Day: August 28, 2013

Fight and talk

It appears we may be headed for American-led attacks to punish, degrade and deter Syria’s use of chemical weapons.  There are still preliminaries to be accomplished:  the Obama Administration needs to present the evidence it has collected in some form that is convincing at home and abroad.  It needs to complete its consultations with individual members of Congress, which isn’t scheduled to be back in session until September 9.

The Administration also needs to rally a stronger international coalition.  The British and French are on board, though the British are now asking for a UN Security Council discussion that is unlikely to generate a resolution that approves the use of force.  This could sharpen the dispute with the Russians and Chinese.  The Arab League, while denouncing the use of chemical weapons, has not asked for military intervention.  The UN wants its chemical weapons inspection team out of Damascus before any military action.

Let’s assume that the Administration can get this all done between now and the time the President is supposed to appear in St. Petersburg for the G20 Summit September 5/6, which seems ambitious, or shortly thereafter, which might be wiser.  What impact might bombing have on the course of the war and prospects for negotiations?

The history is not encouraging.  Most of the interventions Michael Knights discussed yesterday did not aim at or lead to negotiated solutions.

The ones that did–Bosnia and Kosovo–are exceptions that prove the rule.

In the case of Bosnia, the 1995 bombing was undertaken in response to a Serb attack on the Sarajevo “safe area.”  NATO ran out of primary targets quickly, as the Serbs parked their artillery and tanks near schools and the remaining mosques in areas under their control.  Somewhere down on the list of targets were the communication nodes of the Bosnian Serb Army, which was relatively small and depended on rapid and secure communications to move its forces quickly wherever they were needed.  The result was a rout:  the Bosnian Army and the Croat Defense Force, with ample support from the Croatian Army, advanced quickly and created the conditions for a successful negotiation at Dayton.

In Kosovo, months of bombing focussed mainly on military targets about which Milosevic cared little, but he gave in because the 78-day, open-ended bombing, as well as the prospect of escalation, put him in a corner:  he had no leverage over NATO, the Russians were abandoning him, popular opinion turned against him, concern about damage to infrastructure was rising, and a future invasion was possible.  The negotiated outcome left him in place.  It was about the best he could hope for.

The Obama Administration is not contemplating anything like the kind of open-ended commitment to bombing that would tilt the battlefield back in the direction of the Syrian opposition.  To the contrary:  rumint would have it that the Americans are focusing on hitting a limited set of targets associated with the launch of chemical weapons over a time frame fixed in advance.

There is nevertheless good reason to use the prospect of this military action to advance the diplomatic agenda.  The State Department is rightly trying to do that.  Their focus seems to be on the Russians and Iranians, not on Bashar al Asad himself.  That too is correct:  Bashar will be moved only by an existential threat, which limited bombing will not accomplish.  But government failure in repressing an insurgency correlates with external support, because it may weaken or be withdrawn.  The Russians have repeatedly said they are not immutably attached to Bashar al Asad, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was busy yesterday denouncing the use of chemical weapons (which however Tehran attributes not to the regime but to “terrorists”).

The odds of diplomatic success are however low.  The kind of limited bombing apparently being planned will be wholly insufficient to threaten Bashar al Asad’s hold on power.  He may well respond by using more of his chemical weapons, lest he lose the capability to use them.  That would certainly be cause for escalation on the US side, but that is precisely the slippery slope President Obama is trying to avoid.  Nor will tightly limited bombing give the Russians and Iranians much reason to withdraw their support for the Asad regime, provided he does not escalate.

So the odds are bad for “fight and talk.”  But that is no reason not to pursue a diplomatic solution, as President Nixon did for four years while fighting North Vietnam.  If Moscow shows any inclination to convene the Geneva 2 talks that were postponed this summer, Washington should certainly be ready to deal, including with Tehran.

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