Bo Statham: Best policy for Syria? Stay out of its civil war

President Barack Obama’s policy on the strife in Syria has been clear and prudent. Until the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama has consistently expressed support for democratic reforms in Syria but steadfastly refused to be drawn into the civil war now raging there. That policy should continue.

Mr. Obama said a year ago that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be his red line. That offhand remark forced his hand when the Assad regime launched a missile-borne chemical attack Aug. 30, killing more than 1,400 of his own people, including 400 children. After intelligence confirmed the assault by government forces, Mr. Obama announced his intention to launch missile strikes on Syria’s chemical warfare resources to dissuade Mr. Assad from future use of such weapons.

Mr. Obama’s surprising request a few days later that Congress support his action followed growing public opposition. That was a sign of strength, not weakness, as charged by some. Mr. Obama had little to gain and everything to lose if Congress rebuked his leadership on such a critical foreign-policy action. If Congress said no, his lame-duck status would begin in the first year of his second term, putting his legislative agenda in serious jeopardy. And since when is it weakness for the Congress or president to seek the other’s support? That is the essence of functioning government.

It now has come to light that Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested to Mr. Obama, only a few days before his message to Congress, the possibility of international control of Syria’s chemical weapons. Importantly, postponing military action during congressional consideration of Mr. Obama’s request may also have made possible a few days of quiet diplomacy to pursue Mr. Putin’s proposal.

Whether an enforceable agreement with Syria will be reached is problematic. If it is not, Mr. Obama should reconsider his decision to attack Syria.

Mr. Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, he said, “First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence ...” Now is the time to give those words meaning. Pushing the Putin initiative with Syria is one alternative.

Another is to brand Mr. Assad in the eyes of the world as the ruthless killer he is. Instead of launching missiles, launch a powerful information campaign: fill the airways and every communication medium with vivid photographs of dead and dying victims of the chemical attack. Those images are shocking and horrible, but that is the source of their power. Respect the victims, but make sure they did not die in vain. Use the power of social media to cast shame on Mr. Assad. Release and publish necessary intelligence data that places responsibility for the attacks on the Syria government. Take the case to the United Nations and every available forum.

To paraphrase an old maxim, information and communications are more powerful than the sword. Use them, Mr. President, and avoid violence in the search for peace.

Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at


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