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Obama Must Make a Stronger Case For Syria

09/11/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 11/11/2013 05:12 EST

US President Barack Obama has embarked upon what has been called the "most consequential week of his Presidency" following his decision to seek Congressional authorization for military action in Syria. Simply put, the President is facing an increasingly divided Congress and country at home -- and a skeptical if not recalcitrant international community abroad, reflected in the lack of support for a military strike among the G20.

Indeed, as I write, public opinion polls indicate that a majority of "weary and war wary" Americans want Congress to vote against intervention. Moreover, it appears that public opposition to the prospect of American intervention in Syria has only intensified since the President first announced that he would seek Congressional authorization. Surely, hesitation and concern over military intervention is natural and indeed expected; its expression to Congressional representatives at town hall meetings and through social media campaigns -- seems to have affected Congress' political calculations in this regard, with the most recent count showing the House splitting 6 to 1 against intervention, and with a Senate largely undecided.

Ironically, the Russian-Syrian plan to place Assad's chemical weapons stockpile under international control and supervision has thrown a political lifeline to President Obama, who now even credits his determination to strike as the reason for the Russian-Syria deal and the reason to persevere in securing Congressional authorization -- and public support -- for military action, evidenced in his meetings Tuesday with Congressional leaders and his address to the nation.

Yet, much of the public and political perception may be attributed not only to the brooding omnipresence of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the minds of weary Americans, but also an insufficient understanding and appreciation of the horror -- the death, destruction, and devastation -- and corresponding humanitarian catastrophe wrought by the Syrian regime these past two and a half years; and the concomitant failure of the President during this period to make a compelling case for intervention on moral, strategic, political, legal, and humanitarian grounds.

Specifically, while Obama has spoken of "recognition that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed," the case for intervening in Syria goes far beyond the chemical weapons attack of August 21 or international law. At this critical juncture, it is imperative that the President make the case for Syria on all fronts, lest this "teachable moment" vis-à-vis the Responsibility to Protect be lost.

First, the President must make a compelling case on moral grounds for the protection of Syrian civilians. President Obama has spoken movingly at the G20 -- and prior to that in Stockholm, while invoking the courage and action of Raoul Wallenberg -- regarding the international criminality of chemical weapons use, which he called a "red line" over a year ago, and now characterizes as being "the world's red line."

Yet, the point is that the August 21 chemical weapons attack was not the first -- just the most lethal -- of some 12 chemical weapons attacks in the last year, such that the "red line" was more of a "pink advisory." More importantly, the chemical weapons attack was not Àssad's first crime against humanity.

As the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported in late June, "war crimes and crimes against humanity have become a daily reality" in Syria. Assad has pursued an escalating scorched-earth policy beginning with tank and artillery assaults on residential neighbourhoods; the brutal torture, rape and murder of their inhabitants, many of them women and children; the indiscriminate bombing of schools and hospitals; the firing of missiles into cities; and the use of cluster bombs and thermobaric weapons.

The escalating trajectory of mass atrocity in Syria now has resulted in up to 120,000 killed, hundreds of thousands detained and disappeared (and mostly ignored), five million internally displaced and two million having fled the country as refugees, a million of them children. The statement by UN High Commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres -- on the same day of the reported chemical weapons attacks last week -- that the refugee situation has reached this "shameful milestone" went almost unacknowledged and unnoticed.

In a word, the President's arguably myopic -- though understandable -- focus on the recent chemical weapons attack must be replaced by a comprehensive indictment of Assad's myriad and serial criminality. Otherwise -- as many in the American public seem to have understood -- one might get the impression that the use of chemical weapons is the only reprehensible act of the Assad regime thus far -- or that anything short of chemical weapons is somehow "permissible". Even an acceptance of the Russian-Syrian proposal does nothing to address the other criminality, which will continue unabated.

It is critical that the case be made -- and understood -- that Syrians needed our help prior to this most recent chemical weapons attack, and need it even more so now. Indeed, Obama may have to bear criticism that he should have acted earlier given the nature of atrocities committed thus far by the Assad regime.

The second front on which the case for Syria ought to be made is the strategic one, a front on which the President's policy -- or lack of one -- has been characterized as "unclear", "inconclusive", "ambivalent", and even "contradictory." For example, while reference has been made to a "limited military strike" as a "shot across the bow" -- this certainly does match what the President and Secretary of State Kerry have called a "Munich Moment" let alone their WWII analogies.

Blog continues below slideshow:

Syria War In August (Warning: Graphic Images)

Simply put, absent a clearly defined strategic plan, there is an appearance of policy being made on the fly. This may lead to mission creep -- or even the appearance of a lack of a mission altogether. Indeed, the President must clearly define the strategic objectives -- how they are to be achieved -- how we will know if they have been achieved -- whether it is limited to the deterring and degrading of Assad's chemical weapons capacity, or whether it is intended also to change the momentum and outcome in this war -- which would not be satisfied by the Syrian-Russian plan alone.

For example, must there be a no-fly zone to protect against the other myriad set of bombardments, or save havens -- so called no-kill zones -- to protect against the killing, rape, or torture of civilians -- or the defensive arming of a vetted opposition?

The third case for Syria the President must make is a political one -- at home and abroad. He must mobilize the now declining support on both sides of the aisle. Admittedly, the Russian-Syrian deal may provide a short-term respite for the President with Congress and the public.

But, laying out the compelling moral case to protect Syrian civilians -- apart from the chemical weapons threat-- coupled with a clear strategic vision of the plan of action -- can help encourage and maintain support for intervention, that thus far means many different things depending on who in the President's cabinet is asked. It is quite possible that if Obama succeeds at making his case to the public, Congress will follow suit.

As well, it becomes particularly important to shore up international support and involvement lest this be seen, yet again, as an American war against an Arab country rather a war on behalf of the Syrian people. In this regard, the presence and participation of the Arab League is crucial.

A fourth case to be made for Syria -- and thus far under-emphasized by the President (ironic given his background as a law professor) -- is the legal one. The President has thus far grounded his proposal on the basis of "national security" and "national interest" in general, and the specific international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons in particular.

But, he has been rather muted on the international authorities that, in fact, authorize -- or in some cases, mandate -- action in response to the grievous war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime. Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin and others have called on the President to go through the UN Security Council -- a proposition with which I would agree. Indeed, the President should take all the information he has about the lethal chemical weapons attack to the UN Security Council - as well as the evidence of the totality of Syrian criminality -- and seek Security Council authorization for action under, inter alia, the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. If Russia continues to oppose -- which may be more difficult now that they've agreed re the existence of chemical weapons -- Obama should seek to isolate and shame Putin while pursuing this case and cause through the United Nations' "United for Peace" Resolution.

Simply put, the legal case for intervention has not been made -- but one exists. While I have written extensively elsewhere about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and how it ought to be implemented, particularly in such cases as this, it is clear that Obama must work with G-20 partners, the Arab League, the EU, and a "coalition of the willing" to demonstrate a clear commitment to international law and its enforcement, lest the world's "red line" continue to serve merely as a "pink advisory."

The final case that must be made is the humanitarian one, which has been largely ignored and marginalized. Briefly, there are some five million internally displaced Syrians -- and two million Syrian refugees -- a situation that is increasingly destabilizing Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, if not the region as a whole.

This is where the leadership of the international community is needed, not just in accepting refugees -- but in increasing humanitarian assistance to them, ensuring that medical relief is provided to distressed populations, that food aid arrives where it is needed in Syria, that humanitarian corridors are secured, and the like.

It is unfortunate that the discussion of a military strike in Syria -- which has so far been justified only by reference to the regime's use of chemical weapons -- has overshadowed other necessary non-military responses that are possible -- even under the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. Indeed, R2P is not limited to military action, as some have mistakenly argued; on the contrary, military action is a last resort of a range of economic, political, humanitarian, and diplomatic options.

Indeed, to do their part, countries should also look at facilitating Syrian refugee settlement and paying their pledged humanitarian contributions -- something that has yet to happen in many cases.

In sum, President Obama's advocacy challenge is daunting. Yet, the President can make great progress for the people of Syria if he addresses the moral, political, strategic, legal, and humanitarian issues head-on -- both with the American people and his international counterparts. The President has a strong case to make for Syria -- which he has not yet made -- and the time is now.

Irwin Cotler is the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and has written extensively on the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. He is a co-editor of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Times (Oxford University Pres).