By Alison Giffen – Sometimes the use of force is necessary to stop or mitigate mass atrocities. There are instances when perpetrators are motivated by existential threats, when they have demonstrated that they will continue to employ morally and legally prohibited tactics and refuse to enter into political negotiations. Like a number of 20th century mass atrocities committed by entrenched states, Syria will likely go down in history as just such an instance.
But violence begets violence even when it is employed in discrete ways to deter atrocities. Before giving President Obama the green light, the US Congress must be clear on the objectives and costs of intervention and who is going to pay for it.
On Saturday, President Obama stated that the rationale for military action in Syria is to “hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons….” Because military force always includes the risk of further threats to and vulnerabilities of civilians, it should never be used as a reprisal for past abuses, no matter how egregious the acts. Military force should only be considered after exhaustive analysis that force is the best of a lot of bad choices to effectively prevent or mitigate violence against civilians.
In this regard, Obama was moving in the right direction when he justified the possible use of force to, “deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”
Unfortunately, in order to gain the consent of Congress, the administration’s position is quickly evolving to include a broader use of force to dismantle President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The overarching strategy in Syria should be to end the broader conflict as well as all forms of abhorrent violence against civilians that have characterized this war from the outset. But these strategic goals cannot be reached through a US military intervention and Congress shouldn’t be distracted by such illusions.
However, Congress would be right to consider whether a discrete use of force could be used to limit Assad’s capability and his willingness to use chemical weapons and other military assets against civilians without unduly undermining broader strategic goals and increasing the risk to civilians in the short- and long-term.
The objective of an intervention to protect must aim to terminate or reduce the threat of violence against civilians and mitigate their vulnerability. The intervention should be about shifting the power dynamics and decision-making to deter or compel perpetrators from using violence against civilians, even if it can only slightly limit a perpetrator’s arsenal to commit illegal acts.
To this end, Congress should be asking the administration whether the military strikes will effectively change Assad’s calculus and capability to target civilians with chemical weapons or otherwise as well as whether an intervention will change the tactics of the rebels and other armed actors (also accused of abuses) for better or worse.
Congress must also weigh the potential impact of action and inaction on the credibility and legitimacy of the US. From a pragmatic perspective, there is very little tolerance for and real costs to a country’s legitimacy and credibility when its actions cause harm to civilians. This cost is even higher when an intervention purports in part to protect civilians. As such, Congress shouldn’t only be concerned about the US’s credibility and legitimacy if President Obama isn’t allowed to make good on his threat, but the costs involved in carrying it out.
US military strikes are likely to have direct and indirect humanitarian consequences, such as even greater flows of people into neighboring countries where more than 2 two million Syrian refugees already struggle to eke out an existence in cities and overflowing camps. An influx of refugees will increase pressure on and exacerbate tensions within the communities and countries that host them.
Within Syria, the movement of internally displaced populations is also likely to increase. Humanitarian operations within Syria are already constrained in extraordinary ways by the parties, security and a lack of funding. Will the Syrian government and other armed actors allow the local, national and international providers of assistance to operate post military strikes or will there be retribution?
The United States is already giving generously to the relief effort in Syria, but only 40 percent of the UN humanitarian appeals to address the Syrian crisis are currently funded. Where will the additional dollars come from to meet these needs and what other humanitarian and protection crises will suffer in turn?
In the long-term, how will the US stop abuses by Syrians seeking revenge on those suspected of supporting or participating in Assad’s regime or others who continue to fight for political, economic and military power? If Congress authorizes force will it plan to provide protection down the road or does Congress expect the UN Security Council to do so by authorizing a peace operation after US action bypassed its consent? Will the UN General Assembly agree to pay for a peace operation when the US doesn’t contribute troops to UN missions and the US Congress regularly cuts both assessed and voluntary funds to the UN?
Congress holds the power of the purse and should be well versed in weighing the costs and benefits of its decisions. Before casting a vote, members of Congress must consider and be willing to pay the additional costs that accompany unilateral military action. They must decide whether the risk of investing in a US military intervention today will be justified by a return that reduces and alleviates tomorrow’s human suffering.