Trudy Rubin: On Syria, no good option

As Congress debates whether or not America should launch missile strikes on Syria, one question dwarfs all others: Would we be worse off by not acting than by acting?

President Obama has boxed himself and the country into a situation where either choice is a bad one. His declared reason for a military strike — to deter and degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons — is insufficient. But his foreign policy credibility would be shattered if the international drama he’s triggered with his red lines ends up with … nothing.

I could imagine a third possibility (see below) that might offer him an escape hatch. And of course a veto on Capitol Hill would let him blame his bugout on Congress. But the legislators, too, are stuck with two options that are likely to have bad consequences for the United States.

It’s hard to see how a military strike can end well when the administration’s reasons for launching it are still murky. The president and his team said they want to preserve the long-standing international norm against the use of poison gas, enshrined in treaties signed by almost every state.

But how do you preserve an “international” norm if most of the world, including other major powers, is unwilling to defend it, and if the United Nations Security Council, which is supposed to enforce that norm, is permanently paralyzed by Russian and Chinese vetoes?

Does an international norm still exist if only the United States (and maybe France) is willing to use force to keep it alive?

The United States has ignored violations of this norm in the past — when Saddam Hussein gassed more than 20,000 Iranians and 5,000 Kurds to death in 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war. To this day, you don’t hear U.S. officials denouncing the gassing of the Iranians, perhaps because they died under a regime we oppose.

As for the argument that missile strikes will keep the sarin or mustard gas from falling into the hands of terrorists, I don’t buy it. We aren’t going to hit the actual stocks — that could set off toxic fumes. Assad knows he will face Israel’s wrath if he tries to pass chemical weapons off to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Right now, the greatest threat to such stocks is that they might fall into the hands of rebels aligned with al-Qaida, which won’t be prevented by striking the regime.

And Obama still hasn’t revealed how the strike fits into a bigger strategic picture. At Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings this week, one senator asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, what the United States is seeking in Syria. Dempsey, who is wary about military intervention, responded: “I can’t answer that.”

As for Secretary of State John Kerry, he insisted this strike was only about chemical weapons, but hinted it would be accompanied by more U.S. help to moderate Syrian rebels — in an effort to break the Syrian military stalemate and push Assad to the negotiating table. These hints aren’t credible; small arms that were promised to rebels three months ago still haven’t been delivered.

There’s little concrete reason to believe this strike would be part of a more coherent strategy to bring the Syrian crisis — and its deadly spillover throughout the region — to an end.

Nor has the White House said what it will do if Assad absorbs a brief U.S. strike, then returns to the business of killing Syrians with conventional weapons. We can say we struck a blow for an international norm, while Syria continues to disintegrate into fiefdoms split between a murderous dictator and aggressive, well-armed jihadis who have eclipsed more moderate, poorly armed rebels.

I can see only one reason for this strike: Preventing Obama, and Washington, from losing credibility with Iran, North Korea, China, you name it. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel put it bluntly at the Senate hearings: “The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency.” This is true.

Yet I don’t see how Obama can preserve credibility by backing into military action that is not part of a larger picture. “Basing a strategy around chemical weapons is getting it backward,” says Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Well said.

One way out of this trap would be if — buoyed by unexpected congressional support — Obama can rally more firm global backing for the ban on chemical weapons.

Of course, that is precisely what didn’t happen at the summit of 20 top world leaders last week in St. Petersburg, Russia. That would have required Obama convincing the host, Vladimir Putin, that the only way to prevent a U.S. strike was to back a G-20 pledge to punish anyone who uses sarin, including Putin’s ally Assad. It also would have required backdoor consultations with Iran, whose new president seemed unhappy with the behavior of his Syrian ally.

It’s hard to imagine Russia or Iran saving Obama’s bacon. But if other world leaders won’t back the chemical-weapons norm, then America can’t preserve it solo.