BERLIN – Pacifist doctrines may say otherwise, but combining diplomacy with the threat of military force is a highly effective tactic, as we have just seen in Syria. It was the credibility of the United States’ threat of military intervention that seems to have led Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cut a deal brokered by his main allies, Russia and, less directly, Iran. Assad now appears prepared to give up his chemical weapons in exchange for remaining in power. But what will happen to America’s credibility, and that of the West, if the agreement falls apart?
The deal struck by the US and Russia triggered widespread relief in most Western capitals, where political leaders simply are not prepared for military intervention, even if Syria’s government is killing its own people with poison gas (on this score, the agreement amounts to a confession by Assad). After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the West would rather stay at home; neither the US nor the United Kingdom – nor most other NATO members – wants to become entangled in another Middle East conflict that cannot be won.
Indeed, there are only bad options for the US in Syria. Military intervention has no visible end point and would only increase chaos. But staying out will produce nearly the same result and dramatically shake America’s credibility in a crisis-ridden region, with serious consequences for the future. Furthermore, deployment of chemical weapons invites escalation.
Most people in the West regard Syria’s civil war as a continuation of the sectarian violence in Iraq. But Syria is not Iraq. America’s president is not searching for excuses to start a war; Assad’s chemical weapons are not a fanciful pretext. The scale of the violence in Syria underscores the risk implied by inaction.