Ex-U.S. diplomat: Obama could strike Syria without Congressional approval

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As Washington approaches a defining moment in its approach to the Syrian conflict, former ambassador to Syria and one of the most seasoned hands in American diplomacy in the Middle East Edward Djerejian weighs in on both the possible risks and benefits of a potential U.S.-led military action in Syria.

Djerejian, the founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, served eight presidents and knew both President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad. He finds it very difficult that the regime would crack as an outcome of potential strikes, and tells Al Arabiya that any military action should come with a political strategy, even if U.S. President Barack Obama acts without Congressional approval.

Following is the text of the interview:

1- U.S. President Barack Obama will be addressing the American people from the oval office on Tuesday. Is that an indication that he has made his decision on Syria?

The administration is undergoing intense consultations with the House and the Senate to get an authorization and the president is working on putting together an international coalition to support this possible military action.

The fact that he will reportedly be addressing the nation in an Oval office speech indicates that a decision is imminent on U.S. action in Syria. But we still have these other developments, the congressional approval or disapproval, the G-20 support, and they have to occur before his final decision.

2- If you were advising the U.S. president, would you advocate military action?

Military action alone is not a policy, there has to be a political strategy. If the military action is wedded to a political strategy that could lead to a political solution, then I would be for it. By that I mean what happens after the military action to bring Syrians to a political solution to this tragic crisis. There is no military solution for the Syrian crisis, there is only a political solution, and this is going to involve very serious diplomacy to get a political transition in place in Syria that would eventually lead to a post-Assad regime.

3- Is the Obama administration late in the game on Syria?

The Obama administration had much better options a year or a year and a half ago to influence the situation on the ground in Syria especially with the opposition. We here at the Baker institute advocated that the administration should be more assertive in vetting the Syrian opposition, and then providing limited military and humanitarian assistance, in order to help level the playing field in Syria. Every month that passed and no action was taken led us to this situation where the use of chemical weapons has unfolded the current crisis.

4- The White House sees the goal of action to degrade the Assad regime. Is this going to be another Kosovo?

The analogies with Kosovo are not identical because of the different factors regionally and the kind of action considered. If military action takes place, it should have some effect to level the playing field and military situation in Syria that would drive the parties more towards political solution. It would be limited in scope but not so limited that it would have some political impact.

5- What if Assad comes out more stubborn and more determined to use military force?

This is a real possibility and military action could exacerbate the situation. Assad still holds some cards such as his military and Mukhabart (Syrian intelligence), the support of Iran and of Russia and China, and the support of Hezbollah. So, he has cards to play, and that’s why it is crucial that any military action should have political horizon as part of the strategy.

6- But could the structure of the regime that you know very well crack under military pressure?

With great difficulty because Hafez Assad the father has put together a very strong system of government control including the military and the mukhabarat, the Allawites and the various elites in Syria. This system that Bashar inherited has proven to be quite resilient, but at the end of the day, the only way it would crack is if it started cracking at the very top and I don’t know if that is going to happen with the strikes.

7- So what is a good outcome that would come out of such action?

The good outcome that the strikes could bring about is first by laying out markers that there is a price and punishment for the use of chemical weapons. Secondly, it would send a message that the regime doesn’t have a free hand militarily, and if the situation gets worse there can be military action taken, and it would help level the playing field in Syria. If the position of the Syrian political opposition and not the Islamic radicals is somehow enhanced, that could lead to a political solution along the lines of the Geneva formula. But this is all highly problematic.

8- It is problematic because it might and might not happen?

That’s right. No one can predict what the outcome is going to be.

9- Could you see Obama going without Congress approval?

That would be the result of his congressional deliberations, and international efforts. That is why the oval speech on Tuesday will be very important. My short answer is yes. Obama would much rather have congressional and international support but at the end of the day he has the authority to go it alone.

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