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Q&A With Daniel Friedheim: U.S. Policy in Syria Today

September 13, 2013

syria

With a heated debate raging over what actions should be taken in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected chemical attack thought to have killed more than 1,000 civilians—including hundreds of childrenDrexelNow checked in with Daniel Friedheim to hear his thoughts on a possible military strike against Syria.

Friedheim, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History and Politics, has been teaching about or working on international affairs for more than two decades. He researches and writes about topics including democratic transitions, civil society, informal empire and foreign policy. Prior to his academic career, he served as a tenured U.S. Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department.

Here’s what he had to say on the high-stakes situation:

Why would the United States even consider getting involved with Syria right now?

As more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in two years of civil war, the United States has long considered intervening to stop the massacre of so many innocent civilians. 

Beyond a selfless humanitarian interest, the United States has more “selfish” security interests. For example, the fact that some armed rebel groups are "affiliated" with Al Qaeda raises the risk that terrorism could increase.

The Syrian civil war has lit the fuse of a much broader powder keg that could end up wiping out the Middle East region as we know it. Rather than just a bloody civil war, the conflict already is becoming a broader war that could easily expand beyond Syria’s borders. If it did, such a war could well draw in several U.S. allies, including Iraq—where the United States only recently withdrew its troops—as well as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Because these countries are all military allies, the United States would be drawn in too.

So, if the U.S. has such huge humanitarian, alliance and counter-terrorism interests at stake, why has it been sitting on the sidelines so far?  

The answer lies in how the world works, how the United Nations doesn’t work and how domestic politics shape foreign policy. Syria inevitably became a big foreign policy problem for the United States when its peaceful popular uprising, which paralleled the simultaneous citizens’ revolts in almost a dozen other Arab countries, quickly grew into a bloody civil war that jeopardized peace in the Middle East (and, therefore, much of the world’s oil supply).

Two years ago, President Obama first called for Assad’s ouster, presumably by peaceful protesters. Then, last year, he issued an ultimatum warning him not to resort to chemical weapons once the rebellion started fighting back against Assad’s bloody repression of all protest. However, for the whole two years of the civil war, Obama avoided taking concrete action. 

The United Nations cannot do anything serious because Russia protects the Syrian dictatorship by vetoing any significant steps in the Security Council. The current crisis only erupted when Obama threatened to take the bold, if explicitly limited, action of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. Last month, he ordered the military to prepare a two-day barrage of missiles and bomber raids to “send Assad a message.”

Why did President Obama end up turning this big decision over to Congress?

The evident lack of public support did not force President Obama to submit his decision to a Congressional vote. In fact, he did not have to, legally, and probably knew politically that he was likely to lose the vote. The U.S. Constitution requires that Congress issue any formal “declaration” of war, but no president has bothered with that since World War II. And, although Congress passed a law requiring presidents to let it vote on continuing any “undeclared” wars longer than 90 days, like Vietnam, it gave presidents explicit permission to conduct shorter military raids on their own. So, even though he is a lawyer, President Obama was ignoring U.S. law.

Further, the President knew that this Congress was so deeply divided that it likely would vote against his policy. As a president from a party that controlled a majority of only one house of Congress, the decision to consult Congress anyway was almost a political death wish. Why would Republicans who controlled the House of Representatives vote for a military strike that they considered inadequate or misguided?

What kind of precedent does that set for future presidents?

Now that Obama has reversed course and asked Congress to suspend its imminent vote until diplomats can consider an open-ended, long-shot negotiation proposed by Russia, no future president is likely to follow Obama’s precedent. In fact, it will likely be considered a strong negative example that ends up reinforcing the previous pattern of presidents ignoring Congress as much as they can get away with, and Congress abdicating its Constitutional war power. Whether the negotiations work out over the coming weeks and months, or Obama eventually decides to strike Syria militarily as threatened, no future president is likely ever to risk another short flirtation with a partisanly divided Congress that could reject a declared policy that a president could legally have pursued anyway. It already seems like either a very bad political decision or a cynical stalling tactic by a still-uncertain leader.

If international law bans ever using chemical weapons, why can’t the world enforce its own law?

The President had adopted the most narrow conceivable response to the raging civil-cum-regional war. He argued for an exclusively humanitarian intervention, and one limited entirely to deterring Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Yet, no one seemed to believe that a two-day air strike could achieve even that narrow goal. Even though most countries in the world have signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 that banned their use, building on the initial ban of 1925, few were convinced.

There is no world government to prevent wars between states, there also is no world police force to enforce idealistic international “laws” banning the “war crime” of targeting civilians, the “crime against humanity” of committing massacres or the explicit ban on ever using chemical weapons.

While there is now a new International Criminal Court to prosecute leaders like Assad who violate international law so egregiously, they usually can only be arrested after they lose power. And, then it is up to a country’s police or military to do the arresting. If Assad ends up facing trial for his crimes – like the bloody Serbian dictator Milosevic who was behind the massacre of civilians right under the noses of U.N. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia during the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s – it will be because he loses power and no longer can hide behind the army of a sovereign state. However, that is not what President Obama is proposing.