Pivoting between action and indecision over Syria

United States President Barack Obama's surprising decision to postpone his planned military strike against Syria by at least a week while he consults Congress is undoubtedly risky.

The US Congress may withhold support. The President also risks appearing weak. Even if the military operation finally goes ahead, it would come a full month after the Syrian atrocities, so it will be dismissed as just pointless revenge.

Yet there are also opportunities in Mr Obama's gamble. The extra time gained could be used to restart negotiations with Russia and China. Evidence from United Nations investigators in Syria would also become available.

And, once armed with congressional approval, the US President will have the possibility of examining a wider range of military options against Syria.

Either way, the diplomatic frenzy unleashed by the Syrian crisis has already created a new strategic reality which, although imperceptible for now, will have a great impact on global security arrangements long after the Syrian episode is consigned to history.

The most significant development is the demise of the knee-jerk impulse to use force in order to solve international problems, an impulse which has governed the conduct of foreign policy of key Western nations.

This can be traced back to the end of the Cold War, to the triumphant period when the West appeared to be dominant and "history" itself allegedly "ended".

The number of countries afflicted by this syndrome was never very big. It consisted of a clutch of mainly English-speaking nations with the occasional addition of a few other European states.

But it was led by the US and frequently pretended to stand for the "international community", that mythical beast whose heart and brain were located somewhere between the Pentagon and the White House.

It was up to this group to decide which nations deserved to be zapped, bombed or occupied because their behaviour "outraged the international community", which ones could just be ignored and which ones should be placed under a quarantine of economic sanctions.

It would be wrong to claim that this was a purely selfish or immoral enterprise. On most occasions, this self-appointed group of nations acted out of genuine humanitarian concerns.

It also frequently did so with wanton disregard for established forms of international law and, sometimes, even its substance - out of the 10 operations mounted by the US military over the past 25 years, only three were pre-authorised by the UN Security Council.

Waning public support

This impulse to intervene was already declining in the wake of the botched 2003 Iraq war and the never-ending military torment of Afghanistan. But it took the Syrian crisis to bury it altogether.

One reason for this is the huge and widening gulf between political elites and voters in Western countries.

It was noticeable that, while the leaders of the US, Britain and France spent the past two weeks demanding a military response against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons, the overwhelming majority of British, American and French nationals remained either opposed to any action or simply did not care.

Interestingly, that was not because they fear that their sons and daughters are going to be put in harm's way.

Western leaders are threatening Syria with only "surgical strikes" involving no "boots on the ground".

But electorates remain opposed because they are no longer persuaded by the tactic of spraying countries with bombs from the air, the cheap version of humanitarian military interventions first conceived by then President Bill Clinton in Yugoslavia during the 1990s and perfected ever since.

Just as significantly, electorates increasingly see military operations led by the US as a liability.

Unlike the 2003 Iraq war, the days when European governments considered it an honour to be part of a US alliance regardless of its purpose are gone. Instead, a history of intimate links with the US is now toxic.

That is why Britain - always derided as America's poodle - is precluded by its lawmakers from participating in the Syria operation, but France, which often stood aloof from the US, can now act as America's closest ally.

The popular backlash generated by the Syrian crisis has already produced a remarkable outcome. Western electorates are now indirectly but in very definite terms curtailing the formal powers of their leaders to mount such operations.

In strictly legal terms, British prime ministers do not need the approval of their Parliament to send troops into battle. The power to wage war technically rests with the Queen and is exercised on her behalf by the prime minister.

But Prime Minister David Cameron was forced by public dissatisfaction to seek parliamentary approval and, for the first time in 160 years, lawmakers declined to do so.

President Obama also should not need congressional approval for a Syria operation: His powers as military commander-in-chief are explicitly protected by the US Constitution. Yet Mr Obama felt the need to get Congress' approval, an admission of just how controversial such decisions have become.

New era mandates

Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Obama accepts the argument that this has now changed the legal powers of their office. Both claim the current parliamentary votes were just consultations rather than formal requests for authority to wage war.

In years to come, it is inconceivable that any future Western leader would be able to commit forces for any foreign operation without a clear international mandate and/or the explicit backing from national lawmakers.

The days when a British prime minister and an American president could sit on a park bench at the Camp David retreat and plan a war have ended.

Curiously, the current Syrian crisis is also a reminder that, although Western nations have lost their appetite for humanitarian interventions, this should not be confused with either weakness or isolationism.

The Syrian civil war has been going on for over two years and has already claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people without any reaction from the West. There were also previous chemical attacks which passed almost unnoticed.

But the latest chemical attack strained the world's conscience and may yet end up with a military attack on Syria. The truth remains that the same Western electorates which are now acting as a brake on their governments can very quickly become the main cheerleaders for a military operation.

One harrowing television clip, one horrible picture which goes viral on the Internet can suffice to turn the mood.

That was what happened to Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Yugoslavia who spent years killing his own people, safe in the belief that the US would never intervene, only to end up with 100,000 American soldiers on his soil and the full might of the US Air Force above his head.

This may also be the fate of Syria's Mr Assad. Trying to second-guess how much the US will tolerate remains a fool's game.

Undermining the UN

There is also a special lesson in this crisis for Russia and China, the two nations which have persistently vetoed any resolution in the UN Security Council on Syria.

The result of this blockage is not to prevent the US and its allies from acting but, rather, to persuade them to bypass the Security Council altogether.

It is instructive that the one argument put by both Britain and France is that the Security Council is not the absolute, ultimate arbiter of the use of force, and that international law - with its provisions for conducting wars - existed centuries before the UN was conceived.

The inability to handle serious humanitarian crises in the Security Council has spawned a whole array of other legal justifications for using force in Syria, from the so-called Responsibility to Protect concept and right down to traditional humanitarian law, or legal principles of self-defence.

None of these concepts amounts to a coherent legal justification; they all belong to that special category of "creative reasoning", which is often supplied by good lawyers to clients who otherwise have no persuasive legal case: a concoction of selectively chosen facts mixed with a few high-sounding principles.

But those who accuse the West of destroying the UN Security Council as a result will do well to note that credibility of the Security Council is not only damaged when it is bypassed, it is also damaged when the organisation is paralysed by countries such as China and Russia.

So if China and Russia value their veto powers, then they must also learn to use them sparingly.

Of course, none of these twists of diplomacy is having the slightest impact on the most urgent consideration: the terrible and continued suffering of the people of Syria.

But the plight of civilians always takes a back seat when new strategic principles are being established.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


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