Hard choices in Syria

Published: September 6, 2013
The writer is Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and Chair of the Jinnah Institute, Islamabad. She tweets @sherryrehman

The writer is Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and Chair of the Jinnah Institute, Islamabad. She tweets @sherryrehman

As the Syrian crisis escalates, the leadership forced on America after the Second World War has once again taken it to the frontlines of what it sees as an international obligation. From the G20 summit to the Arab street, the debate on how the US responds to the monstrous use of chemical weapons is fast and furious, oscillating between the overtly moral and the strategic as the motive for action.

To the rest of the world, the broad moral issue is not about whether inaction against Bashar al-Assad is unconscionable or not. That would be a clean sluice of a choice. Except to regional allies, his sell-by date as president of Syria had already been tainted by a protracted brutal civil war that forced two million into dystopic homelessness. The allegation of unleashing chemical weapons was the nail in his political coffin. But if moral choice is the standard, which alone rarely guides the actions of nation-states or coalitions, the hard choice would hinge on facing one question: How many lives would US military action secure? The political question for Americans should not be the domestic cost of tempered action, or inaction in the face of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It should be about at least the medium term, when instead of peace breaking out after unilateral action, the global conversation will not be about chemical weapons prevention, but about post-Assad Syria and the red lines the US crosses in judging allies and enemies by different moral yardsticks.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still hanging over the global map as both divisive and inconclusive, American military options are riddled with peril. For President Obama, the publically stated red line was drawn a while ago in the brave hope of preventing President Assad’s move towards chemical weapons. Now the intents seem to be multiple. In protecting credibility and projecting American power in the face of potential WMD, he has thrown the ball into the US Congress’s political gridlock. This is seen in Washington as a smart political choice. It allows the administration to watch Syrian forces, to lend ear to both calls to caution and action, to amass flotilla muscle in the Mediterranean to mount pressure on the Syrian regime and operate with a cassus belli explicable to domestic public opinion, because, really, that is where America’s recent wars are explained. With politics becoming increasingly fractious in the US, the foreign policy calculus also gets shaped by domestic power compulsions. In the meantime, General Dempsey, Joint Chief of US Military Staff, has spelt out the costs, both military and economic, to a country in international military overstretch. But more importantly, he has warned of the unintended consequences that this war may unleash. So, the main question shaping the evolving response in Washington really should be rooted in what endgame a limited military intervention provides, which the senate has authorised.

As the countdown to a House vote builds up, Congress should look to avoiding the charge of not only arming the old enemy but investing in widening the conflict. Why? Because no rebel group will be able to transition Syria to democracy, let alone fill the power vacuum without sustained help. The Free Syrian Army’s confidence in securing Damascus, Assad’s cache of chemical weapons and preventing revenge killings is an overconfident assessment of a battlefield that is too chaotic. A punitive missile barrage whose only intent is yes, shock and awe, runs a real risk of empowering al Nusra and al Qaeda.

For Pakistan, this is as complex as it gets. The Iran-Israel stand-off will shape many responses on the Pakistani street. In the absence of any Muslim unity, the dangers of a Levantine meltdown, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the side of the rebels, and Hezbollah and Iran on another, will become even more perilous. It will exponentially feed the al Qaeda swamp Pakistan paid such a high price to drain. It will also drive up oil prices, and push Islamabad into facing a rising horde of conspiracy-theorists, burning American flags and walking into a convoluted psychic universe of angry people wearing ‘I am Assad’ t-shirts. Seriously.

The problem is there are no good choices in Syria right now, because it really is too late for that. History teaches us that in a void, there are no guarantees of who, or in this case, whose proxies will seize the ground. Ergo, it is crucial to calibrate a series of options that send both the right message so important to American politics, as well as to provide space for less suboptimal outcomes. These could include a range of strategic, diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives. Refugees could be given asylum, as in Sweden. Moves for defections to shake Assad out of the palace which are already under way could be ramped up. The UN could put him and his family into an international travel gulag. A business freeze with Assad supporters could be imposed. Antidotes to nerve agents can be sent to the Free Syrian Army. Political reconciliation and an American olive twig to Iran also could help bolster the view that in the region, US intent in the region is not about maximising Israeli hegemony or Iran’s isolation.

The UN should also be leveraged better, arguably the last notional meeting point for taking clear multilateral positions. Its support still carries a patina of legitimacy, which is why states spend a lot of time and money working its system. In the Syrian case, the charter does not permit military action, even if the R2P (Right to Protect) argument is used. The worry is that even if evidence of the sarin gas is found, as this is likely not an intel debacle like Iraq and its alleged WMD redux, the UN’s limits in making moral choices may still obstruct action because its Security Council will be guided by strategic rivalries. But the UN is also the best hope where a compromise between human rights, sovereignty and intervention can be thrashed out. In this process, the priority in Syria, if morality is the stated motive for military action, can be redefined as the long, tough, expensive haul needed to protect populations.

Sometimes it causes less harm to say we can’t lead the world in ways that reshape it. The sarin gas monsters prompt action. Yet states, especially superpowers, must act in ways that don’t intensify the ruinous course already set for another. For Syria now, the first priority must be to slow down a tailspin triggered by its own rulers. Not to take action that will spawn more horrors.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 7th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Sep 6, 2013 - 10:36PM

    Interesting that people who have never spoken about the genocide of Shias in Pakistan have now become expert on Syria. A Badly Flawed Article that can be best described as an anti american rhetoric.


  • Agnostic
    Sep 6, 2013 - 11:17PM

    The real worry should not be about the few likely US air strikes but rather its declared intent not to bring down the Assad regime. How many more Syrians must die before a family’s forty year old killing spree is brought to an end. This scale of butchery has not been seen since Rwanda. What a pity that the Saudis and the Iranians have decided to fight it out in Syria. Where will be their next battle ground after Syria is destroyed?


  • Parvez
    Sep 7, 2013 - 12:42AM

    From what I understood you seem to say that the Syrian situation evolved………..but I think it was deliberately created. The way it will now play out depends on this important point.


  • Indian critic
    Sep 7, 2013 - 1:33AM

    People are quick to criticise Americans for wanting to take action after the heinous chemical attacks by Assad, regardless if and what kind of ulterior motive the US has for it, but where were all those people during the last 2 years when 100.000 Syrians were killed with the blessings of Hezbollah, Saudi-Arabia and Iran?


  • Qasim Farooq
    Sep 7, 2013 - 1:42AM

    Good to see ET attracting such good writers to its opinion pages. Now if you could also get I.A. Rahman, Adil Najam, Ayaz Amir and Babar Sattar, then that would really give you a power punch!


  • waqas
    Sep 7, 2013 - 8:56AM

    My question is that after the strikes, where will Syria stand without a leader.?
    In the crisis of absence of leadership, the attacks will only produce more chaos and they might give a chance for intervention of military; and we might experience another dictatorial regime.


  • Np
    Sep 7, 2013 - 12:30PM

    So you think leadership of Assad who has killed a 100000 of his own country,en is a valuable asset worth preserving?


  • Saqib
    Sep 7, 2013 - 12:46PM

    Well if there are no good choices in Syria right
    now, then let Assad alone to continue killing of Syrians…Recommend

  • Umm What?
    Sep 7, 2013 - 12:54PM

    What leader and what chaos are you talking about? With more than 100,000 dead, 8 million displaced, all because of one man’s determination to remain in power at all costs, I don’t get how Syria can get any worse than it already is? Seems like your solution is to just look the other way regardless of the blood that is being spilled all because you would rather be anti-us than speak up to end the sufferings of the common people.


  • Maalik Baloch
    Sep 7, 2013 - 1:42PM

    Look who is asking moral questions?


  • 1947
    Sep 7, 2013 - 3:02PM

    Alas, there are no sincere efforts to resolve Syrian issue domestically. None has tried to bring Syrians on negotiation table to resolve the conflict internally. Seemingly, no one is in favour of peace and stability in the region.


  • TheMonk
    Sep 7, 2013 - 3:07PM

    Why do you suggest that the Syrian refugees be offered asylum in Sweden? What about Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia and scores of other Moslem countries?


  • NoOne
    Sep 7, 2013 - 3:32PM

    This conflict needs a political solution hitch ensures end of plight of Syrian people and safeguard security of minorities post settlement.


  • Sexton Blake
    Sep 7, 2013 - 3:40PM

    @Indian critic:
    How do you know President Assad was responsible for the chemical attack?


  • Sonya
    Sep 7, 2013 - 6:10PM

    This was a sheer waste of time reading anything from the article. Due to her ignorance on who used chemical weapons Rebels or Syrian force? the dirty role of Saudi and other arab countries? I can realize now why she was a bad choice in leading Pakistan’s mission in the US. By the way what would you feel being a Pakistani if some countries working as a team start recruiting rebels in Baluchistan and make it a humanitarian issue, all that natural ingredients are there what it it takes to make it like a situation in Syria….boooh….


  • sick of this nonsense
    Sep 7, 2013 - 7:22PM

    @Anas Abbas:
    you forgot she was a staunch supporter of minority rights. dont criticize for the sake of it.
    @Indian critic:
    there have been many genocides committed in India too. Do you want US to step in India too?


  • rz
    Sep 7, 2013 - 8:17PM

    @Anas Abbas:
    I suppose since you must have been speaking against genocide of Shias in Pakistan. Therefore you have earned the right to bully people who will speak against inconsistent conviction of US intervening in Syria i.e. Killing People with any weapon is Okay , killing with Chemical is not okay ? Let me ask you , do you support American Intervention in Pakistan because there has been sectarian killings of Shias ?


  • SWexton Blake
    Sep 8, 2013 - 12:55AM

    @Umm What?:
    Syria was not experiencing any really serious problems until the US/Israel combo and their vassal states started supplying armed terrorists whom they euphemistically call the the Free Syrian Army.. Stop equipping and paying these mercenaries, who eat body parts and use chemical weapons, and the Syrian Government will eventually get its affairs back to normal. I doubt if ET will print this. It is too close to the truth.


  • SK5
    Sep 8, 2013 - 6:14AM

    @Indian critic:

    The US has also been sponsoring those Free Syrian rebels who contributed to the killings of over a 100K+. You still think we shouldn’t criticize the US especially when its on the brink of starting another illegal war?


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