Dr. Boozman's Check-up

There is no doubt that the suffering that is being inflicted upon the Syrian people caught in a civil war to free the country from a brutal, authoritarian regime calls for a response from the international community. Confirmation that Bashar Assad’s regime used a nerve agent against civilians, killing over a thousand in the process, defines the gravity of the situation. The use of chemical weapons, banned by international law for over 100 years, is a crime against humanity. There certainly is a need for world powers to intervene. 

But what level of U.S. response is appropriate?

President Obama seems convinced that the only way to assert U.S. power is to send the regime a message with a unilateral, punitive response and he appears to be committed to that strategy regardless of what our allies, Congress and the American people think.

U.S. involvement with Syria through bombing, unless there is a clear national security interest, is an act of war and thus Congressional approval is necessary.  The President should explain to the American people his reasoning and go before Congress to get authorization.  He needs to share the intelligence used to make his decision, the goals of a military strike and his plan to achieve those goals, as well as explain his broader Syria policy and strategy, something that has been lacking since the crisis began two and half years ago.   Without doing so, he risks exasperating the situation. This is the exact mistake he made in his handling of the Libya crisis.

The concerns Americans have with President Obama’s strategy are real:

How will one limited strike be successful in ending Assad’s war? Most military experts believe it will not. It is almost certain that limited strikes will not destroy Assad’s ability to continue to murder his own people, with or without chemical weapons, and it will absolutely draw the U.S. down the path of greater involvement in the conflict.

Is this a prudent use of military force? Military force should be used only if there is an achievable purpose and outcome.  A unilateral U.S. strike as punishment solely for using chemical weapons is unlikely to discourage the Assad regime from continuing to slaughter its own people.  Without a clear-cut U.S. policy and end game, such a limited strike would only succeed in the escalation of the crisis.

Where are our allies? France seems to be our only major partner in a potential strike against Syria. The British Parliament has already nixed the idea of UK military action. The Israelis are nervous that an escalation will lead to attacks on their nation. Jordan has said it will not get involved out of fears that it will exasperate an already out-of-control refugee crisis. Russia and China, while not staunch allies of the U.S. by any means, are supporting Assad in this conflict. We have to consider the ramifications of military action in the context of the greater picture.

Whose side are we fighting on? Of course any action we take is to aid the innocent Syrian people who are being oppressed and murdered by the Assad regime, but there is a serious concern about the make-up of the Syrian rebel forces leading the fight against the regime. Radical Sunni Islamists, many of which are linked to the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, an al-Qaeda affiliate, are emerging as the prevalent force seeking to topple regime. This combined with al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is generally acknowledged to be the most effective force fighting al-Assad, makes for a terrible conflict of interest. With no goal of regime change on the table, wouldn’t U.S. action just embolden the very people who seek America’s destruction?  As General Dempsey stated in an August 19th letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance…But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”

What is the end game? The President has indicated that the goal of U.S. military action is not regime change. Then what is the point? Assad’s regime has the capability and the willingness to continue to brutally tyrannize and slaughter innocent Syrians even if strategic bombings negate his ability to do so through use of chemical weapons. Most military experts agree limited surgical strikes would do little to hasten the overthrow of Assad but would for sure draw us in further to the conflict. Again, the President has to assure America that he has a plan to avoid this.

These questions and more need to be answered by the President. The world is watching. Our response needs to be strong, but it also needs to be smart. Assad clearly is a tyrant by any standard and we need to work with the international community toward removing him from power. President Obama, however, should not try to do this alone. He needs to come before Congress and make his case to the American people.