Time to reinforce a norm
It looks as if we will be firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria in the coming days, and critics are raising legitimate concerns: President Bashar Al Assad may escalate. Hezbollah may retaliate against Western targets. American missiles may kill civilians. A couple of days of missile strikes will offer merely a slap on the wrist that advertises the US’ impotence.
There is some truth to all that, but we also need to acknowledge something fundamental: President Barack Obama’s policy towards Syria has failed and it is time to try a tougher approach.
The war has spread and destabilised Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The hardline Nusra Front rebels have gained strength. The Syrian army has won ground. Prolonged war has deepened sectarian hatreds that will make it harder than ever to put Syria back together.
I tend to be wary of the military toolbox, and I strongly opposed the Iraq war and the Afghan “surge”. But in conjunction with diplomacy, military force can save lives. We saw that in Bosnia and Kosovo under Mr Bill Clinton, and we saw that just this year in Mali.
The problem is that overcommitments in Afghanistan and Iraq have left Americans with society-wide post-traumatic stress disorder, so that they are wary of engaging in Syria at all.
But when I was last in Syria, in November, I met a grandma who had already lost her husband, her son and her daughter-in-law to the Assad regime. She was living in a leaky tent, and like everyone, was desperate for international support. “We ask for God’s help in ending this, and Obama’s,” she said.
What do we tell her? That we do not have the stomach to help her?
Granted, there is a legitimate question about whether a day or two of missile strikes against Syria (seemingly the most likely scenario) will deter Mr Assad from further use of chemical weapons. We cannot be sure, but to me that seems plausible.
Chemical weapons are of only marginal use, simply one more way to terrorise and demoralise opponents. Mr Assad has carefully calibrated his actions over the last few years, testing the domestic and international response before escalating.
At first, he merely arrested protesters. Next, his soldiers swept hostile neighbourhoods. Then, the Syrian army began firing rockets and mortars at rebel positions. Mr Assad moved on to indiscriminate bombing. Then, his army apparently used chemical weapons in small attacks. Finally, his army appears to have undertaken a major assault with nerve gas.