06/15/2013 08:18 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2013

Intervention in Syria: Three Key Questions

This piece draws on remarks delivered before the American Society of International Law Symposium on Support for the Syrian Insurgency, Washington, D.C. on May 29th, 2013.

Difficult decision-making -- whether personal or in dealing with thorny foreign policy dilemmas -- nearly always benefits by addressing three essential questions:

Is the contemplated venture deeply desired? In foreign policy terms, this translates into whether there's a strong national will, or "stomach" for undertaking engagements abroad. If not, the venture is usually doomed to failure. Vietnam is only one such example.

Assuming the existence of national will, will the proposed venture further US national security interests -- i.e., lessen the threat of terrorism and advance regional and global peace?

Should political "stomach" and national needs coalesce, will the benefits of action outweigh the costs? Often, this is the most neglected aspect of foreign policy decision-making and can prove the nadir of good intentions.

Analyzing options in Syria through this threefold prism leads to the following conclusions:

National Will

As a nation we don't want to intervene in Syria. Beyond humanitarian assistance to refugees in and outside the country and minimal lethal aid to identified "moderate" rebel groups -- approved by President Obama this week -- the American public is too tired, shell-shocked, and de-sensitized to by the disheartening experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to militarily intervene for Syria's civilian victims (now numbering close to 100,000) and certainly not for substantial aid to rebel forces. It is increasingly aware of America's limitations in disabling long simmering ethnic and tribal strife which erupt wildly into daily atrocities. Reports of massive suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan now appear in the back pages of newspapers. Not surprisingly, opinion polls show that a majority of the American people have a strong disinclination to military intervention in Syria. And, not surprisingly, our adversaries know this.

National Security Interests

Assuming a national stomach for robust intervention to protect civilians and provide meaningful aid to the rebels, our national security interests in doing so remain uncertain. True, a defeat of Assad would be a blow to Iran, America's number one nemesis as an exporter of terrorism and regional turmoil. But whether any individual or entity who would replace Assad would be sympathetic to US interests is unclear. And, ominously, hanging over whatever we do in Syria is the prospect of serious impairment of US-Russia relations. This is especially so because meaningful intervention in Syria -- beyond protection of civilians to close the gap in rebel capabilities -- likely requires a no-fly zone resolution similar to the one passed by the UN Security Council (SC/10200) in March, 2011, giving NATO a claim to wide-sweeping authority to militarily intervene in Libya -- ostensibly for the protection of civilians. But Russia and China have blocked any such resolution as a cover for regime change.

Costs of Intervention

Assuming nevertheless that national wants and security interests coincide, the rewards of unilateral intervention would not clearly justify the risks. Surely, U.S.-Russia/China relations are bound to be negatively impacted, undermining future collective security efforts at the UN Security Council.

There is also the cost of appearing dismissive of the generally accepted international law norm that prohibits intervention on behalf of rebels until they have established effective control over substantial portions of territory (whether they have done so at present is questionable).

To be sure, there is the vaunted new UN standard adopted at the 2005 World Summit -- the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, as endorsed by the UN General Assembly. That standard, sprinkled in the early speeches of President Obama, has little resonance these days. What is understood to prevail as the ultimate expression of international law involving resort to force (and the International Court of Justice has said no less) is what the UN Security Council authorizes. We ignore it at our peril.

Here it is pertinent to note that Russia perceives the NATO aerial bombardment campaign in Libya, including the efforts to kill Libya's Kaddafi as he was trying to escape with his life, as beyond the authorizations of relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Consequently, Russia and China have been unwilling to work with the United States at the UN even for mandates enabling pure humanitarian assistance in Syria, citing their previous bad experience in the Libya situation.

True, US military action can be undertaken entirely aside from the UN Security Council. In 1999, the United States evaded unilaterally militarily intervened in Kosovo to avoid facing Russia's expected veto if the matter was brought before the UN Security Council. But that was a different time. The United States could afford to act in disregard of Russia's objections then because its leader, Boris Yeltsin, was weak and Russia had just emerged from its former self as the Soviet Union. Today's Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, are posed to assert a far more aggressive posture and Syria stands equipped with Russia's advanced air defense system.

Recognizing this, albeit belatedly, the Obama Administration has put its bet on a national "dialogue" under US-Russia auspices, but this goal has already proven illusory. If Russia and the United States could find common interests in containing Iranian influence, perhaps joint pressure could be brought to bear on both sides of the Syrian conflict to reach a peaceful outcome. But Russia seems to have little interest in preventing Syria from falling under the hegemony of Iran. Only diplomacy at the highest level can break this logjam and perhaps assure a strategic balance of power in a new Syria, whatever form that may take. That in turn calls for a Obama-Putin summit so they can put their relationship in order and stop the steep decline of the last four years. A downhill spiral in US Russian relations fueled by an inexorable tug to back opposing sides in a civil war makes such a top level meeting an urgent priority.