Editorial: On Syria, awaiting answers to difficult questions
President Obama’s weekend announcement that he would seek congressional approval for a strike on Syria was both startling and cause for relief. Putting aside questions about whether the president had a legal or constitutional right to involve the United States in the Syrian conflict without the United Nations and without Congress, his bold gamble will force the largely AWOL lawmakers to take an active role, on behalf of all their constituents. Their debate will force all of us to wrestle with one of the truly vexing international crises of our time: a humanitarian disaster for which there appear few good options for the United States.
We urge New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to listen hard to their constituents and to share as much information as possible. Before voting, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte and Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter must be sure they have answers to myriad difficult questions about the short- and long-term consequences of acting – and of failing to act. Among them are these 10:
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed moral outrage about the use of chemical weapons, particularly in the deaths of hundreds of Syrian children. But innocent Syrians have been dying by the thousands for two years at the hands of their government. Were those killed by conventional weapons less important to the U.S. government than those killed by chemical weapons? Why?
What will we actually accomplish by launching cruise missiles at Syria? Beyond making a moral statement, will such a strike have any hope of changing the course of the war or toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
And if such a limited strike won’t push Assad out, should the U.S. stop there? Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham argue that such strikes must be part of a broader strategy that ends in Assad’s ouster. “Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing,” they said. Specifically, they advocate providing the Syrian rebels with weapons, enforcing no-fly zones to create humanitarian corridors for refugees and carrying out offshore airstrikes to degrade Syria’s air force.
If you support McCain’s thinking, does the U.S. then risk empowering some rebels we’d rather not be in league with? Increasingly, the rebels appear tied to radical groups including al-Qaida.
Could a limited strike as imagined by Obama make things worse in Syria? Over the weekend, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, an opposition group, argued, “A limited strike to merely warn Assad today will lead to nothing but his increase in violence, as well as to his complete confidence that no one would prevent him from killing. In the end, no one will pay the price but the Syrian people.”
Does such a strike risk making things worse for Israel? Already there has been a rush on gas masks there from residents who feel they may be targeted for retaliation. And in Iran, one Revolutionary Guard official announced that “any such attack would signify the immediate destruction of Israel.”
What is the United States’ national security interest in this? If we don’t act, do we risk the proliferation of chemical weapons use elsewhere?
Are there no diplomatic options still available? Might Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria’s patron, convince Assad to renounce the use of chemical weapons?
Former president Jimmy Carter has argued that the U.S. must not act without a United Nations mandate – and that a better course is “redoubling efforts to convene a peace conference, to end hostilities, and urgently to find a political solution.” Is this a better course? Is it realistic?
What would be the impact of a negative vote? How much must members of Congress worry about the effect on Obama’s standing on the world stage? And might the president move forward anyway? On Saturday, he made clear that he believes he has the right to act with or without Congress.
Obama has made clear that a limited strike won’t end the war. “The American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military,” he said Saturday. If that’s the case, what happens next? And what about after that?