While there are no signs that American public attitudes towards Syria are changing, things are less definite among politicians and public intellectuals. The months ahead may further deepen the growing uneasiness with the policies of President Barack Obama.
In recent weeks, two prominent public figures, the physicist Stephen Hawking and the Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, have published articles in leading American newspapers condemning the inaction of the world in Syria.
Their compelling articles, while they may not budge Obama, do something else: they help redefine the debate over Syria as a humanitarian imperative, as a matter increasingly meriting global outrage, instead of as a war against terrorism, which Syria’s regime has sought to do. This can pack a wallop if it gathers momentum.
As Hawking wrote, “What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?” He then issued this striking appeal: “As a father and grandfather, I watch the suffering of Syria’s children and must now say: No more.”
Ignatieff, in turn, argued that “[t]he conventional wisdom about Syria is that nothing can be done… The trouble is that the conventional wisdom may be fatalism parading as realism and resignation masquerading as prudence.”
He went on to point out that only direct Western military intervention, through the use of air power, drones, and cyber weapons, could deny the Assad regime air superiority. The aim would not be to advance the agenda of the Syrian rebels, but to “relieve the unrelenting pressure on the civilian population and force Mr. Assad to return to Geneva to negotiate a cease-fire.”
It is interesting that Ignatieff refers back to the Bosnia experience in discussing Syria. That’s because Bosnia’s war presents interesting parallels with Syria’s. When Bill Clinton became president, he, like Obama, vowed to focus on domestic issues, particularly health insurance for all Americans. Clinton’s campaign against George H. W. Bush was built around a catchy slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” against Bush’s well-known partiality to foreign policy issues.
As the war in the former Yugoslavia raged, Clinton avoided involving the United States in any meaningful way. However, in the face of continued Bosnian Serb atrocities, above all the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, the administration was forced to reevaluate its position. The Americans used military force against the Bosnian Serbs and helped the Croatians organize an offensive in the Krajina area of Croatia, which led to the flight of up to 200,000 Serbs. Under such pressures, the Serbs ultimately folded, agreeing to a process that would ultimately lead to the signing of the Dayton peace accord.
To this day, Western involvement in Bosnia, like that in Kosovo in 1999, is regarded as a high point for humanitarian intervention. The public has reacted very differently to both those conflicts than it did to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Perhaps that’s because they ended relatively quickly, or were perceived as more acceptable because the crimes they ended had taken place in the heart of Europe.
But the savagery of the Syrian war has not yet shaken Western public opinion. Instead, the focus has been on the jihadists proliferating in Syria. That is why it has not been easy to convince societies in the West that the removal of President Bashar al-Assad is desirable. Rather than consider the fact that Assad’s actions are what allowed the jihadist phenomenon to thrive, many in the West naively view him as an acceptable alternative to and bulwark against militant Islam.
Assad has perpetrated countless Srebrenicas, and even his regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians has not lessened Western indifference. But as Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has argued, things may change in the coming months. And the reason for this is Assad’s non-implementation of the chemical weapons agreement reached last year, with Russian help.
Under the agreement, the Syrian authorities are obligated to collaborate in the elimination of all their chemical weapons by the first half of this year. Yet the Syrians have already delayed on the accepted timetable, and reports suggest that they are refusing to destroy their chemical facilities. If this continues, the Obama administration may have no alternative but to consider military action once again, which could be doubly necessary in a Congressional election year when Republicans will exploit any sign of hesitation by Obama.
The combination of a human rights imperative and the need to enforce an international agreement on Syrian chemical weapons could push Obama to take more decisive action, regardless of the public mood. Western-Russian divisions over the Ukraine make any confidence in a successful diplomatic track foolish. Russia is unlikely, in a moment of geopolitical vulnerability, to consider easing Assad out of office, even if that was theoretically possible for a time.
Obama would do well to learn something from Bill Clinton. An American president cannot expect the world to wrap itself around his agenda and priorities, and Clinton never did. Instead, he adapted to the often inconvenient world in which he found himself. Such flexibility is the essence of successful politics. As Obama continues to avoid taking the tough decisions on Syria, he will increasingly find himself the target of critics who are more principled than he is.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling