warning to Assad and other potential predator nations that they should not even think about using such weapons in the future.
Second, American air strikes against Assad's military targets — his artillery, air power and command centers — might also help the millions of Syrians who have been driven from their homes due to incessant shelling of civilian neighborhoods. Taking away some of Assad's air power may help limit in a modest way the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria and neighboring countries.
Third, weakening Assad's military is also a blow against those supplying and aiding him militarily — Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
Fourth, US global credibility as a strong and responsible leader will be reinforced by a resolute response to Syrian aggression.
Fifth, if we don't act now to weaken Assad, Syria's raging civil war may well spread to affect Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Israel — all important friends of the US. We would then be much worse off than we are now.
What are the main risks?
There are many risks, to be sure. The US could become enmeshed in Syria's vicious civil war if we sustain the strikes over time or expand our involvement beyond air strikes. Israel could be dragged into the conflict by a Syrian regime desperate to change the story. Iran might make good on its threats to retaliate against the US or Israel.
In this sense, limiting the US response to retaliatory air strikes and avoiding a prolonged engagement or use of American ground forces is essential. President Obama appears rightly determined not to do more than is absolutely necessary.
But, the risks of action are outweighed by the risks of inaction. Senator John McCain makes a convincing case that America's credibility and international standing are at stake. Our "credibility" is a meaningful, tangible, irreplaceable American asset in the world. As we are still the world's most powerful leader and, in essence, the power broker in the Middle East, we will be judged harshly if we do nothing in the wake of a chemical weapons attack by a disreputable regime. Strong action by the US and UK may well prevent the future use of such weapons in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.
There are two further risks of American military force.
Iran might delay or suspend talks on its nuclear program. But, that will be a hollow threat as they need talks and suspension of international sanctions more than we do. Iran will eventually return to the negotiating table. In addition, a long delay in making the decision to strike and perceived US dithering may make President Obama appear irresolute. But that negative perception will vanish from public consciousness once action is taken.
What is the potential fallout in the region?
Public opinion in the Muslim world will not welcome, to say the least, further American military action after the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, if public controversy expands or Israel becomes involved in subsequent fighting, most of the Arab governments will run for the hills and cease to support us publicly.
The public diplomacy of this crisis will revolve around how effectively the Obama administration can make the case that Assad's villainous government did, in fact, fire chemical munitions into civilian neighborhoods. That is the first test of diplomacy — make a clear, compelling and convincing case for why we should take up arms against Assad. That is the immediate task — today and tomorrow — for the US government.
The administration needs to argue that many of its critics are fighting the last war — Iraq 2003 — in predicting the skies will fall if we strike at Assad's military arsenal. It would be a tragedy if we became prisoners of our own fears and concluded that all military action is calamitous. That would be ahistorical and ignorant of the salutary use of air power in saving the civilian populations of Bosnia and Kosovo, by former President Bill Clinton, and NATO's effective air campaign against Gaddafi in Libya more than two years ago.
The US case will be even stronger if it can indicate that smart and energetic diplomacy to stop the war will follow the "shot across the bow" President Obama threatened on Wednesday.
The US is usually most effective when it is able to combine force and diplomacy to serve a larger strategic aim. This is another test for President Obama in making the public case for US action in the next few days.
The evidence seems clear — Syrian civilian victims are in their graves because Assad's military deployed chemical weapons against them.
Doesn't the world, led by the US, now have to respond?
Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.