On Syria, the wrong questions

WASHINGTON — Congress is asking the wrong questions about Syria. The issue can’t be who wins the civil war. It has to be whether the regime of Bashar al-Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons — and, if the answer is yes, whether there is any effective means of punishment other than a U.S. military strike.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey showed the patience of Job this week as House and Senate members grilled them about the impossible, the inconceivable and the irrelevant.

At Wednesday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I thought for a moment that Kerry was going to blow. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., launched into a self-righteous soliloquy about Benghazi, the IRS, the National Security Agency and what he portrayed as Kerry’s longtime aversion to using military force.

Kerry, you may recall, is a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran. Duncan is an armchair warrior.

“I am not going to sit here and be told by you —” Kerry said, his voice rising. But he held it together and gave Duncan a more civil answer than he deserved. “This is not about getting into Syria’s civil war.,” Kerry explained. “This is about enforcing the principle that people shouldn’t be allowed to gas their citizens with impunity.”

For Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the question is why President Obama hasn’t been doing more to shape the outcome of the war. As the price of his vote to authorize a strike, McCain insisted that the resolution approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee include language calling on Obama to “change the military equation on the battlefield.”

I respect McCain’s knowledge and experience on military matters even when I disagree with him. In this case, I think he’s hallucinating.

In Iraq, with U.S. forces occupying the country and a compliant government installed, it took a huge troop surge and a long counterinsurgency campaign to beat back the jihadists who threatened to take over part of the country. In Syria, with no boots on the ground and a hostile regime clinging to power, how is Obama supposed to ensure that the “good” rebels triumph over the “bad” ones? Why does McCain think we have it in our power to favorably change the equation now?

Let me clarify: I do believe a U.S. strike of the kind being discussed, involving cruise missiles and perhaps other air-power assets, can make it more likely that Assad loses. But I also believe that absent a major commitment of American forces — which is out of the question — we cannot determine who wins.

For some skeptics on Capitol Hill, the question is why we don’t wait for others to act — the U.N., perhaps, or some of the 188 other nations that have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing atrocities such as those committed in Syria.

I guess hope springs eternal, but that’s how long the wait will be. Russia has vetoed every attempt by the U.N. Security Council to act. Britain’s House of Commons has said no. France is willing but won’t go it alone.

Maybe all this reluctance is a warning that we, too, should demur. But let’s at least be honest with ourselves: If we don’t act, nobody will. The clear message to Assad, and to other tyrants, will be that poison gas is frowned upon but not actually prohibited.

There is no way that Assad can be shamed into contrition and atonement; at this point, he’s fighting not just for power but for his life. He has to believe that if he loses the war and is captured by rebels, be they the “good” ones or the “bad,” he will be tried and executed like Saddam Hussein — or perhaps killed on the spot like Moammar Gadhafi.

If someone has a workable plan to snatch Assad and his henchmen, haul them before the International Criminal Court and put them on trial, I’m all ears. As things stand, however, the possibility of someday facing charges in the Hague must be low on the Syrian dictator’s list of worries.

If Assad and his government are ever going to be held accountable for the use of forbidden weapons to murder hundreds of civilians, the only realistic way for that to happen is a punitive U.S.-led military strike. This is the question that Obama put on the table — and that too many members of Congress seem determined to avoid.

Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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