What Congress should do

I have resisted comparisons between Syria and Bosnia, or Syria and Kosovo, as the global and regional circumstances are different.  It does no good to draw conclusions that just don’t apply in a distinct situation. Bashar al Asad is not Slobodan Milosevic, the Middle East is not the Balkans, Yeltsin’s Russia is not Putin’s Russia, Obama’s United States is not Clinton’s.  Distinct times and places make for dicey comparisons.

But as the Congress considers what to do about Syria, some of its members will no doubt want to think about the Balkans, where American bombing campaigns twice ended wars that seemed interminable.  So better to help them get it right than to suggest they ignore the precedents.

My starting assumption is that Bashar al Asad did in fact use chemical weapons against Syria’s civilian population on August 21 and several other occasions.  If like Vladimir Putin, you think this “utter nonsense,” stop reading here.

If Congress decides to authorize military action, it needs to understand what President Obama has known for a long time:  we stand on a slippery slope.  How Bashar al Asad will react is anyone’s guess, but we know that Milosevic reacted to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia by escalating his effort to ethnically cleanse Albanians from Kosovo.  Likewise, the Bosnian Serbs reacted to the red line known as the “Gorazde rules” intended to protect UN designated safe areas by attacking Sarajevo.  NATO responded by escalating in turn.  If Bashar al Asad repeats chemical attacks, or sponsors terrorist attacks against American assets around the world, Washington needs to be prepared to escalate.

But bombing and escalation are not a policy.  Nor is a well-targeted and time-limited bombing campaign an appropriate response to mass murder of civilians with chemical (or any other) weapons.  Bashar al Asad is not a military problem.  He is a political one.  The military is a blunt instrument that should be wielded within the context of a broader political strategy to end his rule in Syria, block an extreme Islamist takeover, and put Syria on course towards a more open and democratic society.

The bombing in Bosnia was extensive, eventually reaching the communication nodes of the Bosnian Serb army. It was those tertiary targets that changed the course of the war, because the Serbs were unable to protect their long confrontation line with the Federation forces once they lost their classified communications capability.  But even this extensive bombing might have been fruitless, or borne bitter fruit, had it not been accompanied by a diplomatic strategy, which today we associate with the Dayton agreements and Richard Holbrooke but at the time was associated with President Clinton and National Security Adviser Tony Lake.

Likewise in Kosovo, the NATO bombing followed on Yugoslav rejection of the Rambouillet agreement.  The war ended with UN Security Council resolution 1244, which was the political counterpart of the military-technical agreement providing for withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo.  Resolution 1244 imposed UN administration on Kosovo to develop democratic institutions and rule of law, with a view to an eventual political decision on Kosovo’s final status.  NATO did not set removal of Milosevic as a war objective.  But he was gone within one and a half years as the result of an election he called and a mass nonviolent movement that demanded he accept it.

I am not privy to the Administration’s military planning, but a serious political strategy would continue to aim for a power-sharing arrangement that shoves Bashar al Asad aside.  The diplomacy would likely benefit from broader military action (against the Syrian air force, Scuds and artillery) than is currently contemplated, especially if it aimed at tilting the battlefield in the opposition direction.  I don’t know if the Congress is willing to point in that direction, as it might require deeper American commitment than we can afford at present.  But at the very least Congress should insist on stronger support for the Syrian opposition.

Is there an American interest in getting more deeply involved?  Continuation of the war will likely cause state collapse in Syria as well as weaken Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and possibly Turkey.  Al Qaeda affiliated extremists in both Iraq and Syria will be the beneficiaries.  Kurdish irredentism is a likely consequence.  The Syrian war has the potential to reshape the Levant in ways that are inimical to American interests.  If Congress is going to worry about military action in response to chemical weapons use by Syria, it should also worry about a political and military strategy to counter longer-term threats to Middle East peace and stability with potentially gigantic costs to the United States.

 

 

6 Responses to What Congress should do

  1. Al LeBlanc says:

    Generally Agree. IMO,NO Military Action is best alternative –
    NEED Concerted Diplomatic Action -US-UN World Moral Condemnation. Crimes Against Humanity -International Law Chemical Weapons.
    The Whole World Human Conscience should be aroused against Russia & China blocking UN Resolution. US-Russia-China unified against use of chemical weapons on innocent men, women and children; also, against Islamic Terrorists gaining political control and domination – Not in their National Interest ! Need find Win-Win UN Diplomatic Solution. For example, Russia giving Assad asylum, UN Peacekeeping Force, New Constitution & Bill of Rights. Free Elections (If Islamic Fundamentalist win elections, Bill of Rights will protect minorities (need avoid repetition of Egyptian Tyranny of Majority).

  2. Amer says:

    I’m not sure I know what Congress should do – what they definitely should not do, is take the opportunity to humiliate a President many have trouble even imagining in the White House. Congressional leaders have apparently been in agreement so far, as long as everything has been private, but will they be able to resist the opportunity to grandstand on a matter unpopular with the public?

    As for the chance that action on the side of the rebels will cause Assad to redouble his efforts to cleanse a potential redoubt of unreliable populations, the work reported on here (http://themonkeycage.org/2013/08/27/do-military-interventions-reduce-killings-of-civilians-in-civil-wars/ – with graphs)suggests: probably. “[M]ilitary interventions in favor of the rebel faction (as opposed to pro-government or neutral interventions) tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40%…”

  3. […] 4. Daniel Serwer, Johns Hopkins University: Smart strikes could break the political deadlock. […]

  4. […] 4. Daniel Serwer, Johns Hopkins University: Smart strikes could break the political deadlock. […]

  5. jh says:

    Al QAl Qaeda affiliated extremists in both Iraq and Syria will be the beneficiaries. Kurdish irredentism is a likely consequence.
    We all remember that Paul Bremer one second order signed for dissolving Iraqi Police And Military he was asked about terrorists & Al Qaeda, his reply were: bring,m on!

    So most of those in discussion left & right they have their degree that Al Qaeda is the winner form this war (Capital Punishment) for Syrian people but not in danger degree for the regime as we saw with Iraqi dictator.
    Let think in other way with bring the head of the regime & associates for The Hague this should done throw the right channels and let see different approaches for those dictator and terrorist they let them facing their carmines they order or involved with.

    For the time been US had years from invading Afghanistan, Iraq targeting Al Qaeda terrorists, so why not US targeting these terriers within Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and left the free on the ground? Did anyone asked himself why US do care more targeting them and follow the as Dron doing in Pakistan &Yemen?

    that

  6. […] In this regard history proves to be fickle teacher. Despite our established rules of thumb, and frequently observed patterns each new conflict we witness emerges within its own unique environment, with its own history, stage, and players. As Daniel Serwer writes, “Bashar Al Assad is not Slobodon Milosevic, the Middle East is not the Balkans, Yeltsin’s Russia is not Putin’s Russia, Obama’s United States is not Clinton’s. Distinct times and places make for dicey comparisons.” (http://www.peacefare.net/?p=16631) […]

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