Posted by on September 13, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013

Syrian FlagsFor the past two weeks (if not longer), the international community has been hanging on tight, riding President Obama’s Syria rollercoaster. Everyone is strapped in: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the U.S. Congress, a skeptical American public, a divided Arab American community, and most tragically of all, Syrians and those in the region on the front lines of a terrible conflict.

On Tuesday, we took another sharp turn as President Obama decided to pursue a diplomatic path proposed by Russia that would bring chemical weapons under the control of the international community, putting the President’s own desire to seek congressional approval on hold and relegating a military option to the backburner.

Some have lauded the President for his cautious approach to the Syrian conflict for the last two years, and for his decision to consult Congress on the use of force. However, as much as this signifies a “win” for America’s constitutional process and democratic ideals, it has been a big loss just about everywhere else.

I am not talking about the benefits and drawbacks of conducting or refusing to conduct a targeted military strike in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This is about the price of indecision over Syria: as time goes on and no clear-cut decisions by the United States are made, gaffes have become commonplace, new and conflicting narratives have been shaped, a tragic crisis has become overtly politicized, and the way forward in a conflict that is drawing in the region has become increasingly muddled. Syrians and those directly impacted by the crisis lose.

Ask yourself: would any ordinary American citizen who does not follow the Syrian crisis daily, or understand the intricacies of the politics in the Levant, be able to clearly decipher President Obama’s message in his speech to the public on Tuesday?

A very limited military strike (or as Secretary of State John Kerry called it, "unbelievably small”) could have been an underwhelming slap on the wrist for the Assad regime, perhaps without much international dissent. Equally, President Obama could have owned up to not following through on his “red line” and clarified that he would not strike and had no intent to do so; he could have announced that the United States would only pursue action backed by the United Nations after Britain’s Parliament refused to get involved.

Instead, the Syrian tragedy has become a topic over which Congress and the American public can air their grievances on the war in Iraq, a diplomatic dance between the United States and Russia, and a drawn-out deliberation that creates the perception for Syrians and those in neighboring countries that Congress and the Obama Administration are debating and politicizing what will ultimately be their fate to bear.

The Russian chemical weapons proposal is a byproduct of America’s indecision. Russia and Syria benefit from this new diplomatic “solution” just as much as President Obama and Congress do (if not more). Obama did not want to be dragged into another conflict in the region and Congress did not want to be dragged into a conflict with their constituents.

Meanwhile, Putin and Assad have successfully framed the Syrian crisis as an issue of chemical weapons. The United States now has to play their game, unfortunately neglecting the real reason the uprisings in Syria began and delaying any action (diplomatically or militarily) on ending Syria’s use of traditional warfare, mitigating the refugee crisis, or maneuvering a ceasefire agreement.

This was the initial problem President Obama faced with framing the Syrian crisis in terms of chemical weapons, as his red line ultimately confined the Syrian conflict to an argument over their use. However, as the responses AAI has received from Syrian Americans demonstrate, chemical weapons are only one small piece of the Syrian puzzle.

It has become increasingly apparent that a resolution to the Syrian conflict will not be decided from within Syria. Two years ago, the uprising against the Assad regime might have been won with dedication to bolstering the Free Syrian Army and potentially providing limited military assistance, paving a third way for the international community that was supporting neither the extremist militant groups now thriving within Syria nor Assad’s regime. Now, any solution will have to come from the outside.

President Obama should continue to press for immediate congressional authorization as a way to put military and diplomatic options on equal footing and maintain a credible threat against the Assad regime. After all, Obama deemed a military strike “not time sensitive.” The international community must work to help Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey cope with the influx of Syrian refugees. Countries should signal support for Lebanon’s disassociation policy from Syria in order to bolster its independence and prevent it from being dragged further into the conflict. Holding Assad to his proposed mid-2014 presidential election while making sure elections are free and fair, and pushing for a ceasefire agreement at the same time, could be more immediate diplomatic priorities.

As long as we keep talking about chemical weapon red lines, public opinion polls, President Putin’s New York Times appeal, and congressional whip counts instead of deciding what to do to end the greater crisis, we are forgetting the real motivations of the Syrian uprising that began over two years ago, as well as the ongoing tragedies transpiring on the ground today.

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