Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people. The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons - a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence. The administration also refers to the need, given President Obama's asserted "redline" against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington's credibility - again an understandable objective though unlikely to resonate much with Syrians. Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.
To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool's errand. In a conflict that has settled into a deadly if familiar pattern - and in a region close to boiling point - it inevitably will introduce a powerful element of uncertainty. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable. Still, several observations can be made about what it might and might not do:
- A military attack will not, nor can it, be met with even minimal international consensus; in this sense, the attempt to come up with solid evidence of regime use of chemical weapons, however necessary, also is futile. Given the false pretenses that informed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and, since then, regional and international polarisation coupled with the dynamics of the Syrian conflict itself, proof put forward by the U.S. will be insufficient to sway disbelievers and skepticism will be widespread.
- It might discourage future use of chemical weapons by signaling even harsher punishment in the event of recidivism - an important achievement in and of itself. Should the regime find itself fighting for its survival, however, that consideration might not weigh heavily. Elements within the opposition also might be tempted to use such weapons and then blame the regime, precisely in order to provoke further U.S. intervention.
- It could trigger violent escalation within Syria as the regime might exact revenge on rebels and rebel-held areas, while the opposition seeks to seize the opportunity to make its own gains.
- Major regional or international escalation (such as retaliatory actions by the regime, Iran or Hizbollah, notably against Israel) is possible but probably not likely given the risks involved, though this could depend on the scope of the strikes.
- Military action, which the U.S. has stated will not aim at provoking the regime's collapse, might not even have an enduring effect on the balance of power on the ground. Indeed, the regime could register a propaganda victory, claiming it had stood fast against the U.S. and rallying domestic and regional opinion around an anti-Western, anti-imperialist mantra.
Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath. Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible.
Whether or not the U.S. chooses to launch a military offensive, its responsibility should be to try to optimize chances of a diplomatic breakthrough. This requires a two-fold effort lacking to date: developing a realistic compromise political offer as well as genuinely reaching out to both Russia and Iran in a manner capable of eliciting their interest - rather than investing in a prolonged conflict that has a seemingly bottomless capacity to escalate.
In this spirit, the U.S. should present - and Syria's allies should seriously and constructively consider - a proposal based on the following elements:
- It is imperative to end this war. The escalation, regional instability and international entanglement its persistence unavoidably stimulates serve nobody's interest.
- The only exit is political. That requires far-reaching concessions and a lowering of demands from all parties. The sole viable outcome is a compromise that protects the interests of all Syrian constituencies and reflects rather than alters the regional strategic balance;
- The Syrian crisis presents an important opportunity to test whether the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran can work together on regional issues to restore stability;
- A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power but, beyond that, the U.S. can be flexible with regards to timing and specific modalities;
- The U.S. is keen to avoid collapse of the Syrian state and the resulting political vacuum. The goal should thus be a transition that builds on existing institutions rather than replaces them. This is true notably with respect to the army;
- Priority must be given to ensuring that no component of Syrian society is targeted for retaliation, discrimination or marginalisation in the context of a negotiated settlement.
Such a proposal should then form the basis for renewed efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint United Nations/Arab League envoy, and lead to rapid convening of a Geneva II conference.
Debate over a possible strike - its wisdom, preferred scope and legitimacy in the absence of UN Security Council approval - has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalise the search for a political settlement. Discussions about its legality aside, any contemplated military action should be judged based on whether it advances that goal or further postpones it.