A Syrian rebel holds a rocket propelled grenade at a key highway

A Syrian rebel holds a rocket propelled grenade at a key highway Hussein Malla/AP

War with Syria: The Intersection of Interests and Ideology

In the realm of foreign affairs, it’s rare that a cause unites hawkish interventionists and neoconservatives, realists and liberal internationalists. By James Kitfield

When the dogs of war start howling, it’s worth noting what pack they run in. For the better part of two years, hawkish interventionists like Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have been agitating for the United States to throw its military weight behind the Syrian rebels as they attempted to free their necks from the boot-heel of Bashar al Assad. No surprise there. By ideology and instinct, neoconservatives always side with the freedom fighter over the tyrant, even when often the United States doesn’t have, well, an obvious dog in the fight.

Their problem has been that President Obama fits most comfortably into the realist foreign policy camp most associated with the elder President Bush, which explains why a number of former Republican luminaries such as former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and George Schultz and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft have at various times backed Obama’s foreign policy plays. In that more pragmatic worldview, vital U.S. national interests must be at stake before America even contemplates direct military action. And the U.S. interest Obama has been most vitally interested in promoting is an avoidance of more entangling foreign conflicts.  

At the other ends of the foreign policy spectrum are the liberal humanists like Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and libertarian isolationists like Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., who, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, find common ground in opposing almost any military adventure save in response to a direct attack on the homeland. “The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States,” Paul said this week.

As he listens to the distant baying outside his palace gates, however, Bashar al Assad should take little comfort in the fact that he has managed to unify so many disparate foreign policy packs, many of which have now picked up his scent. He may yet escape, but it takes a particular kind of strategic myopia to drag the United States to the very brink of a war its leader has tried assiduously to avoid.

Whatever tactical advantage the Syrian regime may have gained by perpetrating the worst chemical weapons atrocity in two decades, it has finally shocked an international community that had become inured to a rising death toll in Syria that has topped 100,000. In the process, Assad very publicly trampled on an already smudged U.S. red line laid down a year ago by Obama against the use of chemical weapons.  (When it was determined earlier this summer that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons on a much smaller scale, for instance, the administration reacted by issuing a so far unfulfilled promise to begin arming the Syrian rebels with lethal weaponry.)

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That blatant disregard for U.S. “red lines” was enough to persuade no less  a realist than Richard Haass, the former number three in the Powell State Department in George W. Bush’s first term, and currently President of the Council on Foreign Relations. In his recent book, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order,” Haass had argued that it was time to focus on fixing America’s domestic problems. After last week’s chemical weapons strikes in Syria, however, Haass decided that the United States had little choice but to act to restore its credibility, especially with the coercive diplomacy surrounding Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program reaching a potentially critical stage in the months ahead.

“My book was an argument not for disengagement from the world, but rather for a rebalancing of the two sides of a national security coin that has both a domestic and a foreign policy side,” Haass told reporters this week. “In this case, the need for maintaining the global order and the norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction argues for a robust U.S. military response. And one of the most powerful arguments for the Obama administration responding militarily in Syria is to reinforce the credibility of red lines vis a vis Iran. ”

While the use of chemical weapons against civilians has caused some reluctant realists to recalculate, and is a clear violation of the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention ban on the use of such arms, others are more persuaded by the U.S. interest in protecting key allies in the region who have been increasingly destabilized by the fighting in Syria. Already the violence erupting along Syria’s Sunni versus Shiite sectarian divide has spilled over into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, along with more than 1 million refugees. Israel has also seen the fighting spread to the Golan Heights along its border with Syria. Any of those allies could invoke their right to self-defense under the U.N. Charter, triggering U.S. military assistance.

“I don’t dismiss the importance of a 'red line’ against using chemical weapons as a norm in international affairs, but you have to put the killing of a thousand people by gas in the context of a conflict that has already killed more than 100,000 people with conventional arms,” said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The fact is there are many even more compelling strategic interests at stake to prompt U.S. action, beginning with protecting our allies and avoiding a region-wide conflict.”

The distinction is important, he believes, because the goal will dictate the means, determining the difference between lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria to show U.S. displeasure at the use of chemical weapons, or a much more robust military strike that either brings Assad to the negotiating table to tip the balance of power towards the rebellion. “The worst scenario is we launch a handful of cruise missiles like we did in 1998 at al Qaeda training camps and a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant after the bombing of our African embassies,” said Schenker. “Not only did that obviously fail to deter al Qaeda, but it made the United States look feckless.”

For over two years, Assad has successfully hidden behind the skirts of the U.N. Security Council, where his patron Russia has blocked any military action by the international community. Under a strict interpretation of international law, only the Security Council can sanction the use of military force other than in self-defense, a prerogative usually jealously guarded by permanent members (Russia, China, Great Britain, France and the United States).

Yet after scenes of hundreds of apparently gassed, shroud-wrapped corpses of men, women and children hit the airwaves last week, even France, the Western alliance’s stickler for grounding military action in international law, had seen enough. French President Francois Hollande immediately promised to punish the Assad regime for the attack.

“It’s true that insisting that military action have legitimacy in international law is a French trademark, but we believe the U.N. resolution on the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians from mass murder, and prohibitions in international law against the use of weapons of mass destruction, gives the international community the legal right to intervene in Syria,” said a senior French official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We also believe that democracies are strongest when our real politic interests and our values align. That was the case when the United States and its NATO allies acted together to stop ethnic-cleansing in Kosovo two decades ago, and it’s the case today in Syria where chemical weapons are being used on a massive scale to murder civilians in a civil war that is destabilizing the entire region.”

In the realm of foreign affairs it’s rare that a cause with such profound stakes unites hawkish interventionists and neoconservatives, realists and liberal internationalists like the French, but Bashar al Assad has finally turned the trick. And by their enemies shall you know them.