Let's start with some facts and figures about the Syrian civil war: The country is governed by the authoritarian regime of Bashar al Assad and his minority Alawite Shia community. Protests against this regime started in March 2011; In September 2012, the Red Cross declared the country to be in a civil war. In August, 2012 President Obama made his now famous "red line' warning to Syria that in case chemical weapons would be transported or used in Syria, the U.S. would consider this a critical issue warranting response.
With a population of 21 million, over 100,000 people have been killed in this civil war, 2 million
have fled the country, and over 5 million have been displaced within Syria.
On August 21, 2013 an apparent chemical weapons attack took place near Damascus, triggering a strong response by the U.S. government, that started discussions with its allies about possible military actions against this breach of international law. The U.K., America's most trusted ally, held a parliamentary debate, which surprisingly resulted in a rejection of any British involvement in a military strike against Syria. The British parliament was not convinced by the case presented to it and was probably also exhausted after a decade of unsuccessful military operations in the Middle East, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Libya. France appears to be the only other ally willing to join a military strike. Secretary of State Kerry made an impassioned speech about the need to stop the use of chemical weapons and the danger it would pose to the region and the international legal order. By Friday August 30, U.S. military action seemed inevitable in the following days. In the meanwhile, the U.S. announced that more than 1,400 people were killed in this attack, of which 400 were children.
On that same Friday, in the evening, President Obama suddenly reversed course by announcing he would seek Congressional authorization before going ahead with a military strike.
Conclusion: the U.S. succeeded over the last week to confuse everyone from its own allies in U.S. politics to its enemies. For now, we'll need to wait for the U.S. congressional debate that will not be starting till September 9 before any clarity will appear.
Let's now look at the situation from an international legal perspective: The U.S. seems convinced that the Assad regime is behind this chemical attack, but apparently didn't have that evidence last week, or they didn't share it with the British government, as the British government couldn't convince its own parliament. Furthermore, the U.S. didn't seem to be willing to wait for the findings of the U.N. weapons inspectors, who just returned from Syria. In any case, the U.S. has jumped the gun last week by implying an immediate military strike. What it should have done is following the international rules for the use of force, and it should have started its diplomatic homework by sharing its evidence with its allies, the international community, and the American people.
Even in following such an approach, that would not be sufficient under international law to authorize the U.S. to use force unilaterally. It would need to make the case of self defense (which would be a stretch) or obtain authorization from the Security Council of the United Nations. The argument being used against this latter approach is that Russia or China would veto any resolution in the Security Council authorizing military force against Syria. That may be true, but is not a good enough reason not to pursue this customary diplomatic and legal route. The U.S. is now in the awkward position of invoking international law (i.e. against the use of chemical warfare) while ignoring the usual diplomatic and legal procedures. Much wiser would have been to follow those procedures, convince the world, if not China and Russia, and then use whatever outcome in the Security Council to get international support and build an alliance for military or other actions against Syria.
Conclusion: the U.S. is standing on shaky international legal grounds, and one can wonder why Obama and Kerry, both lawyers, didn't follow this legal route first (see for a more complete legal description the Huffington Post article International Law and the U.S. Military Strikes on Syria by Professor Craig Martin of the Washburn University School of Law)
Let's look at the international political perspective: obviously this is related to the above legal route, which so far seems to be skipped over by the Obama administration. A U.S. led military action seems only to be supported in word and deed by the French, U.S.' oldest ally as Secretary Kerry so interestingly noted. The U.K. is no longer in play. Turkey would support strikes, but would like to see even more military action resulting in regime change. Whether they would participate in a military strike is unclear at the moment. Germany supports intervention, but would not take part - thank you very much -. NATO believes something needs to be done, but has not yet agreed to anything. Last but not least, the Arab League announced that they hold the Syrian regime responsible for the August 21 attack, but a "military option is out of the question." So, if my calculations are correct the U.S. will have a "coalition of the willing" consisting of two countries: France and the U.S. itself. When one compares that with previous war efforts in the Middle East (26 countries in the Iraq war; up to 43 countries in Afghanistan and 19 countries in Libya), then this is not an impressive number to say the least.
Conclusion:without the U.S. going to the U.N., there is hardly any chance of building a 'coalition of the willing" of more than two countries.
Now, the U.S. domestic political perspective: while President Obama has not received any meaningful support from the Republicans over the last years, he is now willing to go to Congress to ask for their authorization (although, "authorization" is also a questionable term, as President Obama explicitly reserved the right to go ahead with his decision for a military strike no matter what Congress decides. This statement in itself will cause further debate and obstruction among at least the anti-Obama Republicans.) In any case, by having this debate at this time and without having a strategic plan, a political can of worms has been opened: with liberal Democrats, such as Congressman Charles Rangel, cautious about military action; with traditional Republicans who will support the President because this is about national security; with Tea Party members, such as Senator Rand Paul, who favor isolationism; with hawkish Republicans, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who might support a military strike but actually want to see a plan for regime change etc. etc. In short, it's possible that President Obama is playing a masterful chess game, but it seems he is adding only more challenges to an already very complex issue.
As a side note, I'm baffled as to how President Obama came to his decision to go to Congress. According to the media, he had an early evening stroll last Friday night with his chief of staff Dennis McDonough, and discussed the option of getting authorization from Congress. He then convened his senior White House staff, including national security adviser Susan Rice, and after an internal discussion at 9 pm Obama telephoned Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel to tell them of his plans. The two most senior officials in foreign policy and military planning only received a telephone call, without being part of this discussion? This seems even more egregious, knowing that Secretary of State Kerry only a day before had been forceful in condemning Syria and calling for immediate response. I find this kind of decision making by Obama alarming - whether it's accurate or not - it gives the impression of very little strategic foresight. As if this conflict in Syria has not been going on for over two years.
Conclusion:clearly almost everyone is tired of another Middle Eastern military engagement, which spans now more than 10 years with dismal results on the ground. In this environment it doesn't seem to be a wise move to go to Congress for its authorization. The lack of following the usual diplomatic route, the lack of international support, the sudden haste of deciding to strike militarily after 100,000 people have died already, the uncertainty about the effectiveness of such a strike, all combined with the differing political calculations by U.S. Congress seems to promise an explosive cocktail. If President Obama doesn't get the "authorization", he has boxed himself in and it will be hard to see him going ahead with a strike in those circumstances. If he does get "authorization", but has not been moving forward internationally, then a military strike could be an empty shell. In the meanwhile, hardly any discussion is being held about what the most effective way would be to deal with Syria's breach of international law, nor Syria's long term future. In short, a mess is being made messier.
My overall take on this situation: the use of chemical weapons is a flagrant breach of international law, and deserves a stern response from the international community. However, that response needs to be delivered after exhausting the regular diplomatic and legal steps. Secondly, that response should be planned carefully and could include other options. For example, forcing Assad to transfer his chemical weapons to the U.N., and threatening him with strikes if he doesn't comply. Lastly, the current U.S. approach seems to be ignoring the risks of getting involved in Syria: if there is nothing more to lose for Assad, he might draw in ultimate support from Hezbollah or Iran, who might want to widen the theatre of war. Unfortunately, we're dealing here with a "doctor" (i.e. the U.S. administration) who performed several "surgeries" over the last 10 years (i.e. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.) In all these cases, we heard that the "surgery" was successful, but that the patient and a number of his relatives died. This doesn't bode well for the next patient's survival.