Another Way: The Syria Speech the President Should Give

September 10, 2013

In the spring of 1996, I was in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, working at the US Embassy there.  The horrific Bosnian War was not long over and one of the main topics of the day was the hunt for war criminals.  While the Bosnian Serb leadership was at the top of the list, I, along with many other people, remained frustrated that the U.S. was not being more aggressive in hunting them down and that the French were being positively obstructionist.

I recall discussing my frustrations over email with a Canadian friend, Tom Quiggin, who appears elsewhere on this site.  I will always recall his response: “You Americans are too impatient.  We’ll get these guys sooner or later.  Here in Canada, we are prosecuting Nazi war criminals right now.”

Tom was absolutely right to counsel patience.  Eventually most of the major thugs were brought to justice.  Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian leader and sponsor of the Bosnian Serbs, was arrested in 2001; Radovan Karadzic, the wartime President of the Republika Srpska, was arrested in 2008; and General Ratko Mladic, the Republika Srpska’s top military officer and architect of the Srebrenica massacre, was captured in 2011.  All of these men, plus a host of other accused war criminals, were extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  Most are in prison today.  Milosevic died of a heart attack alone in his cell.

Tom’s wisdom is also applicable to the current situation in Syria.  It suggests that there is another way.

President Obama is urging a military strike on Syria in order to uphold an alleged international norm against the use of chemical weapons.  The Administration has made abundantly clear that the strikes are not intended to be militarily decisive in the civil war; they are simply meant to send a message.  Now Russia has come in at the last minute with the suggestion that Syria’s chemical arsenal could be put under international control.

However, there is another way of sending a message that President Obama ought to consider if Russia’s late-breaking initiative fails.  A version of it might even be useful to put some steel into Russia’s offer.  At least initially, this way involves only the use of words — words backed up by concrete historical precedent.

Imagine Obama giving a speech aimed directly at Bashar al-Assad, and indirectly at any other leader who might contemplate doing what Assad did.  It might go something like this:

The world might have been willing to allow you a graceful exit into an obscure retirement like Idi Amin or Baby Doc Duvalier, but you just blew it.  We know that on August 21st you ordered the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians.  Don’t bother denying it; the U.S. Intelligence Community has got you dead to rights and so does every other intelligence service in the world that has the slightest interest in the Middle East.  For the sake of innocent civilians caught in future wars, we can’t let you get away with this.

Some of my advisers have urged me to bomb your country for a few days to punish you and maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.  However, I have decided not to take their advice.  Such a strike would destroy some of your military hardware and kill some of your military personnel, but the people directly involved—particularly you—would get off scot free.  Furthermore, any bombing campaign is going to cause collateral damage.  I am not going to kill innocent civilians in order to punish you for killing innocent civilians.

So, for now, you can carry on.  But know this: if the Syrian opposition doesn’t get you, I assure you that the United States or its partners around the world will. 

We will find you if you stay in Syria and we will find you if you go into hiding somewhere else.  It may not be soon, but it will happen.  You will have to live the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, wondering when we will come and in what form.  We are good at this and the CIA, our special operators, and their foreign colleagues have all the patience in the world.

The best you can possibly hope for is what happened to Augusto Pinochet.  He spent his last eight years as an elderly, infirm and ultimately senile man repeatedly being arrested and jailed on two continents.  Can’t have been very pleasant, I would think. 

More likely, though, your fate will be worse.  It took us ten years to get Osama Bin Laden and now he’s fish food.  It took the Israelis even longer to find Adolf Eichmann, and he ended up hanging at the end of a rope.  Saddam Hussein?  We got him and turned him over to his Shia enemies.  He ended up hanging from a rope, too.  Remember Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz?  The Brits got him and gave him to the Poles.  Hanged.

The list goes on.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?  We and the Pakistanis got him.  Carlos the Jackal?  We and the French got him.  He’s rotting in a jail cell.  Pablo Escobar?  We helped the Colombians get him.  He was riddled with bullets and fell off a roof to his death.  How about Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh?  Doesn’t ring a bell?  The Israelis got him.  They didn’t cover their digital tracks very well, but that isn’t much comfort to Al-Mabhouh.  They injected him with a powerful muscle relaxant and then suffocated him with a pillow in his hotel room.

And you better hope that I never convince the Russians to help.  Remember what happened to Trotsky?  Such a mess.

By the way, I’d be grateful if you’d convey this message to all your senior subordinates who passed along the orders for those chemical strikes.  They are on our list, too.  Unless they help us find you, of course.

OK, maybe the phrasing is a bit over the top, a bit too much Liam Neeson,.  An actual US President might want to tone it down a bit.  However, consider the merits of such an approach.  It is feasible, it is credible, it is inexpensive, it is discriminating in that the prospects of collateral damage to innocents is essentially zero, and it runs no risk of inadvertently empowering al Qaeda affiliates.  Finally, a great many countries on earth would be willing to help.

Obama is the president who got Bin Laden.  He ought to be able to get this message across, if he tries.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.