President Barack Obama’s present strategy toward Syria appears to be well thought out and should be acted upon. Air strikes against military installations will impose a serious cost on the armed forces of Bashar al-Assad, and will be incentives to refrain from further use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in opposition-held territory. This is not an infallible policy, but it has some real prospects of success. The U.S. Congress should vote in favour of a resolution supporting such actions.
These strikes need not be limited to suspected chemical-weapons facilities; indeed, there may be a risk of spreading deadly chemicals if the structures that hold them are destroyed. But “strikes,” in the plural, is and should be the operative word. The Assad government is unlikely to yield to a one-time attack. The word “punitive,” being currently used, may sound fussily moralistic; morality, however, is very much involved, and the essential purpose of the policy is to alter the extreme, immoral behaviour of the Assad regime.
There are understandable misgivings about this policy, in the shadow of the second Iraq war, and the subsequently discovered absence of weapons of mass destruction. But what Mr. Obama and his colleagues are proposing is not an invasion, or a change of regime, or an occupation, or a war aim of unconditional surrender.
The testimony on Monday of John Kerry, the Secretary of State, to the Senate foreign relations committee, makes clear that one of the chief objectives is to induce the Syrian government to enter international negotiations; this is not a far-fetched hope. Russia, which has considerable influence on Syria, has often called for such negotiations. The Russian government wants to keep its naval base at Tartus in Syria, and also values Syria as a customer for its weapons, but there is no reason to suppose that President Vladimir Putin wants an expanded war in the Middle East.
In spite of the antipathy between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin, there may yet be some progress at the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg. In the meantime, the plans for air strikes against Mr. al-Assad’s forces should proceed (barring a great leap forward). At home in the U.S., Congress should express a now unusual bipartisan support – almost unheard of in the House of Representatives in recent years – and vote for the resolution approving military strikes in Syria.