Lacking coherent vision, U.S. strikes against Syria would be vain

Today’s guest author is Matthew Gilchrist (@gilchristms). He holds an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs, specializing in U.S. foreign policy and security studies. He previously lived in Lebanon while studying at the American University of Beirut and worked at the news website NOW Lebanon. Gilchrist now works in Washington, DC.

Over the past week the Obama administration has built its case for what it claims could be one-time airstrikes in Syria to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons, which, according to U.S. estimates, killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians on August 21. The administration says that an airstrike is necessary to preserve the integrity of the “red line” Obama drew a year ago and to protect Syrian civilians from further attacks.

If the U.S. stands passively by, Assad will use his chemical stockpiles with impunity, setting a dangerous international precedent. But, the administration adds, an American response must be neither too soft nor so strong that it results in the fall of Assad. American actions are intended neither to bring about regime change nor as a pretext for greater involvement in Syria’s civil war, we are told.

Unfortunately, airstrikes are unlikely to achieve anything that could lessen the suffering of the Syrian people or push Assad to the negotiating table. It will most certainly not stop his government’s use of conventional weaponry that has already killed tens of thousands. The strikes will only serve to assuage the Obama administration’s doubts about its own international credibility while creating greater instability and uncertainty in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel.

Furthermore, discussion of these strikes – seemingly only  popular in the White House, a few congressional offices and the Élysée Palace – fail to take into account the views of Syrian and Arab publics, who overwhelmingly oppose another American military intervention. American military involvement will do further damage to its image in the Arab world, make a bad situation worse in Syria by exacerbating refugee flows to neighboring countries, and risk reprisal attacks by Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or their proxies that could escalate the Syrian conflict and inflame the region.

Meanwhile, American efforts to prove Syrian government culpability in the August 21 chemical attack have ignored key questions, which without U.N. Security Council approval of a military response further undermines the administration’s claim to legitimacy for any possible military action. Why, for example, would the Syrian government carry out an unprecedented chemical attack a mere 20-minute drive from the U.N. weapons inspectors’ headquarters in Damascus? With U.N. inspectors on the ground in Syria, it is fortuitous for the rebels that the attack came when it did and should raise concerns about their own involvement.

Much of the evidence cited in the unclassified U.S. assessment of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons released on Friday is circumstantial and relies on assumptions of prior government culpability in chemical attacks. The most vital piece of evidence the administration cites is a communications intercept “involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.” However, no transcript was provided in either English or the original Arabic, nor was it divulged whether this individual is thought to have played a role in the alleged attack. Lacking context, this “senior official” may have been merely speculating on an event to which he had no connection. With the option of military force on the table, more transparency, evidence and context are necessary for the administration’s claims to be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt.

While suspicion must fall first and foremost on the party in possession of both massive stockpiles of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them – the Syrian government – the U.S., its European allies and the U.N. have an obligation to consider alternative scenarios and investigate the possibility of rebel involvement. Contrary to the administration’s claims, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a rebel faction or a group of defected Syrian military officers could have acquired an amount of sarin gas from among Syria’s own stockpiles or from abroad, and staged the attack to bring about a Western military intervention. Knowing that the Americans will blame Assad for the attack, and with so many dead already, might not a thousand more be justifiable if it hastens the end of the war?

Unfortunately, questions such as these are all too often dismissed and discredited by virtue of their popularity with Russia, China, and most damningly, the Syrian regime itself. The Syrian civil war has so polarized the Middle East and the international community that a critical and thorough debate no longer seems possible.

The U.S. must be careful if it chooses to pursue airstrikes against the Syrian government. If the American response is miscalculated and does greater damage to Syrian government assets than intended, the scales could tip in favor of the rebels and throw Syria into a new, bloodier stage of its civil war. The ascendant rebel forces might push deeper into Damascus, seeking to fully dislodge the regime from its capital stronghold, while Assad would quicken the pace of his unrelenting campaign against rebels and civilians alike. Hezbollah or its proxies could strike at Israel, whose own retaliation would be catastrophic for Lebanon and the region.

The Obama administration does not have the best interests of the Syrian people at heart, but rather its own vanity and sense of purpose – one not shared by the Syrian people or its Arab neighbors. Without a strategic vision for how airstrikes could bring about a  resolution to the Syrian conflict or facilitate real negotiations, the administration’s actions are either folly that will accomplish little and be forgotten, or will lead to deeper American involvement and greater suffering in Syria and the region.

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