The Obama team has clearly struggled with its Syria policy, but, in fairness, this is a wickedly complex problem.
We need a policy response that simultaneously deters another Syrian poison gas attack, doesn’t embroil the United States in the Syrian civil war and doesn’t lead to the sudden collapse of the Syrian state with all its chemical weapons or, worse, a strengthening of the Syrian regime and its allies Hezbollah and Iran.
However, I think President Barack Obama has the wrong strategy for threading that needle. He’s seeking congressional support for a onetime “shock and awe” missile attack against Syrian military targets. The right strategy is “arm and shame.”
Let me explain.
Count me with the activists on the question of whether the United States should respond to the Syrian regime’s murder of 1,400 civilians, more than 400 of them children, with poison gas. If there is no global response to this breaching of a universal taboo on using poison gas, the world will be a much more dangerous place.
And only the U.S. can spearhead a credible response: Russia and China have rendered the U.N. Security Council meaningless; Europe is a military museum; the Arab League is worthless; all others are spectators.
We are out front — alone.
We may not want to be, but here we are.
So we must lead.
But upholding this norm in the context of the Syrian civil war is not a simple matter. Start with the fact that probably the only way to produce a unified, pluralistic, multisectarian Syria is for an international army to go in, take over the country, monopolize all weaponry and referee a long transition to consensual rule.
Syrians can’t forge that on their own now. But such a force is not possible in this century, and Iraq demonstrated how hard it is for even that option to work.
Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest.
But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-al-Qaida jihadist groups, such as the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.
That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons it has long sought.
This has three virtues:
• Better arming responsible rebel units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing the U.S. to global opprobrium for bombing Syria.
• Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime.
• Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.
By contrast, just limited bombing of Syria from the air makes us look weak at best, even if we hit targets. And if we kill lots of Syrians, it enables Assad to divert attention from the 1,400 he has gassed to death to those we harmed.
And who knows what else our bombing of Syria could set in motion? (Would Iran decide it must now rush through a nuclear bomb?)
But our response must not stop there.
We need to use every diplomatic tool we have to shame Assad, his wife, Asma, his murderous brother Maher and every member of his Cabinet or military whom we can identify as being involved in this gas attack.
We need to bring their names before the U.N. Security Council for condemnation. We need to haul them before the International Criminal Court. We need to make them famous. We need to metaphorically put their pictures up in every post office in the world as people wanted for crimes against humanity.
Yes, there’s little chance of them being brought to justice now, but do not underestimate how much of a deterrent it can be for the world community to put the mark of Cain on their foreheads so they know that they and their families can never again travel anywhere except to North Korea, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s dacha.
It might even lead some of Assad’s supporters to want to get rid of him and seek a political deal.
When we alone just bomb Syria to defend “our” red line, we turn the rest of the world into spectators — many of whom will root against us.
When we shame the people who perpetrated this poison gas attack, we can summon the rest of the world, maybe even inspire them, to join us in redrawing this red line as a moral line and, therefore, a global line.
It is easy for Putin, China and Iran to denounce American bombing, but much harder for them to defend Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction, so let’s force them to choose. Best of all, a moral response — a shaming — can be an unlimited response, not a limited one.
A limited, transactional cruise missile attack meets Obama’s need to preserve his credibility. But it also risks changing the subject from Assad’s behavior to ours and — rather than empowering the rebels to act and enlisting the world to act — could make us owners of this story in ways that we do not want.
“Arm and shame” is how we best help the decent forces in Syria, deter further use of poison gas, isolate Assad and put real pressure on him or others around him to cut a deal.
Is it perfect? No, but perfect is not on the menu in Syria.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.