“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it,” Obama told CNN last week. “Do we have the coalition to make it work? And, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”
(MORE: Kerry: Obama Seeks “Accountability” for Syrian Chemical Weapons Use)
Unfortunately for Obama, a U.N. mandate — or support from almost any international institutions, for that matter — is looking unlikely.
No consensus this week can be found at the United Nations, within NATO or from the Arab League. Even the member states of the European Union can’t agree on what to do in Syria. Does this mean the U.S. won’t act? Given Secretary of State John Kerry’s impassioned comments Monday that the chemical attack in Syria was a “moral obscenity” that was “by any standard inexcusable,” the Obama administration seems poised to act.
(MORE: The Two Big Reasons Obama Might Strike Syria)
It will simply have to do so with a coalition of the willing.
What has so hobbled international institutions over Syria? In the case of the United Nations, Russia — which is allied with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad — holds veto power in the Security Council and would surely block any resolution authorizing military force. The Arab League is split, with Syria’s neighbors Iraq and Lebanon leery of allowing the Gulf States more sway in Syria. Europe and NATO are divided, with France and Britain pushing for action and Germany and the southern states eschewing it.
What the U.S. is looking to do, by all indications, isn’t a long-term engagement a la Afghanistan, or even Kosovo, but rather a “punitive” strike.
“My sense is the administration is trying to find something of a halfway house, something that is large enough to reinforce the norm on weapons of mass destruction use and to enforce the administration’s red lines,” said Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. “But not something so large that it makes the United States a de facto protagonist in the Syrian civil war.”
(MORE: U.N. Chemical-Weapons Experts Arrive in Syria: Are They on a Fool’s Errand?)
The idea of striking Assad over the use of weapons of mass destruction, but doing nothing to resolve Syria’s civil war — which has claimed more than 100,000 lives — will make coalition building easier but is also controversial.
“My biggest fear is that the current options for action being discussed are largely punitive, rather than part of a larger comprehensive strategy to achieve U.S. strategic interests in the region,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria export at the Institute for Understanding War. “If the U.S. does act in Syria, it should not be merely retaliatory, but part of a larger strategy capable of achieving U.S. objectives in Syria.”
The U.S. remains as divided as its international allies on what is best to do for Syria in the long term. Taking out Assad could affect U.S. relations with Iran, just as hopes are high for a rapprochement. It could also further destabilize the region as Iraq teeters on the brink of its own sectarian civil war.
The Syrian opposition has little fondness for the U.S. and could potentially be worse for American interests in the region, as noted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey in a letter last week to Rep. Elliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. For lack of good middle- and long-term strategies, a short-term punitive strike to show Assad he cannot use chemical weapons in this conflict restores the bloody balance of power and helps contain the growing conflict.
In practice, what is being considered here is a “surgical” exercise, according to Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Unlike in Iraq, where a “Coalition of the Willing” divvied up policing and training roles that lasted for years, the response in Syria would be brief and limited.
“There’s only a handful of countries, if that, that would have a capacity to get involved,” said Haas, pointing Britain and France as examples. Others might show support by allowing use of their military bases or fly-over rights in their airspace. But getting the support of dozens of countries only matters in proving the strike has international support, not in its execution.
(MORE: 1 Million Children Have Left Syria, U.N. Says)
So, is a military action not backed by any of the major international institutions legitimate? And does the lack of international cohesion, even in response to a chemical attack — weapons that almost every country on the planet has banned and condemned — mean that the international system is broken?
“[T]o the extent that you need unanimity or consensus, all it take is one outlier to block action and then you’ve got to ask yourself as a sovereign government whether you’re prepared to live with that, and in an many instances the answer is rightly no,” Haass said. “And so then you try to find other forms of legitimacy and other forms of multilateral support. This has been, is, and will be a fact of international life where the degree of consensus or agreement that we’d like to see internationally is a goal rather than a reality.”
Woodrow Wilson is crying in his grave.