As all signs indicate a growing push for Western military intervention—war, that is—in Syria, have the U.S. and its "more than willing" coalition of NATO allies done anything to enact or facilitate a diplomatic solution?
And amid calls for missile strikes and possible air assaults against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the wake of possible use of chemical weapons, has there been adequate consideration of the further violence and bloodshed that such attacks are likely to cause?
For many, the answer to both questions: No.
Over the weekend, the Assad government acquiesced to demands to give UN inspectors access to the site outside Damascus where a suspected chemical gas attack took place last week. However, Western governments were quick to rebuff the gesture, saying that it was "too late" and claiming that their own intelligence—though offering little insight or details to how they achieved it—left "little doubt" that government forces were behind the attack.
"Here’s the core question now, in regard to Syria: if it’s true that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used poison gas in an incident that killed hundreds of people, at least, in the suburbs of Damascus, can the United States avoid military action in response? The answer is: yes. And it should." –Bob Dreyfuss, The Nation
As The Independent reported on Monday, "Western countries, including Britain, are planning to take unilateral military action against the Assad regime within two weeks in retaliation" for the alleged attack.
Across corporate media outlets and cable news channels on Monday, talk about U.S. missile strikes—most likely from U.S. battleships stationed in the Mediterranean Sea—were being discussed as an almost "foregone conclusion." Citing high-level talks at the White House and between Washington and its European allies over the weekend, reports indicated events are moving rapidly toward a NATO-driven coalition military assault on Syria, similar to that done to Libya in 2011 or Sarajevo in the 1990s.
As was reported by numerous outlets, it is likely that this coalition—led by the U.S., France, and Britain—would not be looking for support or official sanction at the UN due to the assumption that Russia—a permanent member of the Security Council—would veto any effort to authorize an assault.
On Monday, Russia all but conceded that assumption and said that any military attack on Syria by Western nations would be both a "catastrophe" for the region and a violation of international law.
"Using force without the approval of the UN Security Council is a very grave violation of international law," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Monday, saying military strikes would put coalition countries on "a very dangerous path, a very slippery path."
Lavrov continued, warning that strikes would deepen Syria's conflict, creating more violence, not less. "This is not just an illusion, it is a grave mistake that will not lead to any peace, but only mark a new, even bloodier stage of the war in Syria," he said.
"They (the West) have not been able to come up with any proof but are saying at the same time that the red line has been crossed and there can be no delay," Lavrov said.
He also compared the rhetoric over Syria to that made in the lead up to U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the NATO-led assault on Libya in 2011. "The intimidation campaign has already begun, the events in Iraq ten years ago and in Libya, more recently, began the same way," Lavrov said. He also called out the hypocritical nature of US foreign policy by adding, "You cannot fight with a regime only because you don't like the dictator that heads it, and then not fight another regime where you like the authoritarian ruler."
But Russia, with its well known and highly referenced history of backing the Assad regime against Western powers, is not alone in calling for restraint even as U.N. inspectors finally reached the scene of the alleged gas attack on Monday—though not without incident—to begin their investigation into the available facts.
Worried that the pace of events was scuttling a chance for a diplomatic solution, The Nation's Bob Dreyfuss was among those calling for a path forward that didn't involve Tomahawk cruise missiles, writing:
Here’s the core question now, in regard to Syria: if it’s true that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used poison gas in an incident that killed hundreds of people, at least, in the suburbs of Damascus, can the United States avoid military action in response? The answer is: yes. And it should.
That doesn’t mean that the United States ought to do nothing. The horrific incident, reported in detail by Doctors Without Borders, demands action. But the proper response by the United States is an all-out effort to achieve a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war. It’s late in the game but it can be done. The first step would be for Washington to put intense pressure on Saudi Arabia, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and Turkey, to halt the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, while simultaneously getting Russia and Iran to do the same. A concerted, worldwide diplomatic effort along those lines could work, but there’s zero evidence that President Obama has even thought of that.
Indeed, it seems clear now that the United States is about to launch a series of cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets, including military command centers, airports, and other facilities. A US naval buildup in the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Syria, is underway, including four destroyers carrying cruise missiles. Ominously, the United States yesterday rejected as “too late” a Syrian offer – which, indeed, may have been disingenuous – to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the site where the gas was reportedly used. Virtually the entire Obama administration national security team huddled in the White House yesterday to decide what to do about Syria.
But it's not just The Nation where warnings are circulating. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
Officials cautious of intervening say targeted strikes to punish Mr. Assad for using chemical weapons risk triggering a bloody escalation. If the regime digs in and uses chemical weapons again, or launches retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and its allies in the region, Mr. Obama will come under fierce pressure to respond more forcefully, increasing the chances of full-scale war, the officials say.
The WSJ also cites weekend comments from Syria's Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi who said that an attack by U.S./NATO forces would unleash "chaos" and a "ball of fire and flames" that would "consume not only Syria but the entire Middle East."
And the Independent's Partick Cockburn—who has been both circumspect about the chemical weapons claims but also willing to say that evidence is piling up that Assad's military may have been behind the massacre—argues that European leaders and President Obama himself may well absorb the risks of a wider regional escalation in the name of saving face over earlier statements about "red lines" and chemical weapons. Cockburn writes:
The firing of Tomahawk cruise missiles from four American destroyers in the Mediterranean at targets in Syria are among the actions being telegraphed ahead by the US, Britain and France as the most likely form of retribution for the Syrian army’s alleged chemical attack on civilians in Damascus.
The units and bases from which the US believes rockets carrying poison gas were fired will be probable targets. So too would be Syrian airfields and probably the bases of elite units frequently deployed against the rebels.
If these attacks do take place, with Britain and France in a supporting role, then President Barack Obama will make them heavy enough to be more than a slap on the wrist but not so devastating that they herald the US becoming a participant in the war. It will not be an easy balancing act: ineffective air strikes that the Syrian government can shrug off would be a demonstration of weakness rather than strength. But strikes by missiles and possibly military aircraft will mean the US is crossing a Rubicon, committing itself more than ever before against President Bashar al-Assad and in favour of the armed opposition. This may mean that if there are missile strikes they will be limited in their timescale but heavier and more destructive than expected.
However, as Just Foreign Policy's Robert Naiman pointed out in an interview with Common Dreams last week, "there is no silver bullet of military action when dealing with chemical weapons. Military intervention is not going to control chemical weapons. "
"We saw that in Libya," Naiman said."Intervention didn't control weapons, it set them free."
"We need to be working through international diplomacy, through the UN," he concluded.