Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the village of Dourit, August 17, 2013. (Reuters/Khattab Abdulaa)
A familiar refrain among proponents of intervention in Syria is that “doing nothing is not an option.” While a wide range of non-military options have been proposed in the public sphere, from increasing aid to rebel groups to plowing money into programs for refugees, there hasn’t been much in the Senate outside of the military intervention proposal passed by the Foreign Relations Committee.
But Friday, Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp floated one possible alternative: a bill that would demand that Bashar al-Assad sign Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty and take “concrete steps” to comply. If he failed to do so within forty-five days, the United States would launch a military attack.
Statement of Policy. It is the policy of the United States that-
The Government of Syria must become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and take concrete steps to comply with the terms and conditions of the Convention;
The failure by the government of Bashar al-Assad to sign and comply with the Convention clearly demonstrates a disregard of international norms on the use of chemical weapons;
and If the Government of Syria does not sign the Convention within 45 after the date of the enactment of this resolution, all elements of national power will be considered by the United States government.
Requirement for a Syria strategy and building and international coalition. Not later than 45 days after the date of the enactment of this resolution, the President shall submit to Congress a long term strategy for Syria, while concurrently using all appropriate diplomatic tools to develop and secure commitments from the international community with the shared strategic interest of preventing the proliferation and use of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The bill has some obvious drawbacks—namely, if one believes the intelligence, Assad has already explicitly failed to comply with the treaty by launching attacks. The bill is vulnerable to criticism that it essentially gives Assad a pass on the initial attack, and just offers him the opportunity for a do-over. Moreover, as Juan Cole and other observers have speculated, Assad used the weapons because he feels existentially threatened by the rebellion in his country. A warning from the United States might not change his calculus at all, and thus only forestall, but not prevent, military action.
On the other hand, proponents of intervention repeatedly say their goal is to stop the use of chemical weapons, and if this resolution passed and Assad did sign the treaty, the mission would be accomplished. Manchin and Heitkamp aren’t commenting on the bill yet, but would likely argue it at least gives a diplomatic solution a chance before the bombs started dropping.
It seems unlikely this legislation could pass the Senate, given presumed opposition from the White House and proponents of intervention, along with doves who don’t want any roadmap to military intervention, period. But it may still have an immediate effect on the debate: namely, it could give senators who want to vote against the military intervention some cover, by providing an alternative they can support.
The bill will likely be introduced in full next week, and we’ll be sure to follow up.