A rationale and framework for responsible U.S. action in the Syrian crisis

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By Sanjay Gokhale, MC/MPA’14

After three years of brutal civil war, 150,000 deaths and nine million refugees; Syria is still burning with no end in sight. International regimes are at stake, stability in the Middle East is under threat and, most importantly, millions of lives in Syria are at risk.

The crisis itself is wretchedly complicated. A sectarian civil war is raging while a simultaneous proxy war is being fought among key powers – West, Saudi Arabia, Qatar on the one side and Iran, Russia on the other. And the lines between the good and the bad of those fighting on Syrian streets are blurring.

On its home front, the United States is recovering from decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The American public is overwhelmingly against any form of military intervention in Syria. The U.S. economy is still recovering from the financial crisis and nation building at home has become a priority more than ever.

Despite all the challenges at home and abroad, America must take a leadership role: It must take decisive steps toward the resolution of the Syrian crisis. Taking responsible action will not only avoid any further loss of life but will also serve America’s strategic interest of maintain its leadership role in the evolving multipolar world order. What I mean by responsible action is an intervention within the confines of international law.

Responsible action starts with having the right objectives. It is not up to the United States and the international community to intervene in any other state’s domestic system of governance. However, it is up to the U.S. to end violence. Therefore, ceasefire and political settlement ought to be our objective as opposed to regime change. We need to create conditions that will compel the two parties to come to the table, and that means the weakening of Assad and strengthening of the moderate elements of the opposition.

Here is what a responsible action may (and may not) include:

Banks before bombs

According to the economic warfare expert, Juan Zarate, “If we are serious about going after the Assad regime, that means using our financial tools even more seriously against the banks that are doing business with Syria, the assets that are held by the regime and their cronies and the front companies and businesses that continue to help them.” This banks-before-bombs strategy could inflict serious damage and require buy-in from the European Union and diplomatic heft. But it wouldn’t require a UNSC resolution against Syria — which Russia already said it would veto.”

Cyber attacks

Another tactic, as suggested by Professor Graham Allison, would be to launch cyber attacks that shut off electricity in Assad’s compound, leaving him without air conditioning or Internet service or phones for a week – or the lights in command centers or at the airport, or the water Assad drinks. Given the unformed international norms and laws around cyber warfare, such attacks would require no resolutions to be passed either. Azaz_Syria_during_the_Syrian_Civil_War_Missing_front_of_House

Blocking Iraqi air to cut off Iranian supplies

Iran has been consistently flying weapons and fighters into Syria through Iraqi airspace. The U.S. has been pressing Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki to ramp up the air inspection and deny Iran access to the Iraqi air space. But the Iraqis simply haven’t done enough. Maliki is balancing pressure from Iran and elsewhere in the region, however, at the same time, also urging the U.S. to expedite delivery of weaponry to fight a resurgent militant threat. The U.S. needs to aggressively pursue a carrot and stick approach to make it in Iraq’s self-interest to block Iranian over-flights.

Stepping up lethal and non-lethal assistance to Syria’s military opposition

As French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in September 2013, “In order to negotiate a political solution, we need a stronger position. We therefore need to strengthen our support to Syrian national coalition rebels. If you want to change the Assad regime without falling in the hands of the terrorists, you have to support the moderate opposition.” With the reports of growing strength of Jabhat Al Nusra and other extreme elements, stepping up lethal assistance to the moderate opposition elements is both urgent and critical.

Public Diplomacy

All of these actions must be accompanied with a public diplomacy at a global scale. It is crucial that the governments and people around the world are aware of these actions, their successes and their failures. The best-case scenario is the aforementioned action levels the balance of power and brings the two parties to the table. But if it doesn’t and the death toll keeps rising, the public diplomacy would create significant pressure on Russia and China to not veto the UNSC Resolution for use of force.

What If It All Fails?

But what happens if – despite our actions, public diplomacy and growing pressure – Russia vetoes the UNSC Resolution? Should the U.S. and its allies then use force without UNSCR approval as they did in Kosovo and Iraq? Not in my opinion. An action violating the norms and laws agreed upon by the international community is not responsible and ultimately defeats the very purpose of bringing peace and security. What we can and must do is to continue pushing on the legal levers and keep building the pressure.

So does a responsible action guarantee a resolution to Syrian crisis? No. But nor would a unilateral and/or unlawful use of force. In fact, it may lead to more carnage and destruction as it did in Iraq. Responsible action is therefore a superior option over no action or unlawful action and one that would allow us a possibility of bringing end to the violence while also enhancing America’s reputation around the world.

Sanjay Gokhale is a mid-career MPA candidate at Harvard Kennedy School, transitioning from a 12-year career in international business to work at the intersection of international development and security with a focus on South Asia and the Middle East.

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