Originally published in OrlandoSentinel.com, September 05, 2013
Why is President Obama provoking war with Syria? It’s not because the U.S. State Department has designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 or because the government of President Bashar Assad is evil or may have used chemical weapons against its people.
The truth is that Obama prematurely and unwisely threatened to take action against Syria if it crossed his amorphous and now infamous “red line.” Obama’s red-line rhetoric has forged bad policy and an equally nebulous bag of commitments.
Now, the use of chemical weapons is being used as a proxy for regime change to honor red lines. If Congress does not bail us out, the U.S. will likely attack Syria within days.
I question whether Obama understood that bullying a sovereign nation with a long tradition of warfare and confrontation with the West is different than threatening a degraded non-state actor like al-Qaida. Syrians are not easily intimidated.
While the Assad government is evil, I question whether the U.S. would be better off without it. Like Saddam Hussein, the Assad government has hunted terrorist groups like al-Qaida. Are there more or less terrorists in Iraq and across the globe in the post-Saddam world? Regime change in Iraq emboldened terrorist actors.
Has U.S. action in support of regime change in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia made the region more stable? No. It has triggered conflict, instability, poverty and unleashed a wave of anti-American violent extremism that is exacerbating conflict in Syria.
The Obama administration’s policy and strategy in Syria is alarming. For the past two years it has supported a wide array of unsavory rebel actors referred to as the “Free Syrian Army.” The rebels range from organized armed groups that claim allegiance to al-Qaida and disaffected former members of the Syrian military to conservative Muslim groups, poor and unemployed youth, and foreign fighters from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. They have no real allegiance to one another and do not operate under a central authority or command.
For example, the most troubling group is Jabhat Al-Nusra, a 10,000 strong, brutally violent and well-organized guerrilla army. Its sole purpose is to convert Syria into an Islamic state under Shariah law. In December 2011, the U.S. State Department designated Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization and front for al-Qaida in Iraq. At the same time, the Kurds (remember them from Iraq?) in northern Syria are seeking to forge a pan-Kurd autonomous region across Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
I guess the Obama administration believes that if, when, the Assad regime falls, extremist groups like Al-Nusra will democratize and the Kurds will submit to a new national authority. Right.
To make matters worse, Obama’s recent declaration of attack against Syria taken together with ongoing support for the rebels makes the U.S. technically at war with Syria. Unfortunately, between the Obama administration’s hawkish policy and inconsistent messaging and the botched analyses of rating-hungry television pundits, Americans are being sorely misled.
Let’s be clear: There is no valid legal basis for unilateral U.S. military action against Syria, and the U.S. Congress does not have the legal authority to authorize a war that is unlawful under international law. International law prohibits states, including the U.S., from using military force against other states except in self-defense or pursuant to a United Nations Security Council resolution, with few exceptions. Moreover, the 1925 Geneva Protocol (ratified by Syria), 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (not ratified by Syria), and international law banning the use of chemical weapons do not sanction the U.S. or any other nation to attack a state that violates these rules.
The president wants to pass the buck to Congress to shield himself from scrutiny and deflect responsibility for any inaction in the wake of his red-line ultimatum. He knows Congress lacks the inherent legal authority to authorize lawful military action against Syria under international law. More tricks.
What is the solution? Give multilateral diplomacy a chance. Work with Russia and China to support a Security Council resolution short of military force that refers the alleged use of chemical weapons to the International Criminal Court for investigation.
If that fails, send in the French!