Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

For years you have been smart enough not to be drawn into the Red Line trap vis-à-vis Iran, despite Israel’s incessant demands that you draw that line in the sand. And then! You foolishly boxed yourself in, publically drawing a Red Line re Syria and chemical weapons. You put yourself (and the U.S.) in an awkward but not impossible position, Mr. President, especially as the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, which some observers ridiculed as unearned. There’s still time to earn it.

Resist the Red Line Imperative

Meanwhile, Mr. President, and I speak here as an ex-diplomat, here’s the worst problem with that Red Line bit: you assumed support you hadn’t lined up before you spoke. Not wise. But wait, Mr. President. You don’t have to bomb Damascus. Not yet, anyway. There’s more than one way of dealing with a line too ostentatiously drawn.

Playing solitary super hero in a very messy civil war, even if it appeals to the American spirit in you, is far from the best strategy more broadly considered, Mr. President. No doubt you expect your cruise missiles to fall on their targets with surgical precision. Unfortunately, you will have to authorize an enormous number of missile strikes in order to hit all the places where the villainous Assad and his dastardly co-decision-makers may be at zero hour. After all, by now we can assume that the Chemical Gang are moving around a lot without publishing ETAs and ETDs for enemies to see. And the more missiles you launch, the more likely that some will go seriously astray.

The Numbers Game

Even in hitting all of your targets quite precisely, many civilians and military people in no way involved in the planning or execution of chemical weapons attacks will inevitably be slaughtered, people who don’t deserve to die to make a larger humanitarian point, even if they support the regime. Worse, they will have died for nothing. The war will not stop, although it may get less sophisticated if air fields are out of commission for a few days and the communications centers get bombed. It won’t stop because many who support Assad do not support him out of love for him. They back him because they fear his enemies.

Some quasi-doves support your missile strike idea because they have convinced themselves that a strike (or, as is sometimes hinted, a series of strikes) will save more lives than are lost by the strikes themselves. This is wishful thinking. U.S. intervention to punish Assad for using chemical weapons will not end the war, even if Assad himself is killed (which is unlikely) because U.S. force will not heal the ever-widening pre-existing fissures in Syrian society. Despite Bush administration hopes, “liberated” Iraqis did not throw roses at the invading Americans, and American cruise missiles will not initiate a pan-Syrian love fest.

Fantasy and Complexity

I can’t help wondering, Mr. President, if you (and these doves) might not be victims of a very appealing little fantasy, eg, that crippling/assassinating Assad will be as neat and clean as the assassination of bin Laden. Yes. Assassination. No one believes you meant for him to be captured alive. Still, it was a very impressive, wholly successful operation. But it is irrelevant here.

Mr. President, do you really believe that the bloody-minded Sunni Islamists who fight so fiercely on the rebel side wish to co-exist lion-lamb style with the Alwites, who are Shii and/or secular? Will the victorious Islamists say to the Allowite-allied Christians, “Go ahead. Rebuild your churches?” Will they let the Bahaii go unmolested to their temples? Will they tell modern-minded young women who have flourished under the Assad regime that they can continue to wear tight jeans in public and flaunt their raven tresses and sass men? Does anyone believe that the Saudis have funded these Islamist fighters to create a tolerant secular state?

Hardly. So we can assume that any post-Assad rump regime will continue to resist the rebels militarily as long as possible. Should the Allowite coalition lose, thanks to successful “force degradation” from U.S. intervention, why would the losers not carry on resistance via car bombs, IEDs and all the other instruments of terrorist insurrection, Mr. President? The killing will go on. People will continue to die—unless the fissures glued together by Assad’s brutal regime are miraculously healed or confirmed by dissolution Yugoslav style.

Diplomacy, Diplomacy, Diplomacy

No doubt, Mr. President, you are hoping that the moderates will prevail and they will create a tolerant, secular, pluralist state. Yet surely you know that a rebel win is likely to breed a successor civil war between the moderates and the Islamists in the winning coalition. Result: another cycle of death and destruction. And it will continue until (1) all sides get equally tired of death or (2) some fair and trustable live-and-let-live formula is evolved.

The latter requires diplomacy, which will have to involve the U.S. and Russia.  Mr. Putin will not sign on to an “American” plan, although a hyphenated scheme might appeal.  Russia really doesn’t want another unstable, Islamist-trending country on its borders. What’s more, Mr. President, if you and Russia could move the Syrians toward getting their act together with minimal bloodshed, it would go far to redeem for you that equivocal Nobel Peace Prize.

But there’s more. Better than assassination, see that Assad and his co-conspirators in chemical warfare are subjected to the strictures of the International Criminal Court, which is equipped to deal with war crimes. The material you have gathered to support your imminent missile attack would be very useful to the prosecution. If, however, you don’t want to share that material, if the “proof” you have isn’t solid enough to convict Assad in court, it’s not good enough to jusify those cruise missiles you’re flirting with.

Finally, Mr. President, you need to do this: ask the U.N. to convene a process to bring the Geneva Conventions (including any others that have to do with nuclear weapons and chemical warfare) up to date, a conference to ratify agreements still wholly relevant and to modify those that need to take subsequent events and modern technology into consideration. This little advice column is not the place to go into detail about drones and satellites, etc., but global recommitment to some protocol on the rules of war is urgently needed.

Who better than a U.S. president with a Nobel Peace Prize to get it going?