Carrots and Sticks Making Sense of the Past Week in Syria

“Look down, now look back up: I’m on a horse.” Credit: Alexsey Druginyn/AFP/Getty Images

“Look down, now look back up: I’m on a horse.” Credit: Alexsey Druginyn/AFP/Getty Images

The developments surrounding Syria and chemical weapons over the past week demonstrate two things. First, the use of force and the pursuit of diplomatic solutions are not mutually exclusive. The term ‘coercive diplomacy’ has real meaning. And second, the United States maintains the ability to provide indispensable and unique leadership in crises situations. As muddled as the Obama White House has been on Syria, the developments of the last week couldn’t have happened without the United States.

Last week, the national conversation was split on whether or not to use military force as a response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Most of the country – as well as most of the Congress – opposed strikes, even as many recognized the real threat to American prestige in failing to respond to Assad’s flaunting of the President’s ‘red line’. A vocal minority, including me, argued that allowing the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to go unanswered was both morally unconscionable as well as strategically unsound.

Into that din, enter a presumably bare-chested and horse-mounted Vladimir Putin.

The Russian plan, calling for Syria to renounce and destroy its chemical weapons, was immediately met with equal parts skepticism and relief. On the one hand, it’s always hard to trust Vladimir Putin to act in good faith, and he’s made it abundantly clear that Russia intends to lend considerable support to Assad’s regime. Not only does Russia provide diplomatic cover for Assad, but they also provide supplies and military advisors to an otherwise almost-entirely isolated country.

On the other hand, Americans don’t want to go to war. The Russian plan seems to be the first believable off-ramp towards de-escalation and the Congress wants to take it.

Good for them.

To be sure, there are more ways this diplomatic effort can fail than there are ways it can succeed. Syria would need to make treaty commitments on the use of chemical weapons, reveal information on their stockpiles, and hand over control of those stockpiles, and the international community would have to take control and destroy these weapons – probably on site. In addition, the West should move to enshrine this process in a Security Council resolution – a step Russia will try hard to muddle. And all of this needs to happen in the midst of a civil war. No biggie.

In return, the United States will be forced to strengthen Assad’s claim to legitimacy by dealing with him in an official international context – simultaneously weakening and isolating moderate elements of the opposition.

But if the alternative is to take an unwilling country to war, then the current proposal should at least be honestly pursued. The main strategic interest behind American intervention is to reassert the international norm against the use of chemical weapons – this would accomplish that. Perhaps even better than a military strike would have.

The main moral interest – to punish Assad for war crimes – should still be pursued. But if the White House believes it can credibly deal with the threat of chemical weapons without taking punitive action against Assad, then it should. Referral to the International Criminal Court, which would have been wholly unsuited to countering a developing security crisis, might be an appropriate channel for dealing with Assad moving forward – even more so if the United States is willing to do what it takes to make sure Bashar Al-Assad doesn’t win the war.

This picture was widely circulated online and nicely captures the idea that the only operative category when examining the suffering of others is, “What’s their nationality?”

This picture was widely circulated online and nicely captures the idea that the only operative category when examining the suffering of others is, “What’s their nationality?”

Lastly, if the United States manages to eliminate Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons without military action, the crowd that was arguing against a strike last week will likely feel vindicated in their opposition. That would be a mistake. The truth is that the diplomatic breakthroughs we’ve seen, uncertain as they are, are largely the result of a credible threat that the United States would use force. The editorial board over at The Economist argued in favor of intervention, but somewhat creatively suggested that the United States give Assad an ultimatum that amounted to what Secretary of State John Kerry said in an offhand way: hand over all of your weapons, or we’ll attack.

It’s not clear whether or not President Obama could have done that. He couldn’t give an ultimatum after he’d gone to Congress – it wouldn’t have been credible while the White House waited for approval. And he couldn’t have given an ultimatum without going to Congress – the dead time in between his statements and an attack would have given the Congress time to undermine him. Instead, he asked for a vote and left the threat vague: a muddled and seemingly rudderless approach which somehow seems to have worked out.

And so for now, the US war machine sits on the sidelines, and the White House has bought itself time to strengthen international as well as domestic support. President Obama should use that time wisely. If the Assad regime fails to live up to its side of the deal, the US might yet have use the big stick.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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