In Sweden last week, President Barack Obama said of the situation in Syria that “the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing”.
Most of the world seems to agree. Yet the American president appears to have leapt to the conclusion that the US should use military force in Syria, even “going it alone” if necessary. The emphasis on American military action has been divisive in the US and abroad. It has generated a false dichotomy between military action and inaction. In fact, the real choice is over what kinds of intervention, by whom, and with what consequences. Taking away Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.
The quick reaction to John Kerry’s perhaps-accidental suggestion on Monday that isolating Syria’s chemical weapons and putting them under international control would resolve the crisis shows that there is broad international support for further diplomatic and political pressure on Assad. The success of this latest proposal will depend largely on Russia’s willingness to force the Syrians to carry out the plan. But in the long run, resolving this conflict requires more than Russian pressure to comply with this particular demand. The violence perpetrated by the Assad regime on the Syrian people will not stop merely by containing the threat of chemical weapons.
There is support in many quarters for a series of nonviolent yet forceful measures against the Assad regime. Using criminal law, financial measures, and diplomatic pressure, the US and others could pursue several strategies to further isolate the Syrian regime and diminish Assad’s ability to threaten the Syrian people. Three alternatives in particular deserve consideration.
The first is to harness global revulsion at last month’s chemical attack to strengthen the international consensus surrounding the use of chemical weapons. The norm against chemical weapons can be activated with the aim of producing clear and forceful political action, including at the United Nations. This should involve isolating and shaming Syria, including multilateral targeted sanctions and personal criminal liability for its leaders. It is also critical that the US, Russia, Israel, and other states that continue to hold such weapons take this opportunity to renounce them and make credible commitments towards their total elimination. This will do more to strengthen international norms than would any unilateral US military action.
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Second, the US should reach out to Iran. While Iran has been a key supporter of Assad, there is evidence that under President Hassan Rouhani Iran may reconsider its support for Assad. It is widely reported that competing factions in the Iranian political establishment disagree over whether Iran should continue to back Assad. The US should take this opportunity to proactively engage with the new leadership in Iran to identify common interests in ending the violence in Syria. Not to do so would be irresponsible.
Third, the path forward will depend on Russia. Gaining Russian support for a transition away from Assad depends on Russia seeing its international image untarnished and its influence undiminished. American military action directly contravenes this goal. Indeed, the threat of unilateral US military action threatens Russia’s Security Council veto. It puts Moscow in the position of supporting Assad as a means to oppose the degradation of its own rights in the Council, and places a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria even further out of reach. Assad’s dependence on Moscow gives Russia relevance and leverage. It also provides a singular point over which a US-Russian bargain might be struck.
A bilateral or multilateral bargain appears to be the only way out of the current impasse. International law does not offer an answer: Both parties to the conflict invoke international law to support their positions. The US, the Arab League and others argue that chemical-weapons law and norms require a forceful response to Assad’s violence. Russia, China and Syria counter that the UN Charter forbids the use of force across borders. Both sides assert that it is important to follow international law but disagree about which laws matter most, how they should be interpreted, whether they should be enforced, and if so, by whom.
Absent an international legal mandate and lacking support from the American public, unilateral US military action would likely undermine any attempt to build an international consensus against Assad. It would also set back any attempt to rally global opinion to rid the world of chemical weapons. Rather than weaken Assad and isolate Russia, US attacks would likely embolden him, further entrench his Russian and Iranian supporters, and squander the opportunity for a long overdue diplomatic opening with Iran. US airstrikes would also risk intensifying the violence and fear among a population that has already suffered far too much over the past two and a half years.
Even as the international community pursues a diplomatic deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, and even while (perhaps) cooperating with the Russians in this effort, it is critical not to lose sight of the need for further diplomatic and economic pressure to isolate Assad, his army, and their supporters and suppliers abroad.
Ian Hurd is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and the author of After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the UN Security Council (Princeton University Press, 2007), and International Organizations: Politics, Law, Practice (Cambridge, University Press, 2nd ed. 2013).
Follow him on Twitter: @Ian_Hurd