For the US to act as part of the international community and through the UN, it must commit itself in this particular case – and in general – to a diplomatic strategy of building common perceptions and sharing understandings.
By Gerard M. Gallucci
With President Obama’s unexpected decision to seek congressional approval before taking any military action against Syria he has either found a smart way to avoid the consequences of drawing his “red line” or simply gained some time before doing something. Depends on the response of the US Congress and Obama’s response to that. Will Congress approve action or disapprove? Will Obama accept a negative outcome or take action anyway? But none of these are the real questions the US should be asking itself. Instead, America should be asking what can be done to end the ongoing conflict that has taken many more lives than those lost in the recent chemical attack.
One answer would be to use a military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons as an opportunity to tilt the military balance away from his forces. To get the support of congressional hawks who have been pressing for actions to remove Assad, such as Senator McCain, the White House is already suggesting that the “limited” response will aim to degrade the regime’s ability to deliver weapons by hitting air assets and command and control. There will also be more arms for the rebels. The resolution of support that appears to be emerging in the US Senate would give President Obama the “authorization” to take action for 60-90 days. That could result in a considerable US military involvement in the Syrian civil war.
It’s still not clear if Obama will get Congressional support. Probably in the Senate but maybe not in the House of Representatives. Members of that body all must face election in 2014 and may be thinking hard about how they would explain to war-weary voters their support for another US entanglement that went awry. But whether or not President Obama gets the support from the US Congress, unilateral action without approval by the UN Security Council still would be illegal under international law. So what could be done without the US taking upon itself to use military force anyway?
Many will remain with doubts about the US intelligence that indicates the recent chemical attack was an act of the Assad government. But supposing it is accurate – and I believe the US government and intelligence community have learned lessons since the Iraq WMD debacle – there can be little doubt such use demands a response. But not from any one country or group acting outside the framework of UN Charter that all 193 members have signed. (The US Senate ratified the Charter on July 28, 1945 making it – under the US Constitution – “the supreme law of the land.”) Rather, it falls to the entire international community to assume the responsibility to protect the Syrian people from further attack, chemical or otherwise.
For the US to act as part of the international community and through the UN, it must commit itself in this particular case – and in general – to a diplomatic strategy of building common perceptions and sharing understandings. Let the UN inspectors complete their work. Allow the regional Arab states and others to see that the US will not act alone and without them. Discuss with Russia exactly what President Putin meant by reportedly suggesting willingness to consider a resolution on Syria. Perhaps Assad will find US efforts, to work in a sustained fashion for a united international response, more constraining than a one-off military action.
If the Security Council remains unable to reach consensus, try the UN General Assembly. The UNGA – acting under Chapter 4 of the UN Charter (Arts 11 or 14) may make recommendations to the UNSC on matters of peace and security. Let the US work within that body – and reach out in that context to regional actors including Iran – to bring pressure to bear on Syria and its allies and to embarrass the UNSC into action. That would be the way to build something lasting, a real precedent.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.