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International Politics

Bye Bye Bashar (IV)


The Syrian Civil War has reached a potential crisis point, with the alleged use of chemical weapons on in a large scale attack by the forces of Bashar Al Assad and the increasingly probable military intervention of the United States and some small coalition of allied states in response to this attack. The American response could be at any time: before or after this weekend’s report of findings by the UN team in Syria; and almost certainly without a Security Council mandate. President Obama has sought Congressional authorization for the use of force, and seems likely but not certain to get it; while in a strange inversion of 2003, the British House of Commons has rejected the Tory Prime Minister’s own request, while the Parlement Français has given the green light to a Socialist President to join a US strike or even initiate one himself.

The one constant is the unwavering opposition of Russia and China to intervention in Syria without a Security Council resolution in favor; an impossible condition since they can and will veto it.

The mainstream media, in its typical reductio ad absurdum manner, has made intervention almost exclusively a question of President Obama’s credibility. There is some sense in this, of course: if the President is seen to be bluffing on an important issue like the use of chemical weapons on civilians, then other nations – namely Iran and North Korea – may assume he is bluffing on other vital issues as well. Or Israel may assume that Obama is bluffing on the Iranian nuclear “red line” and decide that it is time to go it alone in defense of their national interest. All of this could lead to miscalculation, brinkmanship and unintentional war.


This argument fails to take into account all manner of subtleties. When the United States finally pulled out of Vietnam, and then failed to intervene when the North broke the ceasefire and invaded the South 2 years later, the “credibility” of the US certainly suffered. But strangely, the Soviet Union did not assume that the Americans were bluffing about defending Central Europe. The North Koreans did not assume that the US was bluffing about defending South Korea. There is such a thing as proportionality: Iran building a nuclear bomb is a vital security threat to America’s interests; al Assad gassing his own citizens is not.

Would a limited strike be of any deterrent value whatsoever? If it had come immediately after the attack, when targets were still in the open, it might have been effective. It would have demonstrated an unexpected degree of ruthlessness and conviction that Mr. Assad probably had not been counting on. But after hemming and hawing for days and perhaps weeks, after going through what is rapidly turning into political farce both at home and abroad, a limited strike would not only fail to degrade Mr. Assad’s military capabilities, it would actually win him support at home and abroad. Better then to do nothing than do make things worse with a useless gesture of impotence.


Mr. Obama has yet to make a compelling case in favor of a strike. Apart from the fact that the evidence remains scanty, unconvincing and largely classified, the President has failed to explain to the American people what our interests really are in this situation. This is a critical point, but one only superficially debated in public, and it seems to me that President Obama’s call for a forceful response flies in the face of a number of our core interests. I would list 5 core US interests in relation to this crisis[1]:

  1. Upholding the international rule of law;
  2. Sustaining the global economic recovery;
  3. Preventing the resurgence of Al Qaeda;
  4. Avoiding a prolonged military commitment in the Middle East;
  5. Ending the humanitarian disaster in Syria.

If a military strike, or an intervention with the goal of securing regime change, does not align with the majority of these interests, then the action should be rejected. 

1. Upholding the international Rule of Law: Although American disdain for the role of the United Nations and the Security Council in world affairs is by now proverbial, we must recognize that it is an integral part of the system that we ourselves set up and have defended for the past 80 years. It cannot and must not be disregarded or cast aside at whim; to do so brings into question all of the other bases of international law and civilization.

This is not starry-eyed idealism. Respect for international norms fosters a sense of security among all participants and reduces the costs of maintaining the status quo to the hegemon. That’s us. The more the rule of law is violated, the more insecure states are, and the more likely they are to arm themselves and act unilaterally. Even the most cynical neo-con should be able to recognize that the US derives immense advantages from being the principal actor in the world order and that it is a national strategic interest to defend it. One of our objectives is make defending the system as cheap as possible, so that the burden is more sustainable, so it is in our interest that all states play by the rules. When they do not, the costs to us increase significantly.

The flaunting of international prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons is, of course, a violation of the rule of law. But this violation does not represent a casus bellum. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime; but war crimes alone do not represent a legal justification for war. What’s more, the United States cannot uphold the rule of law by breaking it at the same time; a Security Council resolution is the only legal means for using force against another sovereign nation.

The question then becomes: which interest is paramount? The interest in preventing states from invading each other on the flimsiest of pretexts? Or the interest in preventing the use of chemical weapons? I would argue that the former is by far the more important of the two. For one thing, even in war, certain types of behavior can be prevented by the threat of retaliation. The more-or-less consistent adherence of belligerents to the Geneva Conventions for the past 100 years is one instance of this. The fact that Nazi Germany did not use their large stocks of nerve agents, even in the inhuman fighting on the Eastern Front, for fear of a massive response from the Allies and Soviets is yet another demonstration.

What’s more, no convincing evidence has been produced to support Western claims that the Syrian government used sarin gas against civilians. We have only the assurance of a few intelligence agencies, but no evidence has actually been published for the public to make up its mind because it is classified. That is simply not enough[2]. What is the urgency to attack? Why not let the UN inspectors build an iron-clad case against Assad, if we are so certain of the evidence? To do so would not only gain the international support of the unaligned nations, it would humiliate the Russians, who would face the choice of ignoring or contradicting the UN inspectors and isolate themselves, or of agreeing to a resolution. It is a strange irony that President Obama should be acting in so unilateralist a fashion, after rightly excoriating former President Bush for the same behavior.

Before using force, President Obama must have EITHER: 1. a Security Council resolution authorizing it; or 2. the invocation of a collective security guarantee. If, for example, Turkish security forces were attacked by Syrian government forces – for whatever reason, even by mistake – on Turkish territory, then this could be presented as a casus foederis[3] and Turkey could invoke the collective defense articles of NATO. That might not be as hard to obtain as it sounds. Mortars and rockets are notoriously inaccurate weapons, and some have landed over the Turkish border.

2.       Sustaining the global economic recovery: We perhaps forget that the world economy is still dangerously close to the edge of the precipice it almost fell over in 2008. The American recovery has been strong enough of late to allow the Federal Reserve the luxury of talking about a “tapering” of the quantitative easing program. Other regions are not so lucky: Europe remains fragile and an external shock could loosen the grip that the ECB has on the situation. China is in the middle of a painful rebalancing to prevent a hard landing of their economy. The other BRIC nations are also feeling the effects of the end of the commodities party and the flight of capital to safer markets.

Military action against Syria would certainly cause a spike in oil prices and increase volatility in markets. Neither effect would necessarily be too damaging to economic prospects if they were not sustained over a long period of time. Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee that they will not be. There is no way to guarantee that even a small cruise missile strike might not provoke retaliatory attacks by the proxies of the Syrians and Iranians. What if oilfields in Iraq are bombed by Shiite terrorists? What if an oil tanker suffers a suicide motorboat attack? What if the Electronic Army of Syria or Iranian intelligence launch cyber-attacks against Western financial institutions? The scope for asymmetrical action is broad and the possibility of miscalculation is equally so: the US has no interest in risking the global recovery over half-measures or symbolic gestures.

3.       Preventing the resurgence of Al Qaeda: The debacle of US involvement in the Middle East over the past decade has revolved around this consideration. We invaded Afghanistan because an Islamist regime had provided Al Qaeda with a safe haven from which to operate. That was in keeping with our national interest. We then proceeded to invade, for no reason at all, a secular, authoritarian state which, if anything, was utterly hostile to Al Qaeda. It was the chaos and the sectarian violence following the fall of Saddam Hussein that allowed Al Qaeda into Iraq in the first place. That was decidedly not in our interest.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad was authoritarian, brutal and vile long before the outbreak of civil war; but it was mostly secular or moderately Shia[4] and also hostile to Al Qaeda. Indeed, the al Assad regime was happy to cooperate with President Bush in the early days of the War on Terror, until they were thrown in with the other “Axis of Evil” nations and saw that they would earn no brownie points for playing nice[5].


The fall of Assad would pave the way for government led by Sunni extremists. Anyone who thinks that an insurgent victory would lead to a parliamentary democracy had better go back to their children’s books. The only Syrian democrats are in exile, and count for nothing. None of this would be in our national interest – or anyone else’s for that matter. The only way to prevent it would be to have a sufficiently large military force to impose disarmament, impose a government and then defend it. How many men would that take? 400,000? 500,000?

If we consider this interest, the optimal outcome for the US would be any situation which led to the removal of Assad[6], but not the fall of his regime. If a protracted stalemate developed that exhausted both sides, it might be possible to broker a power sharing agreement that avoided the unhappy outcomes of either a jihadist government or a break-up of Syria (since the Sunni portions would  then be ruled by jihadist governments). Even an Assad victory would be a better outcome than the establishment of an Al Qaeda government in Damascus, one-time capital of the Umayyad Caliphate.

4.       Avoiding a prolonged military commitment in the Middle East: Syria is not a strategically important country to the United States. In fact, the United States could tolerate a great deal of instability in Lebanon and Jordan as well without feeling the need to place troops on the ground. With every new gas well drilled into the Bakken Shale, the Middle East becomes even less important.

That is not the case with Asia. As I argue in another article (“The War America Lost”), the rise of China represents a far more strategic and difficult challenge to America. What’s more, America is woefully unprepared to meet it. Time, money and above all, focused attention are required to stabilize East Asia and ensure that the balance of power with China is maintained in our favor. None of those requirements are likely to be met if we get involved in a botched Syrian strike.

Hegemonic powers sustain themselves in that position by numerous means. Reducing the costs of compliance by fostering respect for the international system; spreading the pax benefits of hegemony over the widest possible group in order to convert them into stakeholders in the system; maintaining a military sufficiently large to maintain the status quo and deter challengers and to use it rarely or never. The analogy for the hegemon is that of nuclear bombs: we build them precisely because we hope never to use them.

The US has the premiere military in the world, but it has challengers. America must husband its resources to ensure that we maintain the flexibility to respond to truly existential crises, as well as to avoid overstretch, exhaustion and bankruptcy. Going into Syria alone, without a UN mandate and multi-national coalition would represent a gross violation of this fundamental national interest.

5.   Ending the humanitarian disaster in Syria: It is also a national security interest of the United States to establish and enforce the moral basis of the international system. I hear the “realists” snickering in the background, but they are seriously mistaken to dismiss the importance of this factor. When the hegemon is perceived to be acting morally, according the majority’s interpretation of what that is, the costs of hegemony decrease. That statement should be rather obvious and indisputable, and yet it is ignored or disdained with alarming frequency, and not just by Americans.


Consider the position of Germany in Europe. Germany today is the hegemon of Europe, and recognized as such by most Europeans. This is a position that was never achieved by either Kaiser or Führer despite a vastly greater military apparatus to what the Germans now possess. It is not because the economic disparity is much greater (in fact, if anything, it is less so today than in 1914). It is because the moral position of Germany is unimpeachable. Anyone who questions that statement has merely to reflect on the words of Poland’s Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorksi: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”[7] No one fears that the Bundeswehr is going to show up at their doorstep if they don’t do what Angela Merkel says; in fact, states actually do what Angela Merkel says[8] precisely for that reason, without all the fuss and bother of sending in the Luftwaffe.

Similarly, when the US holds the moral high ground, most people are content to follow our lead; indeed, they expect us to lead. When states don’t fear that they are next on the invasion list, having been named in the “Axis of Evil” or some such other unpopular club, they are less likely to build up their militaries or invest in nuclear and chemical weapons to forestall unilateral US actions. People talk of the declining power of the United States: that is false. It is not our absolute power that has decreased, it is the relatives costs associated with that power that have substantially increased. Up until 2003, we could afford to be the “hegemon on the cheap” as Robert Kagan explains[9]. Thanks to the foreign policy stupidities of the W Bush Administration, many states became fearful of US intervention that had not been so up until the invasion of Iraq. Countries began to invest more in armaments and to cooperate less with the United States. Because of this, the US can now achieve less with the political and military force it has than it could a decade ago. No one knows how long it might take the US to recover from this loss of prestige and trust; it might never recover if it continues to act in defiance of international norms. That would be an existential threat to our role as global hegemon.

Other people might define US interests differently, but I believe that the five I listed are broadly in line with what a majority would accept as accurate. They are not idealistic interests: they are focused on maximizing the benefit and minimizing the costs to the United States of sustaining itself as the world’s premier power and of the liberal democratic international system. If we accept these, then it is impossible to condone any unilateral action by the United States against Assad under any conceivable circumstances. They would also rule out even a limited “punitive” strike under UN auspices; the uncertainties around retaliation, escalation and economic consequences are too great.

Optimal Solution, Impossible Conditions

While I am utterly opposed to limited strikes and US unilateralism, I remain in favor of regime change in Syria. I have argued in favor of it in previous articles of the “Bye Bye Bashar” series (I, II and III). Even though I believe that the optimal solution is the downfall of the Assad regime, I recognize that I would only support such an intervention under a set of preconditions which are unrealistic in the extreme:

  • Security Council resolution or casus foederis (e.g. Turkish invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty);
  • Arab League call for military intervention;
  • Coalition of states willing to provide military and financial assets, including sufficient ground troops to successfully overthrow Assad and pacify Syria (probably on the order of 400,000 troops). No American ground troops[10] would participate;
  • Pledge of sufficient financial resources to reasonably begin reconstruction of key Syrian infrastructure.

Under those circumstances, I could see the US leading a United Nations or NATO force. Since those conditions will never be met, I believe that alternative options must be employed. At the very least, the entire Assad high command should be broadly painted as war criminals, with international arrest warrants issued and any remaining personal assets seized. We should at least make sure that Mr. Assad and his cronies can never again leave Syria except to visit Iran or Russia. And while this measure will not deter Mr. Assad, nor could we hope that it might produce a von Stauffenberg[11], it might encourage additional defections to avoid this punishment by any waverers.

On Senate and Caesar

Not largely absent – ENTIRELY absent – from the narrative has been the non-debate over the US President’s constitutional authority to order our nation into an attack upon another sovereign state, quaintly known as an “Act of War.” A strange and disturbing absence, because in fact the Constitution and the law are quite clear on this matter:

Article I. Section 8.

The Congress shall have the Power…To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

Article II. Section 2.

The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the Several States, when called into actual Service of the United States.

The President can order the military to do whatever he wants, in his capacity as Commander in Chief; but if he consciously and deliberately orders them to commit an Act of War against another sovereign state, he is usurping the powers of the Congress and is liable to impeachment. The President can only authorize such an act in response to an attack upon the United States or her forces anywhere in the world, or to forestall such an attack if it were evident and imminent. Neither of those conditions is fulfilled in Syria.

Let me go further: even if the Security Council were to issue a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria, the President would still need Congressional authorization before committing US forces.

The fact that Mr. Obama (and all of his predecessors since Harry S. Truman) can say that he doesn’t actually need Congressional authorization and that the Congress seems to agree with him in principle is one of the greatest usurpations of constitutional authority since Caesar overthrew the Roman Republic. This subject is best addressed in a separate and lengthier article, but it is critical that the American people hold a serious debate about the over-centralization of power in the Executive.

As John Dunning, 1st Baron Ashburton, said under different circumstances: “the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.” I agree entirely with that sentiment.

Sources and Notes

[1] More could perhaps be added, such as “eliminating Iranian influence in Syria” – but to me, that is not a core US interest, as we have lived with Iranian influence in Syria for years and could continue to do so.
[2] My personal opinion is that Mr. Assad has indeed “dipped his toe in the water” by conducting a single, deniable, chemical attack and waiting seeing how the world reacts. But that is only my opinion; I haven’t seen the slightest shred of intelligence to substantiate it.
[3] The more familiar casus belli refers to a justification for going to war related to the same state that declares it, with self-defense being universally recognized as the most if not only legitimate reason. A casus foederis, however, refers to an obligation arising from an alliance between states. Thus an attack on Turkey would provide a justification for war to all the allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not just to Turkey.
[4] The Assad family pertains to the Alawite tribe, which constitutes a Shia minority in Syria
[5] An outstanding source for the early days of the War on Terror is Kurt Eichenwald’s “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars,” Touchstone Press, 4 June 2013 reprint
[6] Death or departure: either would be fine.
[7] “Sikorski: German inaction scarier than Germans in action,” The Economist, 29 November 2011
[8] “Suggests” might be a better word, but German suggestions so far in the Euro crisis have tended to be carried out. Besides, being a hegemonic power is not the same as being an imperial power.
[9] Kagan, Robert, “The Return of History and the End of Dreams,” Vintage Books, 5 May 2009
[10] As always, I do not exclude the possibility of Special Forces operating as embedded liaisons with Coalition units to assist in coordinating with US Air Force assets.
[11] Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was a German Army officer during World War 2, famous for his participation in the German resistance to Adolf Hitler and as the author of the July 1944 attempt to assassinate the Führer.

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