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Arab Reticence on Syria Strike Gives Pause

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The Arab League's refusal to support an American military attack against Syria in reprisal for the deadly chemical weapons attack last week east of Damascus is a flashing yellow light for the Obama administration: "Slow down!"

It is a reminder that even the most nobly intended military action can prove counterproductive in this volatile region. Unless it is embedded in a strategy to bring the Syrian adversaries to a compromise political deal to end the war, a U.S. air strike is a risky gamble that could well exacerbate and enlarge it, all for the modest gain of saving the president's face.

When even Jordan's monarchy, the most reliable U.S. ally in the region and no friend of Bashar al-Assad, vows not to serve as "a launching pad for any military action against Syria," it signals to America's famously cool-headed president that a Washington easily enthused by visions of the healing power of military force needs a global reality check.

A reality check is not the same as checking a box, which Britain's premature presentation today to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council of a resolution to authorize military action against Syria is plainly intended to do: We tried the Security Council route, the Russians and Chinese blocked it, so we're free to bypass it and do what we wanted to do anyway.

Most puzzling is the British insistence on advancing such a resolution while the U.N. weapons inspectors are still carrying out their investigation on the ground in Syria, and before they have submitted their report. It is hauntingly reminiscent of Anglo-American urgency in demanding action on Iraq ten years ago, before U.N. inspectors on the ground there could present their findings. Why wait for the report of the U.N. weapons inspectors on the ground? Indeed, why should they bother to conduct their inspections at all? They just might confuse us with the facts.

President Obama has successfully faced down pressures from Washington's clamorous interventionist lobby for two years, much to the relief of the American public. But he clearly feels cornered by his own unilateral "red line" on the use of chemical weapons, and the taunt inside the Beltway that he either put up or shut up.

Secretary of State John Kerry has rightly pointed to the taboo on use of chemical weapons as a universally accepted global "norm." Assuming that the U.N. weapons inspectors document the breach of that legal norm by the Syrian government -- the world has learned not to rely just on secretive and sometimes fallible Western intelligence -- the international community has the opportunity to provide guidance on how to respond.

If a majority of the Security Council agrees forcefully to uphold the norm, but is thwarted by a recalcitrant permanent member's veto, the General Assembly can provide the necessary endorsement of limited deterrent action. But if neither body is on board, Americans may well wonder why their expensive military is being riskily deployed to uphold unilaterally a supposedly universal norm in a highly combustible region.

Interventionist circles cite another norm of rather newer vintage, the "responsibility to protect," to justify foreign military action to combat crimes against humanity. But that principle was even more restrictively focused, with states to "take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council."

"Collective" action in the Muslim world by a handful of Western powers on their own say-so does not quite meet that test. It is hardly churlish to note that the European allies most vocal in support a military strike, Britain and France, are remembered in the region for their cynical scheming a century ago to appropriate the Ottomans' Arab domains for their own colonial empires. President Obama needs to have a broader international coalition behind military reprisals than the Sykes-Picot powers.

Others, including Joshua Foust, have dissected the irrelevance of the much-bruited Kosovo analogy (and it is worth recalling that one consequence of NATO's air war against Serbia was Boris Yeltsin's turn to Vladimir Putin to succeed him). But at least the 78-day Kosovo war was the joint undertaking of a regional organization proximate to the state in crisis.

It is possible that the U.N. process might lead to a different outcome than a military strike. A compelling report by the U.N. weapons inspectors might lead to Security Council agreement, at last, on a referral to the International Criminal Court of the crimes against humanity being committed in the Syrian war, or at least to those crimes related to chemical weapons use. That would be a not inconsiderable accomplishment, one that would probably more effectively restrain the Syrian security establishment from further chemical weapons use than a punitive air strike.

Perhaps an air strike would lead grateful Syrian rebels to become more tractable in joining the Geneva negotiating conference that the United States, Russia, and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi have been struggling to launch. If the Obama administration is prepared to go it alone on a retaliatory strike against Syrian military installations, at the very least it should extract from the Syrian insurgent coalition a commitment to take part in the conference and to be prepared there to compromise with the Damascus authorities on Syria's political transition. Delivering them to the peace table would be Obama's best firewall against the risk that an American attack escalates unpredictably into a wider war.