The Middle East Channel

British Parliament blocks military action on Syria

The British Parliament has voted against military action on Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron brought up the motion to the parliament to authorize, in principle, a military response to the alleged chemical weapons attacks. The move was, however, struck down 285 to 272. Cameron said he strongly believes "in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons" but that he will not override parliament's decision. France said it still backs action on Syria despite the British no vote with President Francois Holland maintaining, "All options are on the table." According to U.S. officials, President Barack Obama is prepared to conduct a limited military strike without British involvement, but is continuing to seek a coalition for possible military action. Pentagon officials reported that the navy has moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia is reportedly also sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean, but has said it will not be pulled into a military conflict. After a briefing with senior U.S. lawmakers on Thursday, administration officials said they had "no doubt" of the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. U.S. officials including U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry said evidence includes "intercepted communications from high-level Syrian officials." U.N. inspectors are continuing their investigation on Friday into the suspected chemical weapons attacks, visiting with Syrian soldiers at a military hospital in a government-held area of Damascus. The team of experts is set to leave Syria on Saturday and will report its findings to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are debating a draft resolution that would authorize "all necessary force" to respond to the alleged chemical attacks, however will likely not come to a decision until hearing the results of the investigation.

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Arguments and Analysis

'Obama, Syria & the Constitution' (David Cole, New York Review of Books Blog)

"It is possible that the military action now being contemplated by the White House might qualify as 'humanitarian intervention,' on the ground that it is designed to forestall further atrocities in Syria. Whether such a response in the absence of UN Security Council approval is permissible under international law is a matter of debate, although most legal scholars would argue that Security Council approval is required. But again, under our Constitution, there is no exception to the requirement of Congressional approval for humanitarian interventions. Any hostile use of military force in another sovereign's territory without its consent is an act of war, and requires Congress's assent.

If President Obama ignores this requirement, he won't be the first. President Clinton ignored it when he gave NATO authorization to use US forces to bomb Kosovo. President Reagan did so when he supported the contras in Nicaragua's civil war, and when he sent troops to Grenada. President Truman did so in Korea, which he called a 'police action,' fooling no one. In fact, the reason Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution was that presidents had too often seized the advantage by unilaterally introducing troops, and only then, if at all, coming to Congress for authorization after the fact, when Congress had no real choice but to support the president."

'Responsibility to Protect -- Or to Punish' (Charli Carpenter, Foreign Affairs)

"There are two distinct conversations going on about the legitimacy of the West's expected military campaign against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The first has to do with whether military action is an appropriate response to the wanton violation of a near-universally held norm -- in this case, the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime allegedly violated last week. The second centers on whether military action is an appropriate means for protecting civilian populations from atrocities (of whatever kind) committed by their governments. These conversations, although often conflated, have very little to do with one another, since each policy goal suggests a very different form of intervention.

Despite diplomatic rhetoric, the goal of upholding the chemical weapons taboo is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians. It has more to do with protecting a set of shared international understandings about the proper conduct of warfare. If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago: bombs and guns have killed far more civilians, at least as horribly, as last week's gas attack.

The Obama administration has already confirmed that its primary concern is with protecting the norm and punishing its violators. Given that goal, the appropriate course of action would be to, first, independently verify who violated it. The United States claims that it has ‘no doubt' that Syria was behind last week's chemical attack, but that remains an open question until the UN inspectors have completed their investigation. Second, the United States would have to consider a range of policy options for affirming, condemning, and lawfully punishing the perpetrator before resorting to force, particularly unlawful force. As Article36.org, a nongovernmental organization notes, these might include condemnation, an arms embargo, sanctions, or any of the other bilateral and multilateral measures that are typically used to respond to violations of weapons norms (and which might be at least as effective than air strikes, if not more so). Third, should the United States decide on military action, with or without a UN Security Council resolution, it would need to adhere to international norms regulating the use of specific weapons in combat."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber 

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The Middle East Channel

Rowhani’s Syria dilemma

Syria is Iran's only real state ally in the Middle East. Without Syria the Islamic Republic would be more isolated and weakened in an increasingly unstable and dangerous region. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's behavior also puts Iranian leaders, especially the newly elected President Hassan Rowhani, in a quandary. Gassing innocent civilians in violation of international norms clearly runs against Rowhani's foreign policy of "reason and moderation." And Rowhani, keen to reduce sanctions against Iran, must demonstrate a softer side to his interlocutors, particularly the United States.

But hardline Iranians, particularly within the Revolutionary Guards, view the world differently. For them Syria is a "frontline" in the war against Israel and the United States. Could Rowhani win them over, or even manage to outmaneuver the most recalcitrant Guards officers? This is a possibility considering Rowhani's sharp political skills and the economic pressures faced by Tehran. But we shouldn't underestimate the capability of U.S. military strikes against Syria to undermine nuclear negotiations, especially if they inflict significant damage on Assad. 

Iranians know the terrible effects of chemical warfare. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Iranian troops during his war with the Islamic Republic and many Iranians continue to suffer the debilitating effects. Rowhani and his advisors will have this in mind when considering Iran's reaction to a possible U.S. strike against Syria. Moreover, Rowhani cannot afford to ignore Assad's use of chemical weapons. This would weaken support from his more moderate and liberal followers, many who view Assad as a ruthless dictator. Rowhani's silence on the issue would also send the wrong signal to the West, and the United States in particular, namely that the Rowhani government, which has promised to be more "transparent" on the nuclear program, implicitly endorses the use of weapons of mass destruction. Thus, it is not surprising that Rowhani's Twitter account has strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons, while being careful not to explicitly tie them to the Assad regime.

But Rowhani's view may be at variance with more hardline figures. The key question is whether they will prevent him from adopting a softer line. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a stalwart supporter of the Assad regime, which he views as the frontline of "resistance" against Israel and the United States. Khamenei, despite his supposed fatwa against nuclear weapons, is less likely to care about Assad's chemical use. He appears to view Syria through a very cold and calculating lens; Tehran must support Assad, as the regional influence and even the existence of the Iranian regime would be in jeopardy without him. Khamenei may also fear a retreat from this steadfast position could endanger Iranian deterrence vis-à-vis the United States in the future. Today Damascus, tomorrow Tehran.

The Revolutionary Guards have an even stronger interest in supporting Assad, and ignoring his use of chemical weapons. Their involvement in Syria is not only defined by state interests, but narrower institutional interests as well. The Guards have very close ties with the Syrian military and intelligence services. Iran's failure in Syria would not only weaken the regime, but could deal a significant blow to Guards interests. Senior Guards leaders such as General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the elite Quds Force, derive significant respect within Iran for keeping the "fight" with the United States away from Iran's borders. Suleimani was responsible for coordinating the Iraqi Shiite insurgency against U.S. forces, which tied down thousands of U.S. troops and resulted in hundreds of U.S. casualties. A failure to go all the way in Syria could dent the image of the Guards.

However, the divisions in Tehran may not be so black and white. Rowhani probably does not oppose the use of chemical weapons out of a sense of religious or moral obligation; he cares more about the interests of the Islamic Republic, than the suffering of the Syrian people. And thus far it appears that the Iranian political establishment, including Khamenei and the Guards, has given him the leeway to negotiate with the United States and its partners.

So even Khamenei and the Guards, under severe economic pressure, could tolerate a bit more flexibility in Iran's steadfast approach toward Syria. Of course, this is predicated on the U.S. military response. Limited military strikes that punish Assad without fundamentally weakening his position could be amenable to Rowhani, Khamenei, and the Guards. But a U.S.-driven campaign perceived as toppling Assad would only make the Supreme Leader and his military officers more nervous. Rowhani needs a contained conflict in Syria in order to maneuver; otherwise his policy of "reason and moderation" could succumb to "resistance without retreat" on the nuclear program. 

Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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