Co-authored by Dr. Michael Bluman Schroeder
While Congress and its constituents debate whether President Obama could use military strikes to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, it is heartening to see that military strikes are not the only proposal being considered by the international community. A new Russian-American-French proposal puts front and center the inescapable reality that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile must be secured and destroyed. It is a proposal whose support crosses party lines in the United States. The proposal was not just the product of an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry. Others including former Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) proposed it to the Russian Foreign Minister over a year ago according to The New York Times.
For this proposal to succeed, the United States will have to play a leading diplomatic role, in addition to any operational one. The president and his foreign policy team should continue to make clear that this task is the responsibility of the international community, and use Secretary Kerry's comment to preemptively build a broad-based coalition of, among others, middle and emerging powers to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal. A diverse multilateral coalition sends a collective signal that nations take seriously their common responsibility to make the world free of chemical weapons use. Securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles will not be easy, risk-free or cheap -- especially if the violence has not completely dissipated. Yet, it is the very willingness of countries to collectively take costly action that sends the signal that this is a moral issue that is important enough to generate unified action.
To this end, we were concerned when Secretary Kerry testified to the Senate Foreign relations committee that if Syria "imploded" U.S. troops "could be needed to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorist groups." In doing so, Secretary Kerry risked once again signaling that the U.S. will potentially alone be providing security for UN and other chemical weapons experts.
In a recent post, we said that the president's red line was not inherently a blunder, but the president missed an opportunity to use the comment to give other world leaders a direct stake in Syria. It would have been easier, we wrote, to get other leaders to contribute to robust international action if the president had asked these leaders at the time to reaffirm their own commitment to the prohibition on chemical weapons use.
Hindsight is always easier and we struggled to pinpoint how this missed opportunity could strengthen international cooperation today. In the end, we concluded there was a "need to create the conditions for coalition building before red lines have been crossed," and suggested:
"Congress should join the president in reminding reluctant leaders that this is not about accepting an American response; it is about contributing to an international one. For their part, other world leaders should insist the U.S. stay engaged and insist that the president and Congress not set take-it-or leave it terms, terms that deter cooperation and make the debate about whether the U.S. is acting unrestrained."
Recent events lead us to believe that our conclusions are more relevant than we initially assumed. The president now has the opportunity to demonstrate foresight because Secretary Kerry's testimony offered a fresh opportunity to get allies, emerging powers and regional partners to take a direct stake and commit to assisting with the complex task of neutralizing Syria's stockpile.
As a first step, the U.S. has backed French efforts to draft a robust UN Security Council Resolution calling for a timely, verifiable and accountable process for locating, securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Secretary Kerry is now in Geneva working with allies to pressure Russia to keep negotiations moving forward.
That is a good start. But safe-guarding and then destroying these stockpiles will require civilian and military expertise and capabilities to which nations beyond the permanent five members of the Security Council should contribute. The president who quoted Ronald Reagan's slogan, "Trust but verify", should seek explicit affirmation from other world leaders that these tasks need to be accomplished and get a commitment to their concrete contribution.
For example, the president should ask allies that already insist on some international response such as Canada and Australia how they might assist in ridding Syria of chemical weapons. He should also urge emerging powers like South Africa and Brazil to volunteer their assistance to a UN-led operation. These commitments will not only make it easier to hold others accountable but also make it easier to plan and coordinate a mission if the Security Council authorizes one.
Co-author Dr. Michael Bluman Schroeder is Professorial Lecturer at American University's School of International Service where he teaches courses on international cooperation and the United Nations.