AS President Obama, Congress and the American public consider how the United States should respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, it is essential that we weigh options other than a military strike.
It is possible that alternative strategies would pose less risk and provide more effective results. One option would be a cyberattack against Syria’s command and control structures; a second option would be to seek an indictment against the Syrian leaders for war crimes.
America must not ignore the overwhelming evidence that chemical weapons have been used and that such use is a serious violation of international law. However, a military response to that violation is morally, politically and strategically unwise.
Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not an existential threat to U.S. national interests. The outcome of even limited military action is uncertain. No party in the conflict is a friend of the U.S., and a dramatic military strike would likely incur civilian casualties and inflame people in the Arab world.
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While launching cruise missiles against Syrian military installations would send a strong signal of disapproval, such a step should not be the default American military action.
A crippling cyberattack targeting both the civilian and military sides of the Syrian regime may well be equally effective. Such a strategy would play to America’s technological superiority, reduce the risk of unintended political and military consequences and satisfy those who rightly argue that the U.S. must take robust action.
Given the fact that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was a violation of law, a legal response is another appropriate option. No matter what other action is taken, the U.S. should seek a war-crimes indictment against the Syrian civilian and military leadership.
The advantage of this alternative is that it avoids committing U.S. assets, it minimizes the risk of a hostile reaction from people in the Arab world, and it would be less likely to complicate ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian problem.
The moral message of an indictment for war crimes would not be compromised by the troubling immorality of unintended civilian deaths. Appealing to international law allows America to claim the moral high ground. Applying lethal force, no matter how well intentioned, is certain to compromise that position.
Finally, the United States should substantially increase the amount of humanitarian aid it provides to civilians inside and outside of Syria. Because the flood of refugees into neighboring counties is politically and economically destabilizing, the refugee issue is both a pressing strategic crisis as well as a moral problem.
The U.S. now spends well under $1 billion per year to assist Syrian refugees. (For purposes of comparison, the war in Afghanistan is projected to cost $91 billion in 2013). If Americans are truly concerned about the human suffering caused by the Syrian President Bashir Assad’s regime, their response should not be limited to delivering cruise missiles.
Unlike those who advocate a surgical-military strike, I am not bold enough to suggest that my proposals are sure to be effective. However, a cyberoffensive would cause real harm to the Syrian state. Being formally charged with war crimes is not a matter that government officials take lightly and increasing humanitarian aid would not elicit a hostile response from people in the region.
No military option currently being considered can guarantee a better outcome. What is certain is that any military action, however limited, would be far more costly and its consequences far less predictable.
John C. Yoder teaches political science and directs the Peace Studies program at Whitworth University in Spokane.