Prevention better than punitive in Syria
August 29th, 2013
05:11 PM ET

Prevention better than punitive in Syria

By Michael Shank and Rep. Raul Grijalva, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Shank is director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The views expressed are their own.

The Americans don’t want it. The Germans don’t want it. And the Brits don’t want it. The overwhelming consensus of public opinion in the Western world is that a war with Syria would be a bad idea. This now gives President Barack Obama some flexibility to back away from his red line, save political face, and do what’s necessary to prevent further violence in Syria.

But before spelling out ways we can help bring peace to Syria, it’s worth first identifying some problematic trends in America’s tack towards war. This is not unique to President Obama and was visible in past presidents’ penchant for war. There is a precedent here.

First, the idea that America can be “precise” and “limited” and “strategic” while attacking another country is completely misplaced. It inevitably leads to further or escalated violence.  It always has.  We wanted to be brief, precise and strategic in Iraq by bombing Baghdad, thinking “shock and awe” would intimidate the country and its recalcitrant leader into submission. This is not dissimilar to how we are now thinking that a “punitive” strike on Syria would send a stern message that President Bashar al-Assad, one to which he would be responsive.

Never mind the fact that al-Assad has made it clear that he’s not operating from a rational place, and would never respond rationally to punitive measures – there is no way that a strike on Damascus would last only three days, as the Pentagon has predicted. The responsibility for the ensuing chaos – from scores of civilians dead to increased likelihood of chemical weapons use – would fall on the United States.  We would be embroiled in an unraveling that would beckon more missiles, more troops, and more air and sea support. Observe every major U.S. intervention over the last 15 years. This is exactly what happened, despite the rhetoric of precise, limited, strategic and brief action.

More from GPS: All or nothing Syria

Second, the idea in Washington that an attack, strike, or punitive action, is not an “invasion”, is an absolute fallacy. This is a relatively new definition promulgated by Washington’s defense community, and the think tanks that support it.  It’s a convenient semantic reframing so that America is not perceived as the “evil Western invader” – or part of some, to quote President Bush, “crusade” – but rather seen as a short-lived intervener, a savior who will exercise discretion while quickly getting in and getting out.

The problem with this attempt at a reframe is that the rest of the world – especially those being bombed by America – doesn’t consider it anything less than an invasion, whether by air, sea or land. Boots on the ground is not the only kind of invasion. There are air invasions, with air raids (see Iraq) or drone strikes (see Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia).  There are sea invasions, with Tomahawk missiles launched from ship (see Libya and the same plan for Syria).  And there are ground invasions, with massive troops on the ground (see Afghanistan).

Third, the idea that we must act in haste, and bomb quickly without Congressional approval or authorization, is a dangerous undermining of the checks and balances instituted by our founding fathers. Most presidents, when planning for war, impress upon the American people the urgency of now, of invading immediately, because we don’t have time for Congressional oversight. Syria is an excellent example of this. With some 100,000 dead over nearly a two year time span we’ve had plenty of time for talk between the executive and legislative branches.  The estimated 355 dead from the alleged chemical weapons attack, while absolutely deplorable, shouldn’t have created a new urgency that wasn’t already there.  We should have been talking about preventing mass atrocities years ago, not after the house of Syria was nearly burnt down.

More from CNN: Has Obama made case?

So what to do now? Invasion is the wrong course because it merely inflames the violence further, both within Syria and without. We must exhaust the following paths first before seeking a military course of action.  Convene all the stakeholders who have a say with Syria’s al-Assad and who can put pressure on the president. That means more than just Russia, our go-to on the Geneva II peace talks. That means everyone from Iran, Lebanon, and Hezbollah, to the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. These are the entities that have entry into the Syrian president’s inner circle. If we truly want al-Assad to act differently, we have to talk to those who have sway.

Then, if the diplomatic track fails to work, and after it has solidly been exhausted, we must engage the U.N. Security Council in a conversation about the International Criminal Court and an indictment of Assad for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.  This path is consistent with America’s support of international law and the ethical frameworks undergirding the Geneva Conventions.

Throughout this process, we must continue work with the United Nations to not only ensure weapons inspections are executed properly over the coming weeks, and weapons flows and arms trafficking are stopped or slowed, but that we ramp up humanitarian aid for the millions of refugees inside Syria and in neighboring countries. This is essential if we care about saving Syrians.

This is the path we must pursue and the only way forward. It is time for something preventive before we press play on the punitive.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria

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soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. curt

    I like the prevention concept, but prevention is applied BEFORE something such as a chemical attack. Because this already happened, it isn't applicable. Punishment is possibly the wrong description of an attack anyhow, as punishment is intended to allow a party to repay and learn. An attack now does not serve to punish, it serves to weaken the will to continue chemical or similar attacks.

    August 29, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • queenxena

      I am not advocating war or not war. All I am doing is commenting on the reporter's stance.
      1. By constantly redrawing the red line, Obama, or anyone, is telling Assad that there will be no consequences, period.
      2. Assad might be irrational, as the reporter suggests, but he is not stupid. As long as you let him get away with doing what he is doing, he will continue to do it...see, Neville Chamberlin and "peace in our time".
      3. The reporter contradicts himself constantly. He also seems to want to fit history into his little stance.

      August 30, 2013 at 11:48 am | Reply
      • dwight

        The whole Syria issue is unclear. Who do we help and who do we hurt and will it actually help the situation in the long run. Both sides have fundamental extremist Islamist groups behind them and while the rebels might not have used biological weapons they are still dangerous. Obama is led not by conviction, but by what side of history he wants to be remembered on, so talks big and acts little. At least Bush said and did what he said he was going to do. And why intervene now that biological weapons have been used...what does biological weapons do that guns don't do.

        August 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
      • bobsmith

        Firing a couple of cruise missiles won't do anything. the Al Queada backed rebels have been sheeling those areas for the last year. What is a few more bombs going to do? You have ruled out attacking the chemical weapons themselves. So cruise missiles are at best just a weak response as doing nothing. The only thing to do is to move in and take over then you get to fight a war on 4-6 fronts from 8-10 different orginzations.

        The best thing to do is nothing. Sunni and Shia Muslims are heading for an all out religous civil war. Stay out of it and let them clean up their own mess.

        Then again I don't even mind Iran having Nuclear weapons. AS the first target won't be isreal who can retaliate but other Islamic countries who don't share Iran's beliefs.

        August 30, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The author is living in an ivory tower! It's easy for him to state analogies without really knowing the reality on the ground!

        August 31, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      @Curt, you like prevention concept! What more can the world prevent Assad from doing? If he gets away with impunity, it won't change his behaviour. He is the one, who prevents things from happening, like the collapse of his thuggish regime and letting the rebels regain momentum in their battle etc. He doesn't prevent the people from dying.

      August 31, 2013 at 6:49 am | Reply
  2. Ben

    Are you sure that "Shock and Awe" was a complete failure in Iraq? I seem to remember the organized Iraqi army falling apart rather quickly and U.S. troops racing quickly to Baghdad to find Saddam fleeing. I agree it's too late to act in Syria, we can now only watch what likely would have happened had there been no international intervention in Libya. Indicting Assad for war crimes is another toothless gesture, do you expect him to give himself up? Now is the time to start preventative diplomacy? Has there been no diplomacy before now?

    August 29, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      Just who are you to decide who's a war criminal and who isn't, Ben? Barack Obama has far more blood on his hands than Bashar al-Assad ever did and yet you didn't say a word here about indicting him. Yes, Obama will retire in 2017 and go back to Chicago and live like a king for the rest of his life in spite of all the murders he committed with those godless drones of his over the years. This clown obviously has no conscience!!!

      August 30, 2013 at 11:07 am | Reply
      • queenxena

        What blood does Obama have on his hands? You might be correct, but be specific. Also, does Obama have more blood on his hands per population than Assad? What percentage of people in the world has Obama bloodied versus what percentage of Syrians has Assad bloodied? Hmmm...

        August 30, 2013 at 11:50 am |
      • George patton

        Just look at the people he murdered by using those ungodly drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, queenxena!!! If you say that this butcher Obama has less blood on his hands than Bashar al-Assad does, you are sadly mistaken! At least 70% of those who were killed by our drones have been civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and certainly didn't deserve to be slaughtered like pigs in a pen!!!

        September 2, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
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    August 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply

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    August 29, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Reply
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    ROBO OF INFORMATION OF VENEZOLANOS.

    THE DEMNADA SE LES PERFORMS A:

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    August 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply

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    August 29, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Reply
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    August 29, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  7. Gabriele

    No doubt about that: prevention is wiser than punitive action. But the wright question is, what do we need? We need New World Order. Let's get the facts: 1. weapons and military equipment in Syria were imported from Asis (i.e. S.Korea, ...) and not from NATO, USA or EU. 2. the terrorists and military camps in the Middle East are being financed by Asia, in the secret war against the Western World. 3 We need new view on Asia, and stop importing from China and S.Korea.

    August 30, 2013 at 2:42 am | Reply
    • George patton

      Wrong Gabriele, we don't need a new world order. What we do need is the old world order like the one we had prior to 1914 when no superpower dominated the world scene. Today, the right-wing thugs in Washington seem to have gone mad over their insane lust for power with no concern for anyone who gets in their way!!! Do you honestly believe we need this kind of insanity, Gabriele? I don't!!!

      August 30, 2013 at 4:33 am | Reply
      • Josh

        The ultra right wing thugs are Muslims, who want to kill all minorities and establish their Islamic Caliphate. Sorry but America, NATO, Israel etc. are very effective in warding off that Islamic evil. No, we do not want to go back in time to the days of pedophile Mohammed. We need to move forward.

        August 31, 2013 at 7:30 am |
  8. Mario

    The right-wing in America is not that bad, but Washington DC is problematic, but not because from Americans, but because Washington DC imported the worlds most dangerous 'Korean military officers' that produce much problems also in Europe. Nevertheless we in Europe, ITALY, FRANCE, GREAT BRITAIN, GREECE, TURKEY, ... are strong enough to defend against Asian Koreans anti-western conspirators, but not with war, but preventive defense.

    August 30, 2013 at 8:12 am | Reply
  9. sgraffwriter

    Mr.Zakaria: I usually agree with you, but this time I think you're operating from a think-tank mentality. Exhausting all options, even exhausting one option (meeting with stakeholders) is useless at this point. Many of those you mention don't even have diplomatic relations with the US. Iran and the US barely recognize one another and can't even agree to meet directly to discuss the most urgent national security threat to that region. Hezbollah agreeing to meet? That's pie in the sky. Obama can present the case for pursuing a war crimes conviction against Assad. And going alone against Syria militarily will weaken our ability to make that case, unless our strike is more decisive and more costly to Assad than what is now envisioned. Admittedly, there are no simple paths for a president here. McCain and Graham are the lone voices in the wilderness for pulling out all the stops: military action, funding and training non-islamist rebels. But it's obvious now that something must be done even if Obama's military option is taken off the table.

    August 30, 2013 at 8:28 am | Reply
  10. Marissa

    Why are those who still support the Assad regime lost in the shuffle of all this talk of "limited strikes" and "punishment" of the chemical weapons attack. What's going on in Syria is ugly, but this is between the Syrians. Why does the United States feel the need to attack a country, weaken a regime, and make it a MORE dangerous and unstable place for the innocent civilians already living in fear. There ARE those who believe Bashar Al-Assad is the right leader for Syria, why is it the job of the United States to decide he is not? No good can come of these strikes. And "non-Islamic rebels?" is that Mccain's idea of a joke? A weakened Syrian army means more killing of civilians. period. The "opposition" has not stood up and offered a "whats next" for a post-Assad Syria, so we can assume that what's next is a state of chaos, and extremist Islamic militants running a muck. And lets not think of the oppostion as little bunnies that "need" our help; they have our help! Where are they getting the monetary funds and weapons to fight with every day...let's think this through. It is not our place to get into this conflict, and in 2008 when I voted for President Obama I believed he had a different vision for American foreign poliitcis..I can only hope he isn't about to prove me a fool.

    August 30, 2013 at 9:09 am | Reply
  11. rightospeak

    A very good article.
    All this Syria PROPAGANDA reminds me of Finland in 1940. The propaganda in the Soviet Union justified attack on Finland because the Soviets wanted to protect Leningrad ( really ). The Fins lost many people, lost land which was never returned. Now I see the 'Greatest Power On Earth" , the US, use the Soviet style propaganda. It sounds just like the Iraq hysterics . No mention of how Iraq was given gas by us to use against Iran by our patsy Saddam-that sure was a crime .
    No justice in this world as the Finish people have found out- Russia still keeps the land taken in 1940 by force. The world BULLY always wins.

    August 30, 2013 at 9:34 am | Reply
    • George patton

      Well said, rightospeak.

      August 30, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
  12. Josh

    President Obama should understand that there is no support to punish Assad – no support in the USA, no support in the UN, and no support from the international community. Instead, Prez. Obama should help Assad to get rid of those wretched Al Qaeda backed rebels.

    August 30, 2013 at 10:10 am | Reply
  13. Marlene

    I dont want us to get involved in someone else's war. Our young men and women have sacrificed enough already.

    August 30, 2013 at 11:54 am | Reply
  14. sand

    if USA attacks then Iran Syria and Hezbollah will launch everything they have at Israel and reducing that place and the Jews to ashes.

    August 30, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  15. Metlman

    I know no one will care about what I have to say, but at least it isn't a completely stupid and mindless opinion, like what I've seen on alot of these discussions.

    The only real time there could have been a peaceful resolution to this was when this mess began, before Assad started murdering protesters and shelling towns. In that time, everyone was onboard with the rebels, and wondering why the US refused to act. Obama set a specific red line, if chemical weapons are used, the US will intervene.

    However, the Syrian opposition has been bolstered with people who are without a doubt opposed to Assad, but are very extreme in their views, to the point of executing people not following their codes. This has made people very unsupportive of the rebels, because many of them are part of Al-Nusra and several other organizations.

    The kinds of solutions I've seen coming out of people are just unrealistic. Neither side, after all this bloodshed and violence, is simply going to throw their guns down and work out a solution. Assad has made it clear he will stay in power until the day he dies, and has made it clear through countless massacres of his own citizens. The rebels have made it clear they will fight him to the death until he is removed. It's irrational to support Assad, because he's the guy who started this mess in the first place. It's somewhat rational to support the rebels, but only certain groups.

    I also love the amount of isolationism coming out of people. "Bring our boys home, leave them to kill each other." Right, because that worked so well during the two world wars, didn't it?

    August 30, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  16. Bill Samuel

    I largely agree with this analysis, but the authors did make a mistake although they know better. They referred to "Washington’s defense community" when they know those they are talking about are not about defense at all but an aggressive imperial posture.

    Words are important. We live in an Orwellian world where the deliberate use of misleading words for propaganda purposes is common. We have a Department of "Defense" which is not about defense at all but about waging war, and they are always wars of aggression. Spending for mass murder is euphemistically called "defense spending" when it certainly isn't defending us but destroying others and bankrupting us so we rank behind all other industrialized countries and often some not so industrialized countries in almost all indicators of social and economic well being despite being one of the richest nations on earth.

    We need to stop using the misleading terms promoted by those who want to hide the truth.

    August 30, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  17. Phelix Unger

    America is not responsible for the damage Assad is inflicting on his people, Russia and China are bigger culprits here. As for the UN it is a body with no real legitimacy, waiting for them cost how many lives in Rwanda. What is going on with Britian is that they feel like fools for following Bush into Iraq. What the Brit's could have said though is they will support the American government and people, without going into war. America isn't meant to be the policemen of the world, although nobody else seems to want to help the civilian population who has been affected, so I can see the want to help and I applaud it. Its just that there is no easy way to help, so it becomes more of helping the Free Syrian Army with logistical support, getting them better cohesiveness and the ability to fight their war from two fronts, one against Assad and the other against Al Queda. Bring all the skills America has aquired during the last 300 years and transferring that knowledge to the Free Syrian Army. As for the writers of the articile, these guys must live life looking through rose colored glasses. None of what they say will take place, they have no time frame, and even though we all prefer peace, these ninnies act like their wearing skirts. I hope America doesn't attack, not for the reasons of the authors, but because if the world isn't going to pick up the price for the dirty work then nobody can expect the American taxpayer to pay for it.

    Lastly give everything that you can to these people who play these combat games, from Splinter Cell to Modern Warfare and let them run the scenarios. Of how to get in take Assad out and get out. It would probably take about a week or two before options could be presented to nullify Assad.

    September 2, 2013 at 4:03 am | Reply
  18. Maggie

    NO for military intervention in Syria. Except if you would like to join criminal Jihadests to destroy our beautiful country.
    I am a civilian and we have been attacked by Al-Qaadeh members, Al Nosra members and Muslim brotherhood members.. They ruined the country. Please do not support them.

    September 3, 2013 at 4:42 am | Reply
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  20. In Home Personal Training

    Remember you can only turn a blind eye for so long. Eventually it will turn up on your door step. These world leaders didn't want to be over aggressive with Syria. Hope it's the right choice, they have a lot of chemical weapons.

    April 14, 2014 at 9:56 pm | Reply

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