Strike on Syria: Could it undermine efforts to end the civil war?

The Obama administration is indicating it hopes to keep diplomacy alive even in the aftermath of anticipated airstrikes against the military and other government targets in Syria.

Evan Schneider/UN/AP
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks during an early-morning conference call with senior UN officials regarding the UN chemical weapons investigation in Syria, Aug. 25 in Seoul, Korea.

The United States is still emphasizing that a negotiated political settlement is the only solution to the Syrian crisis – even as it assembles a coalition of supportive international partners for anticipated punitive military action against President Bashar al-Assad.

International diplomatic initiatives aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war appeared to be going nowhere even before last week’s chemical weapons attacks outside Damascus. But military action, which risks angering some populations in the region and inciting some countries to react with steps of their own, has little chance of making the diplomatic track any easier, many officials and regional analysts say.

“The Syrian regime, the Iranians, Hezbollah [the militant Shiite group supporting Mr. Assad] aren’t just going to take these strikes [lying] down and not respond in any way,” says Peter Krause, a Boston College political science professor, in an e-mail. “So if the U.S. wants to both launch these strikes, send a message, but at the same time not go too far and get into mission creep, they need to be thinking exactly what the next steps are going to be.”

At the United Nations, where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called last week’s attacks “outrageous” and insisted they not go unpunished, concerns are clearly growing that military strikes could set back prospects for diplomacy on Syria.

“The secretary-general’s focus continues to be away from a military solution and towards a diplomatic solution,” says Farhan Haq, spokesman for Mr. Ban.

“All the parties need to come together to move the diplomatic piece forward so we can reach a political settlement,” he adds, “so the secretary-general is focused on those efforts and not on anything that would make a solution more difficult.”

The Obama administration is indicating it hopes to keep the diplomatic track alive even in the aftermath of anticipated airstrikes against the Syrian military and other government targets. In particular, administration officials indicate, special effort will be made to keep working channels open with Russia, the Syrian regime’s most important international backer and also the Obama administration’s chief interlocutor in diplomatic efforts on Syria.

The US, citing “ongoing consultations” on the “appropriate response” to last week’s chemical weapons attack, canceled a meeting with Russia set for Wednesday that was to focus on advancing plans for a joint US-Russia-sponsored peace conference on Syria.

In announcing the canceled meeting with Russia, a senior State Department official made a point of emphasizing not just that a negotiated settlement remains the only solution to Syria’s crisis, but also that Russia will remain a key player in reaching a settlement.

Saying the US would work to reschedule the US-Russia meeting – presumably after expected airstrikes take place – the official added, “As we’ve long made clear – and as the ... Aug. 21 [chemical attacks] reinforce – it is imperative that we reach a comprehensive and durable political solution to the crisis in Syria. The United States remains fully invested in that process.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added, “We will continue working with Russia and other international partners to move towards a [Syria] transition based on the framework laid out” at an international meeting on Syria in Geneva last year.

At the same time, however, the Obama administration is continuing its efforts to bring international legitimacy to whatever military action it takes in Syria by assembling a coalition of supportive countries – some of which would presumably participate in such an operation.

President Obama spoke on Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande, two leaders he’s communicated with repeatedly since the chemical attacks. He also spoke with the Canadian and Australian prime ministers.

The British have an air base in Cyprus and would be a likely candidate for participating in any operation. Mr. Cameron has recalled Parliament from summer holiday to debate the British response to Syria on Thursday. That, along with Obama administration pledges to release evidence of the Assad regime’s responsibility for the attack before the US takes any action, has led some to speculate that a military operation could commence this weekend.

Mr. Hollande said Tuesday that France is “ready to punish” the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attacks in concert with the US and others.

Secretary of State John Kerry conducted a long list of phone calls Monday and Tuesday, including NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Ban at the UN, and the Turkish, Jordanian, and Saudi foreign ministers.

One obvious missing party from the latest consultation list is Russia. And Russia is sounding like anything but an acquiescent power before the rising clamor for action against the Assad regime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday compared the diplomatic efforts at building a coalition against Syria to the campaign undertaken by the US in the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said that, as in the Iraq case, any military action against Syria would be illegitimate.

"The use of force without a sanction of the UN Security Council is a crude violation of international law," Mr. Lavrov said, accusing the countries calling for military action of wanting to be both judge and jury, "both the investigators and the UN Security Council."

Using a nonspecific “they” but clearly referring to a chorus led by Mr. Obama, Lavrov said, “They cannot produce evidence,” but nevertheless “they” insist that a red line has been crossed and that action must be taken.

That did not sound like someone who would be ready to quickly return to diplomacy after military action.

Such signs that the diplomatic track would probably be thrown off are among the reasons some experts – and members of Congress – are cautioning Obama against an imminent attack.

US Sen. Christopher Murphy (D) of Connecticut insisted that the kind of missile strikes being talked about would deliver only a “slap on the wrist” to Assad while probably prolonging and amplifying the violence in Syria. In a statement Tuesday, he said the Obama administration should remain focused on keeping up “concerted diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the [Syrian] regime through the international community.”

Stating that military action “will likely draw us into a much wider and much longer-term conflict,” Senator Murphy said the administration should “continue to exercise restraint” in this conflict – especially since it poses no “imminent threat to America’s national security.”

That last position runs counter to Obama’s. The White House said Tuesday that, if left unpunished, the large-scale chemical weapons attacks in Syria last week would pose grave risks to US national-security interests.

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