There is now a glimmer of hope on Syria, with the emphasis on “glimmer” because of huge questions for which there are still no answers.
The first basic issue is how to find, contain and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons -- and ensure they are indeed all found. This is a hugely time-consuming and logistical challenge. It’s Iraq déjà vu from the 1990s, which dragged on for years -- without a war going on in the background.
Second, the latest Russian gambit to get the U.S. to renounce any future use of force in exchange for Assad turning over his chemical weapons is unlikely to fly in Washington. It may even rally Congress behind Obama a bit.
Third, we all hope for renewed diplomacy to settle the bigger crisis -- the civil war itself -- but the political realities and divisions among the opposition forces won’t change as a result of any deal on chemical weapons. The Russians might actually get Assad to send a delegation to Geneva. But even if the West can prod some artificial faces-of-the-month to attend on behalf of the divided opposition, there’s no guarantee that the opposition could actually deliver anything from folks fighting inside. The growing factionalization of Syria’s opposition has put peace further away than ever.
Fourth, 99% of deaths are due to conventional weaponry. So a deal on chemical weapons is, unfortunately, unlikely to change the realities or fatalities on the ground. The fighting may still rage, with Assad actually getting a psychological boost at home from his deal with the outside world. Tragic but true.
Finally, I’d love to be wrong about all of this.
Robin Wright, the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," is a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Charles A. Stevenson, author of “Congress and the power to declare war”:
The president obviously wants to back the push for a U.N.-authorized removal of Syrian chemical weapons with the threat of force. For that threat to be credible, however, Congress would actually have to pass a law authorizing airstrikes if the diplomatic effort fails within some limited time period. It’s unclear what the president’s timetable is, and also unclear whether lawmakers are willing to give that conditional approval, so we may be slipping into a confusing situation where neither friend nor foe knows what America might do.
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I still believe it’s important for Congress to act, and the bipartisan measure being crafted in the Senate might be the best vehicle. For what it’s worth, previous Congresses have enacted contingent authorizations of the use of force: in 1955, to defend Taiwan if attacked; in 1957, to defend Middle Eastern nations if attacked by a communist nation; in 1991 and 2002, to attack Iraq if U.N. efforts failed. Congress doesn’t have to do exactly what the president proposes, but it owes it to the country to find some way of limiting both any use of chemical weapons and a wider war in the Middle East.
Charles A. Stevenson teaches at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of "Congress at War: The Politics of Conflict since 1789."
Rajan Menon, author of “Don't use U.S. credibility as a reason to attack Syria”:
Even Obama’s opponents agree that he is a gifted speaker; he proved that again Tuesday. The rhythm, pace, cadence -- all were, once again, executed effectively, and Obama appealed movingly to Americans’ ideals and to their humanity.
But even exceptional orators can fail when their case is substantively shaky. And the administration’s case -- witness the uphill battle it faces in persuading Congress and the public -- has been shaky. It remains so after the president’s speech.
Obama and his foreign policy team have tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, they insist that Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 people on Aug. 21 presents a grave threat, not just to the Unites States but also to the laws and norms that help constitute the international order. Secretary of State Kerry, who has engaged in several rhetorical flights of fancy lately, warned on one occasion that we faced a “Munich moment.”
On the other hand, Obama and Kerry insist that they envisage a limited, “targeted” strike that wouldn't change the arithmetic on Syria’s battlefield -- which favors Assad -- let alone drag war-weary Americans into yet another conflict. But such an attack would allow Assad to continue the killing. So much for the Munich analogy.
The public sees the contradiction; that’s clear from recent opinion polls. So does Congress. Nothing the president said, though he said it well, will put to rest Americans’ deep, pervasive doubts about what precisely he proposes to achieve by attacking Syria.
Obama painted a poignant picture of innocent Syrians suffering horribly and then dying after being gassed. Chemical weapons do, as the president said, kill indiscriminately. But for more than two years the Syrian tyrant has used various other weapons that have also inflicted enormous suffering on Syrians, killing more than 100,000 people. Yet the same ideals that he invoked did not prompt Obama to order an attack on Assad. Why? It’s not for us to resolve other people’s civil war, said the president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown Obama, whom he doesn’t much like, a lifeline, possibly saving him from an embarrassing repudiation by his own legislature. The congressional vote will be delayed until it’s clear whether Assad intends to make good on the Russian proposal to gather, tally and destroy his chemical weapons (which his government has long insisted it does not have). The action now shifts to the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S., Russia and China will be the decisive players.
The day of reckoning for Assad, and Obama, appears to have been delayed. Stay tuned.