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Issue Guide: The Syria Crisis

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
September 3, 2013


The Obama administration's call for punitive strikes on Syria following reports of chemical weapons attacks that it says killed more than 1,400 people has prompted the most serious debate yet in U.S. policy circles about intervention. The following articles provide background and analysis on the latest phase of Syria's civil war and the potential consequences of intervention.

The Intervention Debate

Financial Times: America Must Stick to a Course on Syria
"The Obama administration has made a difficult situation much worse by articulating a series of objectives ('Bashar al-Assad must go'; 'Chemical weapons use crosses a red line') and policies ('we will arm the opposition') and then failing to follow them through. Requiring authority from Congress at the eleventh hour introduced further undesirable uncertainty," writes CFR President Richard N. Haass.

Politico: How Not to Run a Foreign Policy
CFR's Elliott Abrams argues that the Obama administration's decision to seek congressional authorization to use fore in Syria will cause broad strategic damage. "Who, in Jerusalem or Tehran, will now believe that 'all options are on the table' and that the president might really use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Which neighbor of China, facing that nation's rising military power and hoping for America to offset it, will now believe that the 'pivot to Asia' has any real military content?" he writes.

New Yorker: Crossing the Line
"There are red lines even in a war as devoid of clarity as Syria's. The best available evidence is that on August 21st Bashar al-Assad's forces crossed to the other side," writes Steven Coll.

The Independent: In Syria, it's a Case of All or Nothing
"What can be done to end the appalling and ever-growing miseries of the 23 million Syrian people? The answer is to make either war or peace effectively," writes Patrick Cockburn.

Washington Post: In Trying to Help Syria, an Intervention Would Destroy It
"In an astonishing irony that only the conflict in Syria could produce, American and allied cruise missiles would be degrading the capability of the Syrian regime's military units to the benefit of the al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting Assad — the same militants whom U.S. drones are attacking regularly in places such as Yemen," writes CFR's Steven Cook.

CNN: Western Intervention Will Leave Chaos
With Syria's neighbors reluctant to stop a war on their own doorstep, it is worth asking why intervention has been dispensed to American taxpayers. "By bombing Syria now, [the United States would] bear the burden of instability [that is left in its] wake," writes CFR's Ed Husain.

New York Times: Limited Strike Will Lead to Deeper Intervention
"Based on early reporting, it appears that the only objective of the potential use of force against Syria would be to prevent the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime," writes CFR's Micah Zenko. He argues: "A limited cruise missile strike will not be merely an attack on Assad's chemical weapons capabilities, but an attack on the regime itself. Subsequently, the United States will be correctly perceived by all sides as intervening on behalf of the armed opposition."

Foreign Affairs: Use Strikes to Get to Talks
"As the White House repeated this Monday, the conflict in Syria will only end with a political solution. In other words, the United States should use continued pressure and looming military strikes to help get all sides to the table…in the hopes that a bargain can be struck and the war will end with a transfer of power," writes CFR's Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

CFR Blog: Audacity of Intervention in Syria
"The fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the chemical weapons crisis in Syria allow for a juxtaposition of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s and President Barack Obama's visions of war and peace," writes CFR's Stewart Patrick. Though the president has often taken inspiration from the civil rights leader, Obama's views on the ethical use of force are at odds with King's and compel military intervention to protect civilians in Syria.

U.S. Congress and War Powers

CFR Blog: Syria Revives the War Powers Debate
"The question at the core of the debate is, when can presidents unilaterally take the country from peace to war? No constitutional question arises when Congress authorizes the president to use force. Presidential authority is at its zenith when backed by explicit congressional consent. And no one seriously disputes the claim that presidents can order U.S. troops to fight when the country is attacked. The Constitution is not a suicide pact. When neither of these conditions prevails, however, the arguing begins. And there has been a lot of arguing over the years," writes CFR's James Lindsay.

Lawfare: Congratulations President Obama
"The President is taking a big risk here. But he will be incomparably strengthened, legally and especially politically, if he is able to win congressional support. And, in any event, his request for support from Congress will force every member to be accountable, one way or the other, for what he does," writes Jack Goldsmith.

CFR Backgrounder: Balance of War Powers: The U.S. President and the Congress
The Obama administration's decision in August 2013 to seek congressional authorization for a military strike against Syria has stirred new debate about the constitutional need for a president to request such approval and whether President Obama is creating a precedent that will hamstring future commanders in chief, says this Backgrounder.

Chemical Weapons and Nonproliferation

Politico: Is President Obama Serious About Chemical Weapons?
Before the United States makes any punitive strikes against Syria, "several crucial diplomatic steps must be taken to not only stop the further use of nerve gases by the Syrian regime against its own people, but to prevent the use of chemical weapons from becoming the region's 'new normal,'" writes CFR's Laurie Garrett.

Foreign Affairs: How Chemical Weapons Became Taboo
Today, it is taken for granted that using chemical weapons—as the Assad regime has reportedly done—is uniquely intolerable. Observers have speculated that humans simply harbor a particular fear of them or that militaries have never considered them useful. In fact, the proscription is the result of decades of international work, writes Richard Price.

The Humanitarian Dilemma

New Yorker: City of the Lost
"When Za'atari [refugee camp] opened, in July of 2012, its population numbered in the hundreds. By late August, it had fifteen thousand residents. Now that number is a hundred and twenty thousand—the population of Hartford, Connecticut, or Santa Clara, California," writes David Remnick.

UNHCR Infographic: Syria Regional Refugee Response
This interactive from the UN's refugee agency indicates the spread of Syria's two million refugees.

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