By Max Weiss, Princeton University
“Every time the Syrians mourn a martyr another martyr falls, and that’s the way funerals drag along behind them…more funerals.” So wrote Samar Yazbek in her diaries of the Syrian revolution that I translated from the Arabic.
The specter of greater violence and even more funerals now looms on the Syrian horizon.
Following the massacre of over 1,000 Syrians in an alleged chemical weapons attack, which crossed a “red line” uttered by President Obama last year, our country is now hurtling towards a military campaign against Damascus, ostensibly to punish President Bashar al-Assad.
“We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us,” Obama declared, announcing that he would deign to seek congressional support for armed action in Syria.
However, Mr. Obama is finding it hard to justify intervention.
The White House might summon the responsibility to protect (R2P), an emerging doctrine meant to guide the ethical conduct of states and international institutions, as a justification for intervention. The elephant in the room is that the first 100,000 lives lost to bullets and non-chemical attacks did not seem to activate the moral sensors of the R2P crowd. The nature of the weapons involved—be that chemical or biological, nuclear or conventional—should have no bearing whatsoever on the responsibility of the international community.
They could cite humanitarian suffering as a justification for intervention, but the United States and its allies have consistently lacked the political will to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria as well as among the mushrooming refugee populations in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. Given the deterioration of the security situation inside the country and the constantly shifting battleground, non-lethal aid has had a notoriously difficult time finding its way into the hands of those who need it most.
In June of this year, the White House rolled out $300 million in humanitarian assistance on top of $515 million that had already been committed, which sounds like a lot of money. But assuming a conservative estimate of over one and a half million refugees scattered around the region, and as many as 4 million people internally displaced, even if the entire $815 million were doled out in a single year and miraculously made it inside Syria, with no overhead costs, this would work out to $148/refugee. But the displacement crisis is years old now, and on the brink of spiraling out of control: the true assistance is probably closer to $40-50/refugee. In response to the UNHCR’s appeal for $4.4 billion, the largest in the organization’s history, the Obama administration responded by offering to take in 2,000 of the more than 5 million displaced.
So what justification for intervention is left?
For lack of a compelling legal, moral or humanitarian argument, the U.S. administration seems to be ramping up for what might be called Operation Save Face. Obama wants to drop bombs because he once said he would. Such a callous calculus is hardly grounds for a just and viable Middle East policy.
Key figures in the Syrian opposition abroad and inside the country reject negotiations with the regime; they want al-Assad’s head on a pike. Yet there is good reason to believe that military escalation in Syria will likely only result in further military escalation in Syria. Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to respond without a credible threat, but a stick-heavy approach devoid of carrots is a policy bound to fail.
The best course of action for the United States in Syria remains aggressive diplomacy and a more robust commitment to humanitarian assistance.
To begin with, U.S. diplomats and government representatives must live up to their titles and redouble their efforts to unclog sclerotic diplomatic channels. We could urge Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to stop fanning the flames by arming various rebel groups. We could make every effort to ensure that the upcoming Geneva peace talks do not fail. We could throw our weight behind the Friends of Syria initiative that is set to reconvene in Paris soon. Obama should set aside his dispute with President Vladimir Putin over Edward Snowden and demand a sit-down to resume discussion on this burning issue. Moreover, the election of moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and U.S diplomat Jeffrey Feltman’s recent visit to Tehran represent an opportunity to improve U.S.-Iranian relations that must not be squandered. Unless the White House immediately builds upon these developments, then U.S. diplomacy is once again consigned to enabling militancy rather than defusing conflict.
“Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about,” Secretary of State John Kerry concluded in his recent remarks on the crisis in Syria. Through Kerry, the Obama administration affirmed its commitment to “a diplomatic process that can resolve” the conflict “through negotiation.” If diplomacy is the ultimate goal, how does a limited bombing campaign advertised well in advance work in the service of such a negotiated solution?
The Obama administration has made clear once again that the “values that define us” include unilateralism and punitive foreign policy — in other words, vigilantism and thuggery.
If the Obama administration remains loath to actively engage the diplomatic front with the same tenacity it seems to be pursuing military action, then we ought to drop the charade that the Syria crisis has escalated over a concern to protect the Syrian people and acknowledge that this is a policy of machismo: we said we would use our stick, and now we must prove to the world that we can.
Max Weiss is assistant professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.