Local View: On Syria, Obama Should Bargain with Putin

The following editorial was published in the Lincoln Journal Star on September 9, 2013 by Nebraskans for Peace member Bob Haller.

By Robert Haller

United Nations Association-Nebraska, a group of citizens interested in world affairs with a preference for multilateral action, joins its sister organizations in the global UNA federal structure in advising caution on the Syrian imbroglio.

Few issues have been so complex, and all U.S. policies being considered carry substantial risks.

We urge the Obama Administration to pursue further diplomacy in various venues and especially with Russia, Syria’s main ally. Hard bargaining with President Vladimir Putin might yet avoid the dangers of military action, with all its possible unintended consequences, even if the U.S. Congress follows the lead of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and authorizes unilateral military strikes.

It is crystal clear that under international law and the UN Charter only two types of forceful foreign policy are legal: in individual or collective self-defense, or when approved by the UN Security Council.

With regard to Kosovo in 1999, the U.S. led in a bombing campaign against Serbia without making either claim, arguing rather that the strikes were (morally) legitimate even if not (strictly) legal. Collective approval by NATO, and finally the quiet cooperation of Moscow in telling Milosevic to stop his ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, led to NATO’s “winning ugly.” Neither regional collective approval of military strikes nor Russian deferential diplomacy is available to the United States today for Syria.

Two primary factors argue for decisive action. First, it is important to maintain the norm against use of chemical weapons. Second, if the United States does not follow through after calling their use a “red line,” other U.S. statements about Iran or North Korea or whatever will be undercut. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was right to say that the United States has a real national interest at stake in such matters.

Yet many factors lie on the other side of the argument. Limited reprisal strikes after use of chemical weapons will not chase Assad from power, or significantly aid the rebels (some of whom are extremist Sunnis who are illiberal and anti-American), or help Israel, or stop the conflict from spilling into neighboring countries, or enhance the security of American personnel and installations abroad. Limited strikes will not fully protect Syrian civilians from continued conventional attacks.

In this vexing conundrum, the wise course of action is to pursue a diplomatic deal primarily with Russia. If the United States gives up on chasing Assad from power immediately, Russia might be willing to engineer a transition in which he, but not his entire entourage, goes eventually.

If Russia is allowed to continue with its military and commercial arrangements with the next Syrian government, an Assadist government without Assad, it might be willing to insist on no further use of chemical weapons in Syria. That would be a plus. Moreover, the United States has no interest in removing Assad only to substitute a radical Islamist regime.

A moderate autocratic regime may be the best Washington can hope for in the coming five years. The least worst option remains the least worst. And anyway, parts of Syria are probably lost to the control of Damascus (in the Kurdish northeast and the Sunni southeast).

The president is meeting with Putin in Moscow this week at the G-20 Summit. Assuming the Congress votes to authorize strikes, that visit probably represents the last chance to avoid a possibly deepening quagmire and other possible negatives. What if strikes are followed by the repeated use of chemical weapons? What if Hezbollah, backed by Iran, retaliates with terroristic attacks on Israel?

Given all the above, UNA-NE strongly urges further diplomatic action in attempts at the peaceful resolution of the various issues at play in Syria. After the problems all too evident in the wake of U.S. military force in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, caution and going the extra diplomatic mile are very much in order.

Robert Haller is president of the United Nations Association-Nebraska. He wrote this on behalf of the UNA-NE Executive Board.

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