U.N. Rep: Inaction Would Be More Risky Than Action in Syria
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2013 The risks of inaction in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people would be greater than the risks of military action, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations said here today.
Speaking to an audience at the Center for American Progress, Ambassador Samantha Power characterized Syria as lying at the heart of a region critical to U.S. security -- a region that is home to friends and partners and one of the closest U.S. allies.
The Bashar Assad regime, Power said, has stores of chemical weapons that it recently used on a large scale and that the United States can’t allow to fall into terrorists' hands. The regime also collaborates with Iran and works with thousands of extremist fighters from the militant group Hezbollah.
The ambassador acknowledged that questions are being raised about why the United States should be the world’s police in such brutal situations and how the nation can afford another war in the Middle East.
“Notwithstanding these complexities, notwithstanding the various concerns that we all share,” Power said, “I'm here today to explain why the costs of not taking targeted, limited military action are far greater than the risks of going forward in the manner that President [Barack] Obama has outlined.”
The chemical weapons attack in Damascus on Aug. 21 killed more than 1,400 Syrian men, women and children, she said, and the U.N. assessed that although Assad used more chemical weapons on Aug. 21 than he had before, he’s barely put a dent in his large stockpile.
“Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and many members of Congress have spelled out the consequences of failing to meet this threat, Power said. “If there are more chemical attacks,” she added, “we will see an inevitable spike in the flow of refugees on top of the already 2 million in the region, possibly pushing Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq past their breaking points.”
The Zaatari refugee camp is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan, she said, adding that half of Syria’s refugees are children and that such camps are known to become fertile recruiting grounds for violent extremists.
Beyond Syria, the ambassador said, if violating a universal agreement to ban chemical weapons is not met with a meaningful response, other regimes will try to acquire or use them to protect or extend their power, increasing risks to American troops in the future.
“We cannot afford to signal to North Korea and Iran that the international community is unwilling to act to prevent proliferation or willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction,” Power told the audience.
“People will draw lessons,” she added, “if the world proves unwilling to enforce the norms against chemical weapons use that we have worked so diligently to construct.”
Moving from discussing the risks of inaction to the risks of taking action, Power said the reason nonmilitary tools can’t be used to achieve the same end in Syria is that the alternatives are exhausted.
“For more than a year,” Power said, “we have pursued countless policy tools short of military force to try to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons.”
The ambassador explained how she and others engaged the Syrians directly and asked the Russians, the U.N. and the Iranians to send similar messages, but when Scud missiles and other weapons didn’t stop the Syrian rebels, Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale several times, as the United States reported in June.
Her group then redoubled its efforts, backing the U.N. diplomatic process and trying to get the parties back to the negotiating table, she said. They provided more humanitarian assistance and on chemical weapons they went public with evidence of the regime's use.
“We worked with the U.N. to create a group of inspectors and then worked for more than 6 months to get them access to the country on the logic that perhaps the presence of an investigative team in the country might deter future attacks. … We expanded and accelerated our assistance to the Syrian opposition. We supported the U.N. Commission of Inquiry,” the ambassador said.
She noted that Russia, often backed by China, blocked every relevant action in the U.N. Security Council, even mild condemnations of the use of chemical weapons that ascribed blame to no particular party. “And on Aug. 21, [Assad] staged the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter-century while U.N. inspectors were sitting on the other side of town,” Power said.
It was only after the United States pursued such nonmilitary options without deterring chemical weapons use in Syria that Obama concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war, the ambassador added.
“From the start of the Syrian conflict, the president has consistently demonstrated that he will not put American boots on the ground to fight another war in the Middle East,” Power said. “The draft resolution before Congress makes this clear.”
The president is seeking public support to use limited military means to degrade Assad's capacity to use these weapons again and deter others in the world who might seek to use them, the ambassador said. “And the United States has the discipline as a country to maintain these limits,” she added.
Limited military action will not solve the entire Syria problem, Power noted, but the action should reinforce the larger strategy for addressing the crisis in Syria.
“This operation, combined with ongoing efforts to upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition, should reduce the regime's faith that they can kill their way to victory,” the ambassador said.
“We should agree that there are lines in this world that cannot be crossed and limits on murderous behavior -- especially with weapons of mass destruction -- that must be enforced,” Power said. “If we cannot summon the courage to act when the evidence is clear and when the action being contemplated is limited, then our ability to lead in the world is compromised.”