Obama's Incoherent, Bifurcated Approach toward Syria

Monday, September 2, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

US President Barack Obama's crucial decision to seek a congressional approval for a military strike on Syria represents a temporary setback for the hawkish US and Israeli politicians who have been pressing hard for immediate US military intervention in Syria.

By causing a time delay in what is described as a "limited strike" targeting Syrian regime's chemical weapons capability, this decision has hurled the US's Syria policy into the bosom of unpredictable political wrangling in US Congress, at a time when the Congress's priority is the economy and the prevention of avoidable shocks to the struggling US economy.

Had Obama opted to give the green light for the air strikes on Syria, this would have triggered serious market jitters, instant spike in the oil prices and an expensive military bill that runs contrary to the logic of defense cuts and Pentagon's 'austerity' measures. As a result, in the days and weeks to come, economic considerations will play an important if not decisive role in shaping the US debates on intervention in Syria. The entire White House's pitch for congressional authorization of military action against Syria revolves around the premise of a short and limited, rather than open-ended, long and extensive, attack that cannot be conceivably convincing to the skeptics who are concerned about the "unintended consequences" in terms of a wider regional conflict involving Syria's neighbors, as well as Syria's own retaliatory capability.  

Chances are that the US Congress will not appease the White House, which has submitted a draft resolution asking the Congress to authorize military action "to deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for, future use of chemical weapons" and, simultaneously, for a "negotiated political settlement...Congress calls on all parties to the conflict in Syria to participate urgently and constructively to the Geneva process."  There is considerable opposition among the US public to a US war on Syria, reflected in the various opinion polls indicating some 80 percent of Americans do not favor a US strike, bound to be expressed by some members of US Congress from both political parties who question the administration's argument that vital American interests are at stake.  The resolution's narrow focus on chemical weapons is unsatisfactory to the more hawkish lawmakers, mainly from the Republican Party, who may revise the resolution by inserting anti-Assad, pro-opposition, amendments. 

As it stands, the resolution highlights a fundamental incoherence of Obama's Syria policy, because the military and political objectives are not complementary and contradict each other. This is in the light of blistering verbal attacks on President Bashar al-Assad by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, which underscore the US government's lip service to the idea of a negotiated peace process "including all parties."  Rather, the lop-sided emphasis on the military strike, rationalized in the name of maintaining US's "credibility," runs the risk of eclipsing the political process, which will be turned more complicated and difficult to pursue in the aftermath of a US strike causing death and destruction in Syria. In fact, the strike might well result in the end of all hope for a "Geneva II" which has been contemplated jointly by Washington and Moscow for sometime.  Initially, Geneva II was to take place this Summer and as of now there is no date set for it.  Posing a formidable obstacle for future US-Russia cooperation on Syria, a US military action will likely exacerbate the tensions between the two countries and thus turn off White House's "reset" with Kremlin. 

Henceforth, a prudent US Congress would focus attention on the political process in the above-mentioned draft proposal, instead of simply addressing the military authorization issue.  Unfortunately, that does not seem likely and the administration is determined to put the matter to an early vote before mid-September -- Congress is in Summer recess now and will reconvene on September 9th, four days after the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, where Obama and the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has denounced the US's accusations against Damascus as "utter nonsense" will have an opportunity to discuss the Syrian crisis. From Russia's point of view, the British vote against military involvement, the absence of US and European public support, and US's fear of spike in anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, are important ingredients for its current bid to prevent Obama's planned war on Syria. In light of the opposition to US's military action by China, Italy, Germany, Austria, and many member states of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the coming G-20 summit has the potential to act as a major break on the military confrontation between US and Syria. And in case the Congressional vote on the resolution is somehow deferred until mid-September, coinciding with the annual UN General Assembly meeting, then the UN debates are also capable of acting as a barrier to the US war plan against Syria.

Another important barrier can be introduced by the actions of Syrian regime, such as allowing unfettered inspection and promising to join the chemical weapons convention and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, which can build confidence and demonstrate Damascus's good will.  At the same time, Israel's fear of a "spill-over" conflict as a result of US attacks has clearly been a factor in Obama's fateful decision and, therefore, pressure must be kept on Israel and its lobbyists in Washington to sue for peace instead of illegal attacks on Syria that violate the UN Charter. 

As far as Iran is concerned, Obama's announcement on August 31 that he has made the decision to attack Syria is a major blunder that needs to be corrected.  Since the US's decision on Syria is internally connected to US's Iran policy, given the nature of Iran nuclear standoff, Iran is naturally concerned not only about the future of Syria but also the threats of US strike against Iran nuclear facilities. A key question is whether or not the White House will defer any judgment on Iran to the US Congress? The answer to this question depends partly on how the Congress reacts to the Syrian crisis. One thing is certain however, a US attack on Syria will set the US-Iran relations back considerably and the damage can be rather severe especially if there is a regional escalation. On the other hand, the above-mentioned resolution's call for a negotiated resolution of conflict in Syria simply means that members of Congress should also debate US's Iran policy and thus probe the question of how to improve the US-Iran climate in part by engaging Iran on Syria, instead of simply trying to appease the White House's warmongering drive.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) .  Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

Key Words: Obama, Incoherent Approach, Syria, Israel, Iran, Congress, Military Intervention, Afrasiabi

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*Photo Credit: USA Today

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