Seeking a Viable UN Path Forward on Syria

Public consternation in the United States and abroad about President Obama's planned "targeted, limited, and effective" punitive strike against Syria confirms the wisdom of his overall approach to the Syrian crisis the past two years.

In facing down the caws from Washington hawks for arming rebels, bombing missile sites, and trying to impose no-fly zone, Obama has gauged perfectly what Americans -- and the world -- expected of him: restraint. As he acknowledged last week, "I was elected to end wars, not start them."

The apparent large-scale use of chemical weapons by the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad certainly adds a new factor to the calculus, both for Obama's personal credibility and international concerns about weapons of mass destruction. It may be enough to sway a critical margin in the Congress to let the president proceed with his planned strike, which we would have to hope might accomplish its objective without widening the war.

But there is a good chance the public and Congress will remain immovable and reject any kind of military involvement in Syria. With the prudent counsel that St. Luke (14:32) recorded for political leaders facing possible defeat, the president's team should already be working now on Plan B: an ambitious effort to shut down the Syrian civil war altogether.

Perhaps the administration conceives air strikes as the lever to push the Syrian resistance to the long-promised negotiating table with Assad's government. That might be a plausible strategy for wresting peace from the jaws of wider war. But even if this is the game plan, the administration should be laying the groundwork now for the diplomatic dénouement to come -- which might even help it on Capitol Hill -- in the U.N. Security Council.

Ah, the United Nations. The institution whose resolutions -- and, by extension, whose Charter restrictions on the use of force -- Obama seemed to dismiss last week as "hocus pocus," delighting his right-wing enemies and shocking the political support base at home that won him his party's nomination and the many publics abroad that had cheered his election.

(Those most shocked presumably include the Nobel Committee that awarded him its Peace Prize in 2009 for having "created a new climate in international politics..., with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play," with "dialogue and negotiations... preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.")

Ambassador Samantha Power, a committed multilateralist now representing America at the United Nations, last week declared, "there is no viable path forward in this Security Council." If the path we want the Security Council to travel is authorizing a U.S. military strike against Syrian government forces for the grotesque use of chemical weapons, she is likely right that Russia and China would vote no.

But even so, simply securing a nine-vote council majority would itself indicate to the Congress and American people that the red line that U.S. action would be upholding is the world's, not just Obama's. And it would justify a General Assembly call for limited military action, giving the gold-standard international legitimation when discord paralyzes the Security Council.

Perhaps those votes are just not there. President Bush abandoned the effort to win a Security Council majority for his planned invasion of Iraq when he couldn't get more than four votes. But that was surely the canary in the mineshaft in 2003, warning against what proved to be a disastrous war.

There is another viable path that the United States could usefully pursue right now, taking advantage of both the shock of the Ghouta gas attack and the fears of a U.S. strike's unintended consequences. It could take a page from the Security Council's first successful initiative as the Cold War wound down: its Resolution 598 that forced an end to the Iran-Iraq war (in which, coincidentally, Iraqi gas attacks against Iranians also figured).

These might be core elements of such an initiative:

  • A demand for an immediate ceasefire by all forces in Syria -- the government and the various insurgent factions -- with a short deadline for compliance
  • Imposition of full-spectrum sanctions, especially on arms, on any party that refuses to comply with the cease-fire
  • A summons to the Damascus authorities, the Syrian National Council, and other relevant parties to attend the much-postponed Kerry-Lavrov-Brahimi peace conference, to be convened within 30 days, and to negotiate in good faith
  • Dispatch of a capably sized United Nations ceasefire monitoring force to oversee the ceasefire, investigate and report violations, and protect U.N. weapons inspectors
  • Establishment of a U.N. commission of inquiry to determine responsibility for the Ghouta attack and any other reported chemical weapons use, with a demand that the government and, in rebel-dominated territory, insurgent groups permit full, unfettered access for U.N. weapons inspectors to undertake their investigation of sites of alleged attacks -- much as Resolution 598 created a commission to certify officially who had started the Iran-Iraq war (surprise conclusion: Saddam)
  • Referral of the commission's findings of responsibility for chemical weapons use to the International Criminal Court, or less ideally an internationally vetted Syrian tribunal, for criminal prosecution
  • A demand that Syria declare to U.N. inspectors its chemical weapons stocks for their provisional surveillance
  • A reaffirmation of the need to kick-start the delayed conference on elimination of weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East that was promised at the 2010 nuclear nonproliferation treaty review conference.

It does not help President Obama's global credibility for Washington to appear to disdain the U.N. inspectors' pending report -- especially when his one Western partner, France, now insists on waiting for it. And it is certainly awkward for the president to hold the moral high ground when the pope is leading prayer vigils and writing to world leaders decrying the planned attack.

It may be that the world community places a thicker red line on unilateral use of force than on punishing poison gas. All the more reason for having Plan B in place to pick up the pieces.