Chemical Weapons: Why Congress Should Still Authorize the Use of Force Against Syria


This piece was co-authored with Christopher Bartley

The movement toward some form of UN Security Council resolution demanding Syria hand over its chemical weapons to the international community has further complicated the United States' already muddled policy on Syria. Initiated by Moscow in response to Secretary of State John Kerry's offhand remarks to a reporter in London, the new UN action has spurred hopes that a diplomatic solution to the use of chemical weapons in Syria can be found. Officials in Washington are especially eager for the UN to take the lead given the difficulties involved with acting in Syria and the growing disillusionment in Congress over the idea of military involvement.

Yet the hope that the UN will find a palatable and enforceable solution does not obviate the need for Congress to vote in favor of military action. We should not engage in wishful thinking that the situation in Syria will reach a satisfactory conclusion without continued pressure from the United States. Rather, somewhat paradoxically, to achieve progress in Syria without resorting to physical force likely requires the threat of physical force. That is to say that Congress should authorize a conditional strike against the Assad government, to be used if the UN Security Council fails to adopt a satisfactory resolution and then if that resolution fails to be upheld.

While Russian president Vladimir Putin has said that his proposal is only possible if the U.S. and its allies renounce the use of force, and Obama has asked Congress to delay a vote on any bill authorizing strikes in Syria for a week, Congress should ignore these demands and instead forge ahead with a new bill being crafted by a bipartisan group of senators. This bill authorizes U.S. strikes if the Security Council fails to pass a resolution declaring Syria had used chemical weapons and that they must be removed by a certain date. While the U.S. should work to see a strong UN resolution passed, we must make it clear we see this as an alternative, and not the only, solution.

The threat of a U.S. strike against Syria should be maintained not only so we can use it if needed, but so as to put pressure on the UN, Russia, and Syria to act and then remain true to their words. It is clear that sustained rhetorical pressure and the threat of force from the U.S. have already yielded tangible results by bringing Russia and Syria to the negotiating table. In this moment, the U.S. has found leverage where there was seemingly none, and Congress must act before the momentum is lost. This option allows the U.S. to sustain pressure, save face, and potentially achieve results without ever having to use physical force in Syria.

The Syrian government has publicly stated that they will sign the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty and hand over control of their chemical weapons to the international community. This is a great first step, but the United States should follow the approach of former president Ronald Reagan, who successfully negotiated with the Russians by adopting one of their most famous proverbs as his own: "Trust, but verify."

This is why Congress must quickly authorize a conditional strike against the Assad government. Without the threat of U.S. force in the background, Russia and Syria could stall for time and hope that as the days go by, the will to act will slowly dissipate in Washington. And for the sake of our own credibility and the credibility of the international system, this is an outcome we cannot allow to happen. Instead, we must once again make "trust, but verify" our official position and refuse to negotiate away our right to act.