At the time of this writing, Secretary of State, John Kerry is negotiating with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to reach an agreement to locate and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. It is remarkable turn of events in what has been an exceedingly tense and complex international drama.
Like many others, I my attention has been affixed to the horror of the Syrian civil war, which has become regional, if not global, in its implications. The two and half years of savage warfare in Syria have been riveting, in no small measure because the extraordinary cruelty that has unfolded there has been matched by the world’s inability to do anything of significance to stop the carnage. Nation states, the international community and individuals worldwide are passive witnesses forced to confront their own impotence in the face of unprecedented human suffering. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, in excess of two million refugees have fled, threatening to destabilize their host countries, and millions more in Syria have become internally displaced persons.
The cruelty of the Assad regime seems boundless. As part of the ruling clique of Alawites, a religious minority comprising no more than 11% of the Syrian population, he is fighting for his survival. As such, there are no limits on how far he will go to sustain his power. As the fighting persists, factions comprising the opposition, some of which are jihadi extremists, have proven no less inhumane. There is not much virtue to be found on either side.
The use of poison gas by the Assad regime has shifted the dynamics of the war, and swiftly and surprisingly has shone the first ray of hope on what has seemed a hopeless situation. As we know, President Obama months ago declared the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as a “red line” (we can question the wisdom of such a declaration in that it transfers the initiative to the enemy) which, if crossed, would trigger an American military response.
And so we have Obama walking a narrow tight rope while placing himself in a lose-lose position. The threatened military response has a stated two-fold justification. First, it sends a message that international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, prohibitions which have been in place since shortly after World War I, (though violated on several occasions without American protest) need to be dramatically reinforced so that they not be used again. Second, the administration asserts that their use by Assad threatens America’s security interests. I find the first rationale especially interesting because it invokes the discourse of international human rights and humanitarian law, making their protection the centerpiece of our foreign policy, and I am not unsympathetic to the need give teeth to the recognition of such norms The second justification seems far more tenuous in my view, gaining force only if the threat directed at Syria is primarily meant for Iran to deter its nuclear program.
There is a tortured quality to Obama’s stated case. On the one hand he wishes to solely destroy Assad’s chemical capacity and curtail the further use of these hideous weapons. On the other, he does not want the attack to overthrow the Assad regime, nor explicitly strengthen the opposition, even as he has declared the need for an end to the Assad regime. Beyond that hairsplitting position is the brute reality that introducing cruise missile assaults into an already unspeakably chaotic theater of conflict can generate consequences which are simply unpredictable in advance. For example, rather than curtailing the use of chemical weapons, how can the best of military planners be confident that if Assad’s forces are degraded as a result of an American assault, he will not feel even more desperate and more inclined, to further unleash his chemical arsenal? We may end up aggravating the very situation we seek to contain.
Obama’s position is unenviable. If he does not receive Congressional endorsement for the assault on Syria (and it appears that he will not) and backs off, he will not only violate the condition he himself established, but weaken the authority of the presidency as well as American prestige in the eyes of both friends and foes. If he proceeds without Congressional approval, he will do so in defiance of the support he himself invoked and in isolation from the global community.
Enter Vladimir Putin. What an irony it is that Russia’s president may save Obama from himself! Though totally unexpected, Russia’s initiative and concurrence to place Assad’s chemical arsenal under international inspection and have them destroyed, may not be that quixotic. Though Russia is Syria’s main patron, it has more to fear from Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons (Syria is in fact a chemical weapons superpower) than the United States, especially if those weapons fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. On needs to think of Chechnya and the former Soviet republics of central Asia with restive Islamic factions.
Needless to say, the marshaling of Assad’s chemical weapons, which are no doubt hidden throughout the country and requires his untrustworthy cooperation, and doing so in the midst of a virulent civil war, is an exceedingly daunting task. Moreover, the United States wants to retain the threat of force to ensure compliance, while Russia opposes it. This alone, could destroy what is a proposal which could conceivably open the door to further negotiation to end the hostilities. At best, it is a long shot, but as mentioned, the first inkling of hope injected into a wanton and hopeless situation.
But a broader question, indeed an ethical question, that should interest us is the relationship of violence to peace making. What is crystal clear is that without the American threat of force, this breakthrough would never have occurred. And that threat may still be necessary if progress is to be made. We who abhor violence and war, and (speaking for myself) are pacificistically oriented, need to ask whether violence is a justifiable tool to offset even greater violence and to protect the lives of larger numbers of people who would otherwise be killed in by war or genocide. This question seems to confront the world more frequently since the end of the Cold War. Many believe that thousands of lives were saved in Kosovo as a result of America’s attack on Belgrade, and hundreds of thousand lost because the United States and the UN shamefully did nothing to stop genocide in Rwanda, when a modest military presence could have readily done so. More recently many were saved in Libya, even though disorder continues to reign there. The planned American attack on Syria raises similar questions. They are agonizing questions, but unavoidable ones.