Use non-lethal means on Syria

UNITED STATES - President Barack Obama's methodical approach towards Syria does not mark him as a weak or indecisive leader. This is ultimately responsible exercise of power. It is a predilection that would be commendable in an American leader but is rarely observed, on account of the United States' strong military standing.

What Mr Obama appears to have done is to have his lawmakers validate a moral belief that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should face justice for his genocidal campaign against his people. Exactly how he should be dealt with is what the coming debate in Congress is about.

The process is framed as a prelude to a military response, but the hope of the civilised world would be that non-lethal means be used.Suggestions of diminished American credibility abroad as a result of Mr Obama's apparent backtracking on war-planning are overdone.Warmongers who like a chin-up and chest-forward US commander in chief would be dismayed.

But the record shows that this President has begun reviving American prestige rather successfully, after its crushing by the Bush White House. Notwithstanding diplomatic gains, fresh damage is guaranteed by an ill-judged war against Syria when mission objectives are a muddle and the grounds for action disputed.

Suspicious use of proscribed chemical agents ascribed to the Syrian authorities has also been alleged against rebel forces, a charge raised by a United Nations inquiry in May but which was not followed through. Doubt about the wisdom of military action was what caused the British Parliament to vote it down, and could force the French President to seek a vote.

Nato and the Arab League are ambivalent.

There are fears that an Iraq-like disintegration of Syria, triggered by an attack, would tear West Asia apart in a Sunni-Shi'ite fight to the finish.

All this to show a hereditary ruler that he does not have the power of life and death over his subjects? The focus should be on how Mr Assad is made to answer for his campaign of terror.

Even a limited US missile attack will mean innocents killed and cities laid to waste. Iraq and Afghanistan are living nightmares of consequences not thought through. There are peaceable ways of holding Mr Assad and his acolytes to account, such as through charges of genocide and war crimes before a United Nations tribunal.

Mr Obama says he will not be bound by a congressional rejection. He will not receive United Nations authorisation either as a Security Council veto by China or Russia would be a legal red line he would not want to cross. Meanwhile, international opinion is against the use of force to wring atonement out of Mr Assad. Mr Obama has been a sober, more lawyerly US President than many of the past.

Might he disappoint?

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