For more than five years, the Obama administration has endeavored to confirm international legitimacy―governed by decisions made at the UN Security Council―as the framework directing any global military engagement. As a result, any U.S. action on Syria was limited by the repeated refusal of Russia to allow its long-term ally, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, to be punished for its escalating human rights abuses. But Russia’s recent behavior in Crimea may now give the United States and Europe room to reconsider their options on Syria.
The limitation of U.S. options was partly responsible for the degeneration of the Syrian crisis into the current situation, which threatens not just Syria’s future but also regional and international stability. Faced with an existential threat, Assad’s regime has attempted to restore fear in its subjects after some initial hesitation about the global response. Upon realizing that the international community was incapable of acting, it proceeded to inflict heavy collective punishment on the Syrian population while also using the media to spread propaganda about the absence of international intervention. Furthermore, by capitalizing upon the inexperience of the opposition, and through the calculated use of violent extremists, the regime was successful in redefining the conflict as one between two evils.
The regime’s tactical gains may project the illusion of an eventual military victory. Indeed, the regime may score further victories in the field, possibly even regaining the city of Aleppo. The fragmentation of the opposition may also severely affect its ability to retaliate. But it is impossible, in light of the devastating actions committed by the regime, to envisage the normalization of Assad’s rule or the restoration of consent among most of the Syrian population. While the regime’s upper hand can extend the agony and the attrition, it is incapable of ending the conflict.
Three years of carnage in Syria have passed, exposing and discrediting claims of universal values and the responsibility to protect. The international community, and the world’s sole superpower in particular, ought to fulfill its moral obligation of ending the tragedy in Syria, even if belatedly, through determined action in line with universal values and global interests.
At the German Marshall Fund’s 9th Brussels Forum last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a public intellectual and former Obama Administration official, called on the United States and its allies to take the courageous step of neutralizing the Assad regime’s air force capability, which has been brazenly used to deliver crude “barrel bombs” over civilian populations. Noting that the Obama Administration has been locked in an unproductive cycle of questioning available options, only to recognize six months later that such options would have indeed been appropriate, Slaughter suggested that it was indeed time to end the hesitation.
Dissenting arguments should be expected which will stress the strength of Syria’s air defenses and question the impact of such action on Syria’s commitment to surrender its chemical weapons. That commitment, however, should not be treated as a license for the regime to engage in atrocities using conventional means. And Syrian air defenses have not prevented regular Israeli air raids against the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. Despite threatening retaliation against Israel, the regime has only directed more force against its own population.
Russia, which had been allowed to veto actions on Syria and thus prevent the legality of any external intervention, has ignored this same legality in its unilateral annexation of Crimea. This may be the moment for the U.S. government to re-assess its relationship with Russia as a partner in building international consensus. It is certainly high time that Washington, the transatlantic alliance, and the world community acted forcefully to end a tragedy in Syria that has been allowed to fester too long in the name of illusory international multilateralism.