As a Member of the House Armed Services Committee and author of the bipartisan amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which asserted that nothing in the bill could be construed as authorizing the use of military force in Syria, I appreciated President Obama’s decision to respect our Congressional responsibility to vote on a potential U.S. military strike on Syria.
The American people deserve a rigorous and transparent debate before rushing into yet another war in the Middle East. By seeking authorization from the people’s representatives, the President reasserted an important legal doctrine and made it more difficult for future presidents to rush to war. Unfortunately, the proposed military actions in Syria lack a clearly defined mission, a solid legal base, and critical international and domestic support. I oppose a U.S. strike on Syria and hope Congress rejects military action should a vote arise.
By seeking Congressional authorization, the Obama Administration also created a wider window for a diplomatic solution in Syria. After Secretary Kerry announced his willingness to consider international oversight of Syria’s chemical weapons as an alternative to military action, Russia immediately embraced this option and Syria appears to be taking the proposal seriously. While we should proceed with a skeptical eye, the Russian proposal to work through the United Nations to secure and ultimately destroy Syria’s chemical weapons certainly promises a better outcome than the stated objectives of the proposed U.S. military strike. Instead of “degrading” Assad’s weapons capabilities and “deterring” him from using them, if we can remove them from his control without firing a shot, we should do so.
A diplomatic solution would also avert the potentially disastrous unintended consequences of a U.S. strike on Syria. We all agree that President Bashir al-Assad is a brutal dictator who has committed horrific crimes. But before we put our brave men and women in uniform in harm’s way and engage ourselves militarily in another country’s civil war, we must ask: Will our actions make the situation better or worse?
Assad may very well respond to a “limited and narrow” American bombing campaign by escalating the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Proposed U.S. strikes are intended to “degrade” but not eliminate the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, meaning Assad would retain some capacity to use these weapons in the future. If the humanitarian situation in Syria worsens, would we escalate our military involvement in response?
American intervention in Syria’s civil war also runs the risk of igniting a regional war with devastating consequences. What if the Syrian government responds to a U.S. attack by launching weapons at Israel, Turkey, or Jordan? How would they respond? How would Russia, China, or Iran respond? Can we be confident that the Administration’s “no boots on the ground” policy will hold if the war spreads beyond Syria’s borders and engulfs our allies?
The “collateral damage” in innocent Syrian lives that would inevitably result from a U.S. bombing campaign could enflame anti-American sentiment and fuel recruitment by terrorist networks, including within the U.S. Moreover, by attacking the Syrian regime, we are aiding a rebel coalition that includes Al Qaeda affiliates and other hard-line Islamist extremists. If our action helps topple Assad, how can we be at all confident that the moderates among the rebels will prevail?
Secretary Kerry cited the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of extremists as justification for a military strike in Syria. I fear the opposite is likely to be true. An attack that destabilizes the Assad regime and fragments its military command and control system could lead to radical Al Qaeda groups acquiring chemical weapons. The Pentagon has affirmed that it would take 75,000 U.S. troops to actually seize Syria’s chemical weapons compounds. So why would we presume these weapons would be secure in the case of a limited bombing campaign?
There is no greater decision for a country to make than the decision to go to war. If we attack Syria, we face many dangerous unknowns. The past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has amply demonstrated the folly of military commitments poorly conceived. If the situation in Syria worsens as a result of U.S. military action, we could easily be dragged into another war of choice without a clear exit strategy or plan to protect civilians. We would “own” a civil war that is not ours to fight.
Rather than moving toward military action, the Administration should aggressively pursue a diplomatic solution to the current crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons. Embracing the Russian overture and working within international legal frameworks to secure and destroy Syrian chemical weapons is the best way to strengthen U.S. legitimacy and leadership as an enforcer of “the world’s redline” against the use of chemical weapons. We should also continue to pursue diplomatic options in pushing an end to Syria’s civil war, working with the warring factions and other regional stakeholders and leveraging economic sanctions to promote a peaceful resolution while expanding our aid to Syria’s two million refugees.
U.S. military action in Syria could very well hasten the death of additional innocent civilians and entrap us in yet another open-ended war that we cannot afford. The diplomatic track offers the possibility of both eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and strengthening the international community’s capacity to enforce a global norm. Wars often seem simple, until they’re not. Diplomacy often seems impossible, until it works. Let’s give diplomacy a chance.
Rep. John Garamendi serves on the House Armed Services Committee.