The civil war in Syria that may have cost the lives of more than 100.000 Syrians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country is likely to become a watershed in international relations.
More than ever the USA has to realize its limited political capacity of influencing the outcome of the conflict, whether by toppling the Assad regime or inducing the parties to accept a compromise solution.
But the time for military interventions as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Mali without a UN Security Council mandate seems to be over once and for all. The US political leadership finds it increasingly hard to go it alone in view of hostile public opinion at home and strident opposition from Russia, China and major emerging powers against unilateral action.
US citizens, not to speak of Europeans, are no longer willing to support military campaigns, unless they feel their security directly threatened. In the case of Syria, they fail to see such a threat. Nor are they still impressed by moral arguments; the deplorable outcomes of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have left indelible scars.
The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, even if it were absolutely proved, does not fundamentally change their gut feelings. After all more than 100 000 people have been killed by equally cruel means, without the USA feeling a pressing need to intervene militarily or politically.
The USA has not succeeded in making a convincing case for a military strike. “Punitive action” for the use of chemical weapons cannot justify cruise missile attacks with the risk of killing of more civilians, intensifying the civil war and raising the number of refugees. No foreign country is entitled to arrogate the power of judge and police in a civil war.
Moreover, the almost universal condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime will no doubt prevent it from repetitions without military strikes.
The USA could act much more effectively if it took the Syrian leaders responsible for the atrocities committed during the last two years against the civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons, to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, ideally with the support of many other countries. Such an initiative would be widely applauded by the international community and impress the Syrian leadership more than a series on bomb attacks.
In parallel, it should call upon the UNSEC to convene without further delay a “Syria peace conference”. For this to lead to produce successful results USA and Russia will have to agree beforehand on the type of Syrian government to be installed in Damascus after the departure of the Assad clan. The UN Secretary General would have to play a pivotal role in mediating a US-Russian agreement, anything but an easy task.
By focusing exclusively on diplomatic means President Obama will be able to convert the risk of a major political defeat into a victory that will be hailed by US citizens and the international community alike.
The world has become too fragile to allow “red lines” of whatever sort to dictate decisions about war and peace. It should remember various “red lines” existing in 1914 in Vienna, St. Petersburg and Berlin, which led to the outbreak of World War I following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to Austrian-Hungarian Emperor.
Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 7/9/2013