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In Syria, Costs of Escalation Remain High

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This column was written in my personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Iranian American Council.

It appears highly likely that Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. The president is now considering a range of possible retaliatory steps. The one that appears to have gained the most traction is a series of punitive airstrikes in an attempt to reinforce the norm against the use of chemical weapons.

While there is a strong case to be made for action, the risks of military intervention remain extraordinarily high.

First, strikes could not guarantee that Assad refrains from using chemical weapons, and might in fact encourage him to escalate. If attacks target chemical weapons sites scattered throughout the country, Assad could face a use 'em or lose 'em scenario. Further, if the regime feels threatened by strikes, or if air strikes tip the balance in favor of the rebels, what would stop the Assad regime from further escalating the use of chemical weapons, particularly when they have reason to believe that the U.S. is half-hearted in its intervention? Given the difficulty in sending and interpreting messages in international affairs, it is far from certain that Assad would receive a message via airstrike and respond predictably.

Second, airstrikes would not stop the killing on the ground. If intervention successfully convinces Assad to halt the use of chemical weapons, the regime will continue to kill civilians indiscriminately while using conventional weapons. While chemical weapons are horrific and their ban benefits all nations, any humanitarian benefit would be limited by the continued slaughter of Syrians.

Third, once you've helped to break a country, there will be pressure to put it together again. This is a major reason why Obama has been hesitant to intervene. If the situation further deteriorates, there is a risk of being forced to put boots on the ground -- either to secure suspected chemical weapons stockpiles from extremist groups, to tip the tide in favor of the rebels, or to stabilize a post-revolution government. Given that the rebels are closely allied with radical groups like al-Nusra, the likelihood of Syria stabilizing after a violent overthrow of the regime is very unlikely. However, the likelihood of continuing sectarian war would be all but guaranteed.

Finally, escalation could also torpedo talks with Iran before they even get off the ground, despite recent signs that Iran is ready to make a deal. If we are actively fighting Iran's closest ally, including some of their proxies in Syria, it is going to be very difficult to resolve the nuclear issue and normalize relations. Overthrowing Iran's closest ally would fuel Iranian fears that our interest is regime change, not a nuclear-weapons-free Iran. We can't afford to bungle what could be our last, best chance at diplomacy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. And as horrific as chemical weapons are, nuclear weapons are far worse. Their use in warfare, after all, could threaten life on earth. Action to support the norm against chemical weapons must not weaken the nuclear taboo.

Instead of heading into Syria guns blazing, the Obama administration should use new leverage for action to galvanize multilateral diplomacy to de-escalate the conflict and facilitate a transfer of power. There is reason to believe such an effort could bear fruit. While Russia and Iran have supported the Assad regime through thick and thin, allegedly helping lead to the regime's resurgence over rebel forces, Assad's likely use of chemical weapons may weaken their resolve. Iran, in particular, which has suffered the most of any country in modern history from chemical attacks, should be outraged. Involving the Islamic Republic in talks could satisfy Iran's desire to be a key player in the region, and they may have sufficient leverage to force Assad to step down. Russia, meanwhile, may support a transition if they succeed in stalling Western military intervention and the tide tips in favor of diplomacy. Further, there is still a potential for diplomacy to lead to a ceasefire and political transition that significantly reduces the killing, including through conventional as well as chemical weapons. Military intervention, even if it helped the rebels to overthrow Assad, does not offer that possibility.

In 2002, had Obama not opposed the "dumb" and "rash" war in Iraq, he might not be in the Oval Office today. But opposing intervention is far easier as a state senator than as president. Faced with rising domestic pressure and Syria's apparent violation of his own red lines, the president should think carefully about the potential consequences of military intervention and reinvigorate diplomacy to resolve this crisis.