A vote by Congress to reject the resolution sought by President Barack Obama to authorize military force in Syria will add to the long list of unintended consequences already produced by bad policy choices on Syria. Among other things, it will kill for the foreseeable future any prospect of a negotiated end to this gruesome, destabilizing, and dangerous conflict. Indeed, the eleventh-hour suggestion by Russia that Syria might put its chemical stockpile under international supervision aims to kill the president's prospects by offering Congress the alternative of a lengthy, open-ended, and likely inconclusive process, one that would leave Bashar al-Assad's regime free to return to business as usual: slaughtering civilians in their homes with conventional weaponry.
Let us first stipulate some hard, unpleasant truths. A large majority of Americans either doesn't care about Syria, thinks the United States has no business doing anything about it, or both. Many in Congress normally inclined to support Obama think that he, of all people, may lead us into armed conflict resembling Iraq or worse. Others in Congress would gladly sink, or at least capsize, the ship of state (at least in terms of the country's reputation and credibility) as long as Obama is on board. These are the facts the president faces as he tries to make a case for a resolution he need not have put before the Congress in the first place.
As if popular and Congressional apathy over the depredations of the Assad regime were not enough, the president hit a wall of indifference at the G20 gathering in St. Petersburg as well. In addition to the usual defense of the indefensible one would expect from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the customary "let's not further militarize this regrettable situation" from others, Obama was forced to endure "let's have negotiations instead of violence" advice from Pope Francis and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Neither the Holy Father nor the Secretary-General was able to identify a way forward to peace talks. This is understandable, because under current conditions none exists. So long as the Assad regime's strategy of choice remains one of mass terror aimed at populated areas it does not occupy, there is no prospect of dialogue, negotiation, compromise, reconciliation, reason, or peace. This was recognized in late 2011 by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who begged the Assad regime to take the initiative in implementing a ceasefire and a series of humanitarian steps. The regime's latest answer to Annan, Ban, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN–Arab League envoy for Syria, was the chemical abomination of August 21.
Obama recognizes, at long last, that a criminal regime endowed with artillery, aircraft, rockets, and missiles will use those delivery systems to visit random death, widespread destruction, and universal terror on innocent civilians. It does so with conventional ordnance that kills and maims with high explosives. It does so with chemical munitions that strangle and smother. It drives millions from their homes, many into neighboring countries. It scars for life, physically and emotionally, those it does not kill outright. So long as this campaign of mass terror continues, it will make it impossible for anyone purporting to represent the opponents of this regime to take part in anything labeled a negotiation. So long as it continues, it is as solid an indicator as one could want that the regime has no interest in negotiating a blessed thing.
Ban, the Pope, and others who earnestly seek peace in Syria are not unaware of the foregoing. They hope, as does Obama, that some combination of Putin and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will prevail on Assad to knock it off: to spare the innocent and give peace a chance. Indeed, Russia and Iran are free to do so, and by so doing make a U.S. military operation unnecessary and unthinkable. Yet as long as they enable the war crimes and crimes against humanity of the Assad regime, can Obama be faulted if he opts, with Congress' permission, to neutralize the regime's tools of terror—its artillery, rockets, missiles, and aircraft?
Contrary to prevailing opinion in the West, the Assad regime and its enablers do indeed think there is a military solution to the Syrian crisis. If Congress denies Obama the option of neutralizing Assad's tools of terror, it will confirm the view of Assad and his supporters. It will do so by keeping the mass terror machine untouched and in business. For all we know Assad may have already learned his lesson about chemicals. No doubt Tehran and Moscow are mystified by their client's stupidity. Yet if he returns to the practice of pounding populated areas with vicious impunity, no one should expect Western passivity to produce a negotiated solution to anything.
Russia and Iran should convince Assad to declare a ceasefire, invite UN observers, implement Annan's humanitarian, de-escalatory steps, and prepare for Geneva. The chances of them doing so are low. They, and any sense of restraint by Assad, sink to zero if and when Congress turns down the president. If there are those in Congress sincerely interested in a negotiated end to Syria's nightmare, one that can begin to stabilize the region soon instead of decades from now, they will give Obama the authorization he seeks.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.