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Area experts size up Syrian crisis

President Obama has mapped a confusing course for dealing with the crisis in Syria, area experts in Middle Eastern affairs say, and those doubts cloud the fact that the United States should intervene in a situation that promises only to get worse.

Some say military action can be an effective solution, while all agree that a vigorous international diplomatic effort is needed.

David Mednicoff, a specialist in international law and Middle Eastern politics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is one who opposes military action.

“My basic opinion of the proposed strike is that it will do more harm than good precisely because of its illegality in international law,” he said in an email message.

The United States, he said, needs to be working tirelessly, globally, to find more effective ways of intervening in humanitarian crises like Syria. “The lack of a current good option does not in itself make the case for mostly unilateral military action,” he said.

On the other hand, Jon Western, a Five College professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, thinks military action can work, coupled with diplomacy, but that the president has muddied the waters with an inconsistent approach.

“I think the administration has, quite frankly, just floundered a bit,” he said in a telephone interview. “It has not established a clearly articulated position from the outset and if you’re trying to build domestic consensus, or at least get Congress on board, you have to be explicit about what you’re trying to achieve, how you are going to do it and the time frame.”

He pointed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments Monday morning about the possibility of taking military action off the table if Syrian President Bashar Assad were to give up chemical weapons within a week. “A year ago, the president put together a statement that said chemical weapons would be the red line, and in the ensuing year it doesn’t look like the administration has done much to prepare either an international diplomatic strategy or domestic political strategy to move forward in the contingency that Assad used them,” he said.

Donna R. Divine, director of Middle Eastern Studies at Smith College in Northampton, agrees.

“I think that while the president has indicated it’s very important to try to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, he hasn’t yet produced a careful enough plan to win the support of people and particularly in the House of Representatives,” she said, “so it will be a uphill battle for him.”

Divine and Western see the merit of airstrikes.

Western, a former Balkans research analyst at the State Department who was involved during the decision to launch airstrikes in Bosnia, said military action can be a successful approach if coupled with international diplomacy.

“Whatever is undertaken has to be done with an enormous amount of diplomatic effort,” he said, “because you’ve got to get everybody on board. You are trying to leverage the military force you apply for the purpose of a political solution, so you can’t just launch the strike and say ‘OK, we’ve done it.’ You have to follow through with a much more coherent and cohesive diplomatic strategy.”

Pushing for a negotiated settlement will be hard, he notes, given the complexity of the fractured political scene in Syria. “On the one hand, I don’t think an Assad victory is possible,” he said. “And the opposition is not going to win, so we are looking at a war of attrition, which is going to go on for some time and there will be more casualties, more civilians are going to die.”

He said as the situation becomes increasingly dire, the Assad regime will have an even greater incentive to use chemical weapons, generating more pressure on the United States and the international community to respond.

Western said the U.S. and NATO airstrikes during the Bosnian War illustrated how military power can help lead to a political solution. He said in addition to the strikes, the United States conducted an extensive diplomatic effort to convince the Bosnian Muslims and the Croats that they should stop fighting internally and come to the negotiation table. “That is a case, by most historical assessments, which was a profound success,” he said. “The U.S. used limited military airstrikes in conjunction with a massive international diplomatic effort and the war in Bosnia stopped on a dime.”

He noted, however, that such action can backfire. With Assad moving military equipment and military headquarters into civilian areas, the United States risks killing more people than it saves, and, he said, the United States needs to calculate how Iran and Syria’s Hezbollah supporters may respond.

“You’ve got multiple actors and moving parts and it’s really a complicated situation,” he said. “A strike is going to create a lot of problems for the U.S.” However, “The inverse of that, not doing anything, will also create a lot of problems because the war will continue on its current trajectory. The challenge is there aren’t any good solutions ”

Divine thinks the United States should seek to degrade Syria’s military capacity and to try to ensure that Assad is removed from power. “It is in America’s interest to try to produce some stability in Syria because it such a pivotal country for the entire region,” she said. “The consequences of doing nothing haven’t really been an area of focus.”

Ensuring that President Obama’s credibility is sustained will have an effect both domestically and internationally, she said.

“To overturn a proposal on national security I think would have more negative consequences than people realize at this moment.”

International law

Mednicoff said he appreciates Obama’s political and diplomatic efforts to secure support within and outside of the United States for his Syria policy, particularly his attempt to win approval from Congress. However, he objects to what he says is Obama’s “relative de-emphasis” on international law, which does not authorize a U.S. strike.

“The ultimate issues here are what, if anything, the world community can do to help the Syrian people resolve their civil conflict as quickly as possible, whether a predominantly U.S.-led limited military strike has a reasonable chance of helping, and whether these benefits outweigh the risks,” he wrote in an email. Though he said internal Syrian politics is not his area of expertise, most Syrians writing on the issue have cast doubt on the value of the kind of military action Obama proposes. Given that, and that “the logic is unclear as to how a limited strike can help the conflict, the action’s illegality seems important here.”

Western said one alternative to military action might be pressing for Syria to become a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, and to comply with all of the elements of it. And, in addition to that, conduct a strong diplomatic effort that pushes the parties to negotiate.

Because his focus is on what might help Syria and future similar crises, Mednicoff said, he is not concerned about Assad’s threats of retaliation if airstrikes are launched. He called them “rather hollow.”

Divine noted that Israel has attacked the Assad regime several times without retaliation. “I don’t think there is a strong likelihood of retaliation and certainly Russia is not in a position to retaliate, no matter what Assad might hint at,” she said.

But Western acknowledged that the introduction of armed forces is “very dangerous. Even if limited, airstrikes will have some effect. ... what that effect will be is pretty hard to calculate at this point.” But he said, “The bottom line is, if we can’t move forward with some kind of cohesive international response to the situation today, we’ll be facing it six months from now because it’s going to get worse.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.

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