of multiple dead bodies emerged from Syria last week. It was asserted
that poison gas killed the victims, who according to some numbered in
the hundreds. Others claimed the photos were faked while others said the
rebels were at fault. The dominant view, however, maintains that the al
Assad regime carried out the attack.
United States has so far avoided involvement in Syria's civil war. This
is not to say Washington has any love for the al Assad regime.
Damascus' close ties to Iran and Russia give the United States reason to
be hostile toward Syria, and Washington participated in the campaign to
force Syrian troops out of Lebanon. Still, the United States has
learned to be concerned not just with unfriendly regimes, but also with
what could follow such regimes. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have driven
home the principle that deposing one regime means living with an
imperfect successor. In those cases, changing the regime wound up
rapidly entangling the United States in civil wars, the outcomes of
which have not been worth the price. In the case of Syria, the
insurgents are Sunni Muslims whose best-organized factions have ties to
as frequently happens, many in the United States and Europe are
appalled at the horrors of the civil war, some of whom have called on
the United States to do something. The United States has been reluctant
to heed these calls. As mentioned, Washington does not have a direct
interest in the outcome, since all possible outcomes are bad from its
perspective. Moreover, the people who are most emphatic that something
be done to stop the killings will be the first to condemn the United
States when its starts killing people to stop the killings. People would
die in any such intervention, since there are simply no clean ways to
end a civil war.
Obama's Red Lines
President Barack Obama therefore adopted an extremely cautious
strategy. He said that the United States would not get directly involved
in Syria unless the al Assad regime used chemical weapons, stating with
a high degree of confidence that he would not have to intervene. After
all, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has now survived two years of
civil war, and he is far from defeated. The one thing that could defeat
him is foreign intervention, particularly by the United States. It was
therefore assumed he wouldn't do the one thing Obama said would trigger
Assad is a ruthless man: He would not hesitate to use chemical weapons
if he had to. He is also a very rational man: He would use chemical
weapons only if that were his sole option. At the moment, it is
difficult to see what desperate situation would have caused him to use
chemical weapons and risk the worst. His opponents are equally ruthless,
and we can imagine them using chemical weapons to force the United
States to intervene and depose al Assad. But their ability to access
chemical weapons is unclear, and if found out, the maneuver could cost
them all Western support. It is possible that lower-ranking officers in
al Assad's military used chemical weapons without his knowledge and
perhaps against his wishes. It is possible that the casualties were far
less than claimed. And it is possible that some of the pictures were
of these things are possible, but we simply don't know which is true.
More important is that major governments, including the British and
French, are claiming knowledge that al Assad carried out the attack.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a speech Aug. 26 clearly
building the case for a military response, and referring to the regime
attack as "undeniable" and the U.S. assessment so far as "grounded in
facts." Al Assad meanwhile has agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to
examine the evidence onsite. In the end, those who oppose al Assad will
claim his supporters concealed his guilt, and the insurgents will say
the same thing if they are blamed or if the inspectors determine there
is no conclusive evidence of attacks.
truth here has been politicized, and whoever claims to have found the
truth, whatever it actually is, will be charged with lying.
Nevertheless, the dominant emerging story is that al Assad carried out
the attack, killing hundreds of men, women and children and crossing the
red line Obama set with impunity. The U.S. president is backed into a
United States has chosen to take the matter to the United Nations.
Obama will make an effort to show he is acting with U.N. support. But he
knows he won't get U.N. support. The Russians, allies of al Assad and
opponents of U.N.-based military interventions, will veto any proposed
intervention. The Chinese -- who are not close to al Assad, but also
oppose the U.N.-sanctioned interventions -- will probably join them.
Regardless of whether the charges against al Assad are true, the
Russians will dispute them and veto any action. Going to the United
Nations therefore only buys time. Interestingly, the United States
declared on Sunday that it is too late for Syria to authorize
inspections. Dismissing that possibility makes the United States look
tough, and actually creates a situation where it has to be tough.
Consequences in Syria and Beyond
This is no longer simply about Syria. The United States has stated a condition that commits it to an intervention.
If it does not act when there is a clear violation of the condition,
Obama increases the chance of war with other countries like North Korea
and Iran. One of the tools the United States can use to shape the
behavior of countries like these without going to war is stating
conditions that will cause intervention, allowing the other side to
avoid crossing the line. If these countries come to believe that the
United States is actually bluffing, then the possibility of
miscalculation soars. Washington could issue a red line whose violation
it could not tolerate, like a North Korean nuclear-armed missile, but
the other side could decide this was just another Syria and cross that
line. Washington would have to attack, an attack that might not have
been necessary had it not had its Syria bluff called.
are also the Russian and Iranian questions. Both have invested a great
deal in supporting al Assad. They might both retaliate were someone to
attack the Syrian regime. There are already rumors in Beirut that Iran
has told Hezbollah to begin taking Americans hostage if the United
States attacks Syria. Russia meanwhile has shown in the Snowden affair
what Obama clearly regards as a hostile intent. If he strikes, he thus
must prepare for Russian counters. If he doesn't strike, he must assume
the Russians and Iranians will read this as weakness.
Syria was not an issue that affected the U.S. national interest until Obama declared a red line.
It escalated in importance at that point not because Syria is critical
to the United States, but because the credibility of its stated limits
are of vital importance. Obama's problem is that the majority of the
American people oppose military intervention, Congress is not fully
behind an intervention and those now rooting the United States on are
not bearing the bulk of the military burden -- nor will they bear the
criticism that will follow the inevitable civilian casualties, accidents
and misdeeds that are part of war regardless of the purity of the
question therefore becomes what the United States and the new coalition
of the willing will do if the red line has been crossed. The fantasy is
that a series of airstrikes, destroying only chemical weapons, will be
so perfectly executed that no one will be killed except those who
deserve to die. But it is hard to distinguish a man's soul from 10,000
feet. There will be deaths, and the United States will be blamed for
The military dimension is hard to define because the mission is unclear. Logically, the goal should be the destruction of the chemical weapons
and their deployment systems. This is reasonable, but the problem is
determining the locations where all of the chemicals are stored. I would
assume that most are underground, which poses a huge intelligence
problem. If we assume that perfect intelligence is available and that
decision-makers trust this intelligence, hitting buried targets is quite
difficult. There is talk of a clean cruise missile strike. But it is
not clear whether these carry enough explosives to penetrate even
minimally hardened targets. Aircraft carry more substantial munitions,
and it is possible for strategic bombers to stand off and strike the
so, battle damage assessments are hard. How do you know that you have
destroyed the chemicals -- that they were actually there and you
destroyed the facility containing them? Moreover, there are lots of
facilities and many will be close to civilian targets and many munitions
will go astray. The attacks could prove deadlier than the chemicals
did. And finally, attacking means al Assad loses all incentive to hold
back on using chemical weapons. If he is paying the price of using them,
he may as well use them. The gloves will come off on both sides as al
Assad seeks to use his chemical weapons before they are destroyed.
war on chemical weapons has a built-in insanity to it. The problem is
not chemical weapons, which probably can't be eradicated from the air.
The problem under the definition of this war would be the existence of a
regime that uses chemical weapons. It is hard to imagine how an attack
on chemical weapons can avoid an attack on the regime -- and regimes are
not destroyed from the air. Doing so requires troops. Moreover, regimes
that are destroyed must be replaced, and one cannot assume that the
regime that succeeds al Assad will be grateful to those who deposed him.
One must only recall the Shia in Iraq who celebrated Saddam's fall and
then armed to fight the Americans.
the insurgents would keep an air campaign off the table, and so appears
to be lower risk. The problem is that Obama has already said he would
arm the rebels, so announcing this as his response would still allow al
Assad to avoid the consequences of crossing the red line. Arming the
rebels also increases the chances of empowering the jihadists in Syria.
Obama proclaimed his red line on Syria and chemical weapons, he assumed
the issue would not come up. He made a gesture to those in his
administration who believe that the United States has a moral obligation
to put an end to brutality. He also made a gesture to those who don't
want to go to war again. It was one of those smart moves that can blow
up in a president's face when it turns out his assumption was wrong.
Whether al Assad did launch the attacks, whether the insurgents did, or
whether someone faked them doesn't matter. Unless Obama can get
overwhelming, indisputable proof that al Assad did not -- and that isn't
going to happen -- Obama will either have to act on the red line
principle or be shown to be one who bluffs. The incredible complexity of
intervening in a civil war without becoming bogged down makes the
process even more baffling.
Obama now faces the second time in his presidency when war was an option. The first was Libya. The tyrant is now dead, and what followed is not pretty.
And Libya was easy compared to Syria. Now, the president must intervene
to maintain his credibility. But there is no political support in the
United States for intervention. He must take military action, but not
one that would cause the United States to appear brutish. He must depose
al Assad, but not replace him with his opponents. He never thought al
Assad would be so reckless. Despite whether al Assad actually was, the
consensus is that he was. That's the hand the president has to play, so
it's hard to see how he avoids military action and retains credibility.
It is also hard to see how he takes military action without a political
revolt against him if it goes wrong, which it usually does.