What would an attack on Syria accomplish?
September 11, 2013
The administration’s handling of events in Syria has resurrected the Obama Doctrine.
At the time of U.S. intervention in the Libyan civil war, I wrote about the Obama Doctrine based on responsibility to protect (“R2P”) and humanitarian intervention.
If there was an Obama Doctrine, it should have applied to Syria before now. The death toll in the Syrian civil war surpassed 100,000 prior to the sturm und drang over the use of chemical weapons. Compare this to the 1,429 deaths from chemical weapons currently estimated by the United States.
A year and a half ago, I explored the application of R2P to the developing situation in Syria. Unfortunately, my conclusion is coming to pass:
Syria has become one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots. On the regional level, it has the ability to involve not only Syrians, but the Arab world, Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel. Globally, it may lead to confrontation between the United States and Russia. And, on a policy level, we might learn if there is more to R2P than expedient sloganeering.
Sloganeering it is, coupled with the urgency to protect, not innocent civilians, but the personal prestige of Barack Obama.
In August 2012, reacting to intelligence reports suggesting the Assad government might be preparing to use chemical weapons, Obama declared at a news conference that moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus.” Obama thought his threat would be sufficient to deter Syria from using chemical warfare.
In April, Israeli intelligence declared that it had found evidence that the Syrian government repeatedly used chemical weapons during March and was testing the United States to see if Obama would enforce his declaration. The White House blurred Obama’s red line, saying further work was necessary to establish a definitive judgment.
The administration claims the Assad regime used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in August and demands the world join the United States in taking punitive action. Unfortunately for the president, the world has not responded favorably.
With American popular sentiment also against military action in Syria, Obama, who has consistently claimed he has the power to order strikes without congressional approval, punted the issue to Congress. This was a “cover your butt,” win-win political move by Obama: If Congress approves strikes, Obama is vindicated; if it does not, he is off the hook.
Obama even went as far as obfuscating his red line, laughably claiming that the world drew that line and not he.
It is difficult for a Jew with historical perspective to argue against intervention against the use of chemical weapons, but I will.
Intervention in Syria is against international law, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon points out. Such an action would require a Security Council resolution, and because of the certainty of a Russian veto, none will be forthcoming.
The exception to the requirement is self-defense. The United States has not been attacked by Syria, nor has it been threatened by Syria, except in response to U.S. threats.
If this was a criminal case, as the Justice Department would like to handle terrorism cases, has the United States made its case against Assad beyond a reasonable doubt? No.
The UN inspectors have not issued the results of their inspection. Assuming that the administration is correct and sarin gas was used, was the Assad regime the perpetrator? UN human rights investigators said there was evidence that the Syrian rebels, not the government, used sarin in the attack reported last spring. The German press reported Assad did not personally order the chemical attack. Could this have been a false flag operation by the rebels to get the United States involved?
Assuming that Assad is the culprit, at this point in time what would an attack accomplish? Obama claims the mission is limited to preventing the future use of chemical weapons. However, we will not destroy the weapons for fear of releasing the thing whose use we are protesting. Additionally, we have also signaled to Syria the proposed attacks’ duration, strength and timing, allowing countermeasures to be taken.
There is also the problem of mission creep, thanks in part to Sen. John McCain, who insisted that the Senate resolution contain authorization to change momentum on the battlefield. This means backing the rebels with an eye toward regime change, something Obama said he would not do. Moreover, Obama has directed the Pentagon to expand its target list.
Would the rebels be better than the deposed Assad regime? Possibly not, because of the Al Qaida component.
Finally, is the administration prepared for retaliatory measures as threatened by Syria and, importantly, Iran?
The president argues an action in Syria sends a warning to Iran. Why would he feel the need to send a message to Iran’s new “moderate” president, whom the administration thinks would reasonably negotiate over Iran’s march to nuclear weapons?
Unlike Syria, Iran has threatened both the United States and Israel. If the president is serious about Iran, he should send a message directly to Iran, not through a proxy.