With President Obama's decision to seek Congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria, he has temporarily avoided what seemed like a certain U.S. intervention into the ongoing civil war in the wake of the alleged, large-scale utilization of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. This has set the stage for an extended debate over what the United States should (or should not) do in Syria and also spurred a larger discussion about executive war powers and the proper role of Congress. One thing that has seemingly been overlooked is that it has also provided time for the Assad regime and its allies to reevaluate the conflict and leaves open the possibility that a negotiated cease-fire and perhaps a subsequent, more comprehensive settlement to the conflict could emerge.
In the highly visible public debate in the United States, opposition to military action seems to break into two camps. The first fears that any American attack will not be "limited" in the way that President Obama has articulated. Attacks that could unintentionally lead to further creeping U.S. involvement, or perhaps a failed state in Syria or some combination of those two grim scenarios, are simply too risky.
The second strand of opposition consists of those who argue that a limited military campaign won't have any desired impact on the conflict and is unlikely to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. Given the horrific violence witnessed in Syria, the use of chemical weapons are just another shameful atrocity and limited attacks are unlikely to have any tangible effects that support U.S. national interests. Thus, it is preferable to remain out of the conflict even if no resolution is in sight.
Meanwhile, hawkish leaders like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, clearly desire a more comprehensive U.S. military campaign that significantly degrades the regime's ability to make war on its own people, and thus shifts the balance in the favor of Syrian rebel forces that can seize the initiative and force Assad from power.
With Congressional hearings and testimony by key administration officials, all of this is playing out across network and cable news channels (as well as the Internet and social media) in the United States and around the globe. And while American public opinion remains largely skeptical of even a limited intervention, the elite debate among members of Congress and the administration and various defense and military experts are available for anyone to see. This visibility raises the stakes for President Obama at home, but could prove valuable in the international realm.
What many observers seem to overlook is that the formal authorization to use military force, even with Congressionally mandated limitations, is still a powerful signal that confronts Damascus with the prospects of significant material losses, and its allies with the potential for a decisive negative development in the ongoing conflict. Even a U.S. military campaign limited in duration or scope can do enormous damage to the Assad regime and the Syrian military, and the same potential for mission creep that sparks concern in the United States should raise fears in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow.
This is obviously a delicate and potentially risky political gambit by President Obama. He is hoping that a coalition of more hawkish Republicans who have been critical of his policies and members of his own party, who are generally skeptical of the use of force but may support limited action against a brutal and defiant regime, can provide him with the authorization to execute a military campaign. Failure would be a damaging political blow, both at home and abroad. However, success may provide the president with leverage to push Assad's allies to return to the negotiating table or face real consequences.
Some have argued that the president's decision to seek Congressional approval has weakened his office and undermined U.S. standing in the world. But with an ambivalent public and a bitterly polarized Congress, there has been very little for him to work with. If he succeeds in forging a domestic political coalition for military action in Syria he may significantly strengthen America's hand in addressing the crisis. Allies who have grown frustrated with a divided and feckless United States are likely to be reenergized, and adversaries like Russia and Iran will have to reconsider how much longer their unquestioning support for Assad will serve their interests if the tide of the conflict does indeed turn.
The use of military force should be a last resort and the subject of vigorous, informed debate. If indeed the United States Congress authorizes President Obama to undertake a limited military campaign against the Assad regime then it may be an important turning point in the Syrian civil war that may actually increase the possibility of achieving a negotiated settlement.