Syria: The Battle for Hearts and Minds

09/11/2013 02:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013

Barack Obama has asked Congress to delay authorizing a military strike against Syria as the U.S. and its allies follow Russia's diplomatic lead to seek a UN resolution calling on Damascus to give up its chemical stockpile.

In Tuesday's televised address to the nation, the U.S. president said that the new initiative proposed by Moscow has the "potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force."

Obama's change of tack came one day after Moscow initiated a series of fast-moving diplomatic moves in an effort to diffuse the deeply unpopular American plan to bomb the Syrian regime after it allegedly used chemical weapons against its own people last month.

The unexpected twist came one day before the U.S. Senate was prepared to vote on whether to strike the government of Bashar al-Assad after it reportedly killed over 1,400 people in a gas attack in east Damascus on Aug. 21.

But, perhaps the greatest surprise came from Syria itself whichagreed to end the production of all chemical weapons. It also said that it was willing to work with the UN in order to remove them from the country.

Nevertheless, Obama kept the option to strike Syria on the table in the event that Assad fails to fulfill his side of the bargain. The president insisted that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated, and unless America takes action, other "dictators" will be encouraged to follow suit.

When asked if a U.S. strike would be a "pinprick", Obama said that "the United States military doesn't do pinpricks."

The address came one day after Assad denied using chemical weapons against his own people in an interview with Charlie Rose, pitting him in a head-to-head battle with the president to win over the hearts and minds of the American people.

Based on American intelligence, Washington has "high confidence" that it was the Syrian government who ordered the attack. But, it can not verify who gave the order, nor whether it came from a rogue element of the regime.

According to Syria's longtime ally Russian president Vladamir Putin, it was the rebels who staged the attack in order to lure the U.S. into military intervention after Obama's repeated warnings against the use of chemical warfare.

He says that the opposition wanted to tip the battlefield in their favor after fighting on the losing side of a two-year civil war which has claimed over 100,000 lives.

Moreover, according to the Russian president, "the principal combative unit" of the opposition "is the so called Jebhat a Nusra, which is an al-Qaeda unit."

The head of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon has urged the international community to get proof before taking any military action. The global body is still awaiting results from its recent inspection of the site which may come out early next week.

In spite of America's continued threat of strikes against Syria, most world leaders, including the
Arab League are opposed to such plans without the UN's blessing.

Ten years after false intelligence lead both the U.S. and the UK to wage war against Iraq's Saddam Hussein for his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, many world leaders are reluctant to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern quagmire.

In spite of Britain's 2002 sexed-up claim that Iraq could launch a missile attack against UK targets within 45 minutes, UN inspectors later discovered that Hussein had no such weapons. Today, the country is still embroiled in an endless civil war which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Clearly, every effort must be made to establish who was actually behind the attack.

Secondly, both Moscow and the UN Security Council must ensure that the Syrian regime hands over all of its chemical arsenal. Thirdly, the Obama administration needs to carefully consider what short- and long-term consequences a Syrian missile strike will have in the event that Assad backtracks on his pledge.

The conflict in Syria is not only complex, it is steeped in centuries of violence, fueled by sectarian and regional divisions which can not be solved by a couple of tomahawk missiles.

According to General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, "The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance. But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict."

Moreover, what if such strikes only add more fuel to a very hot fire. "It could be very destabilizing for the region firing these cruise missiles," says U.S. Congressman Robert Pittenger, who chairs the congressional task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare.

And, what if the strikes don't work? What happens next? As British politician Dan Byles, a former Army officer points out: "Are we prepared to escalate? Are we then talking about boots on the ground after all? What escalation are we prepared to see? What will Russia do? What will Iran do? We will have the tiger by the tail, and will no longer be able to pretend that we are in control of events."

Moreover, what happens if Assad loses, and victory is handed over to a opposition infiltrated by al-Qaeda elements?

According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, American involvement "would simply mobilize the most extreme elements against the US and pose the danger that the conflict would spill over into the neighborhood and set Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon on fire."

"If there is one thing the west has learned, it is that prolonged and sustained conflicts that attract international jihadis have long-lasting consequences. The emergence of new ungoverned spaces has given such groups the space to train, mobilize and act," says John Bew, reader in history and foreign policy at King's College London.

Clearly, a diplomatic solution is required to help resolve the situation in Syria.

As the head of China, Xi Jinping told Obama last week: "A political solution is the only right way out for the Syrian crisis; a military strike cannot solve the problem from the root."

As was first proposed by Moscow, Russia and the West should end arms shipments to both sides of the conflict. And, then, and only then can negotiations begin. As David Speedie from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs points out:

"The stumbling block has been the refusal of some rebel representatives to participate. The West should use its powers of persuasion on the responsible opposition, thus marginalizing the extremists whose influence in a future Syria is rightly feared. Otherwise, this path to a peaceful outcome will remain on the table obscured by the current dangerous drumbeat to war."