How Ready is Obama to Face Assad and Iran?

By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Tuesday, August 27th, 2013 @ 5:52AM

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The international media is rife with speculation about apossible Western intervention in response to last Wednesday’s chemical attack on civilians by the Syrian government.  We’ve had “all wind and no rain” on Syria after previous gas attacks. This time, however, the U.S. may feel compelled to do something–anything–to avoid adverse political fallout at home and possibly to regain some of the U.S. credibility abroad.

While leaks from Washington suggest an imminent cruisemissile attack targeting Syrian military as a warning to Assad, Syrian officials countered that they will retaliate with “strategic weapons … aimed at Israel.” Moreover, Syria andIran warned, “If the US or Israel make the mistake of taking advantage of the chemical issue … the region will go up in flames … that will affect security not only in the region but across the world.”

Thus far, the change in the Obama administration’s posturesince last Friday morning–when the president gave every indication that he would once again do nothing–is mostly intalk manifested in two forms: in the pronouncements of Secretary of State John Kerry and in leaks circulated around Washington.

Kerry has said, “Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.” Regrettably, he did not say what “accountability” means.  However, contrary to what the White House has been saying since the Syrian chemical weapons incident last Wednesday about the role of the UN and the need for evidence–a sure way to avoid action, also practiced by Iran–Kerry said that the UN evidence was not necessary to prove what is already “grounded in facts.” Besides, Syria’s stalling a UN inspection contradicts the regime statement that it has nothing to hide.

According to the Washington Post, “A cruise missile strike, widely considered the most likely scenario, would be of limited duration–perhaps as few as 48 hours–without wider follow-on action such as the extended NATO bombardment of Libya in 2011, according to lawmakers and to individuals close to decision-making who spoke on condition of anonymity about the closely held plans.

“The strike would probably not be directed at numerous and widely dispersed chemical weapons sites, but at damaging the Syrian air force and bases. It would be calculated as a deterrent to prevent further atrocities rather than ending Syria’s civil war.” Britain and France can hardly wait and NATO will take up the matter with a meeting on Wednesday.

While the leakers suggest possible serious attack on Assad’s military capacities, they offer no analysis of the ramifications of such an attack. Assad and Iran already announced they’ll attack Israel first, and then American and Western targets everywhere. What will Putin, who opposes any attack on his Syrian ally, do? Are we prepared to preempt or respond to such attacks?

If missiles are launched, the greater likelihood would seem to be a more “surgical” approach, perhaps targeting the Syrian military units that were involved in the use of chemical weapons and providing the opposition with the military support needed to identify and strike military units armed with chemical weapons. No one knows the feasibility of such things, however.  Strategic analyst Eliot Cohen has warned against what he calls “therapeutic bombing,” that is to say, bombing that makes us feel better but does nothing of any significance.  In his opinion, the taming of Assad will take more than a few cruise missiles.

This, and past Assad behavior, brings to mind two things. First, that no threat from Barack Obama has thus far had the slightest restraining effect on Assad.  A few cruise missiles could ignite more violence. And, second, whether we like it or not, the resolution of the Syrian situation will not be resolved by U.S. and European intervention.

It would be surprising to witness a fundamental U.S. foreign policy change in the Middle East. The distance from where Barack Obama was on the morning of August 23, when interviewed by CNN, to what Kerry had to say today is vast.

On Friday, Obama, as might have been expected, said that the administration was still gathering evidence on Assad’s use of chemical weapons.  However, he gave a hint as to what happened the last time that regime was accused of using chemical weapons: “but I can say that unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”  This is an indication that, as far as Obama is concerned, UN-gathered evidence is all.  The president said this knowing full well that Assad, although he said he would let UN inspectors in, would stall just long enough for the evidence to dissipate.  Obama also must have known that the UN inspectors’ security detail would delay the inspection out of fear for the safety of the personnel involved.

Yes, the UN inspectors are now at some part of the site of the chemical incident.  However, this comes five days after the event, and nerve gas evaporates quickly. Furthermore, there are reports that Assad’s forces have been constantly attacking the eighborhood constantly since the chemical incident.

In line with his past utterances about the importance of the UN in such matters, Obama also said that “We’re moving through the U.N. to try to prompt better action from them. … And, you know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

In these few sentences, Obama indicated that the UN and international law and coalition-building are considerations that trump urgent responses to genocidal acts and future preventive action.

The president then moved on to our long-term national interests.  He said that the American people expected him to consider them. Referring to his predecessors, Obama gave a little history lesson:

“And, you know, I — you know, sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”

Given the duration of the Syrian civil war, more than 100,000 civilian casualties, millions of refugees from Syria, and reports of the government’s past use of chemical weapons, last week’s incident is (possibly, if the UN gets the evidence and blesses action) might get the West to take some action. States normally make plans A to Z when trouble is on the horizon, which the U.S. apparentlh has not done and therfore says it needs more time.

Besides this, Obama indicated that most of the American people object to direct involvement in Syria, because “we’ve still got a war going on in Afghanistan.”  He made a few more remarks about his intention to end that war and how he feels every time he visits veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

After citing all the reasons why the U.S. should do nothing alone, he said:

“So, you know, we remain the one indispensable nation. There’s a reason why, when you listen to what’s happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It’s because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders.

“But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

The one indispensable nation? If the rest of the world (besides Russia and Iran) doesn’t want to get involved in Syria, then the U.S. is indeed indispensable.  Nothing done by the U.S. assures nothing done by anyone else.  The last time the Obama’s U.S. took action (Libya), it’s indispensable character had us “leading from behind.”

Thus, Secretary Kerry statement today seemed to indicatedeparture from his boss’ indecisive statements. We should remember, however, that Kerry has “spoken out of school” before, providing the president deniability.

But the Syrian civil war must not be allowed to continue as it is and must be stopped from igniting the region and creating unrest everywhere. Jonathan Halevi lays out the military situation in Syria that needs to be considered by those who see the present as a crunch point.

The Chemical Attack in Syria: Implications

The regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad has once again made use of chemical weapons in Syria’s bloody civil war, which has cost over 100,000 lives since it began in March 2011.

An aerial bombardment of several communities in the suburbs of Damascus apparently killed over a thousand people. Videos show numerous corpses with no sign of external injury, as well as bodies of people who died of asphyxiation.

The Assad regime has already crossed all moral lines in this war, and is committing genocide against the Sunni Muslim population by indiscriminate bombardment of civilian targets, mass executions, the torturing to death of thousands of detainees and prisoners, and mass acts of rape.

In the regime’s view the war against the popular insurrection and rebel forces is a zero-sum game; giving up the reins of government would likely entail the genocide of the Alawite minority by the Sunni majority. That majority is now led by radical Islamic organizations that mostly share the aim of establishing an Islamist regime in Syria that would implement Shari’a law.

In recent months the Syrian army has made several gains on the battlefield, managing to reconquer the town of Qusayr on the border with Lebanon and the Al- Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs. These gains were made possible by the growing cooperation between Syria and its allies Iran, Iraq, and Hizbullah, which are assisting the Assad regime with money, weapons, and fighters.

As the regular Syrian army’s ranks are thinned by heavy and ongoing losses, it has been replenished by fighters from Hizbullah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as well as Shiite volunteers from Iraq and, apparently, Pakistan.

The victories in Al-Qusayr and Al-Khalidiya did not, however, alter the balance of power. Redeploying and launching attacks in other areas, the rebel organizations have made impressive gains in the Aleppo area (conquering the Menagh military airport), in the Alawite enclave in the Latakia district (conquering over twenty villages), and in the Damascus suburbs. Rebel ranks were also reinforced in the Homs district, where they succeeded to check the advance of the Syrian army.

The rebels are mainly seeking to thwart what they see as a strategic effort by the regime to set up an Alawite state. This putative entity would be based in the enclave of Latakia-Tartus, in Damascus the capital, and in the Homs district near the Lebanese border.

With the rebels’ advances in the Latakia district and the Damascus suburbs creating a tangible threat to the regime’s survival, it was apparently a sense of distress that prompted the decision to use chemical weapons in the Damascus area on the night of August 20-21. (While the use of such weapons has not yet been officially confirmed, the photographs and videos make it appear highly likely.) Despite what the regime claimed, the aerial attack was not directed at “terrorist dens” but at a civilian population, and its goal was apparently to damage the rebels’ morale and convey a clear message about the regime’s determination to fight for its life at any price.

The Syrian regime well knows that the results of a chemical-weapons attack cannot be covered up. Its decision nevertheless to perpetrate one reflects its assessment that, under current political conditions and with its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian backing (including threats of revenge attacks in the Persian Gulf), the international community is incapable of dislodging it.

The attack, however, has not discouraged the rebel forces but instead intensified their motivation to fight. It probably will also increase the flow of foreign volunteers, some from Western countries, seeking to join the ranks of the rebels.

When the rebels debated in the past whether to exact retribution against the Alawite minority, the decision adopted by the mainstream was to refrain from acts of mass vengeance, despite the regime’s massacres. The hope was to encourage the Alawites to repudiate the Assad regime, thereby facilitating his overthrow. U.S. and international pressure also played a role. This approach, however, may now be reconsidered, especially in light of the rebels’ advances in the Latakia and Damascus areas.

Main Implications

Given the rebel forces’ gains and the ongoing attrition of the Syrian army, the Assad regime is experiencing a sense of existential threat and is no longer foregoing doomsday weapons in its effort to survive.

War crimes and crimes against humanity – indeed, constituting a form of genocide – have been carried out in Syria on a large scale and before the eyes of the world. The lessons of the Second World War have not been learned. Even in the era of modern communications, with daily documentation of the atrocities, genocide can occur under conditions where the international system is paralyzed by interests and rivalries between the powers.

The international impotence in the face of these events weakens deterrence against the use of nonconventional weapons and has implications in the Iranian context as Tehran continues on its determined march toward nuclear weapons.

In the wake of the latest attack, the likelihood of revenge attacks against the Alawite minority has grown – possibly using chemical weapons that may fall into the hands of rebel forces.

The Syrian regime has shown that it has no moral inhibitions about using chemical weapons at a time of strategic distress. It is therefore possible that, in an extreme scenario where there is an immediate danger of its overthrow, it will resort to attacking Israeli civilian targets with chemical weapons.

The Syrian crisis will continue to deepen the Sunni-Shiite rift in the Muslim world. This may well lead to reciprocal revenge attacks in the Middle East and East Asia, and even in Muslim communities in the West.

Mr. Halevi’s article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center from Public Affairs.

Further Reading

Telegraph UK: Syria agrees to allow UN inspectors access to site of chemical weapon attacks. Syria’s government has agreed to allow inspectors to visit the site of a chemical weapons attack in Damascus, four days after the onslaught was launched.

Lee Smith: Assad Calls Obama’s Bluff

Benny Avni: Atrocity made safe: Why Syria’s free to slaughter

WSJ: Double-Secret Probation for Bashar. White House: ‘There is no doubt that we condemn in the strongest possible…’

WSJ: Tensions Rise as U.S. Nears Determination on Syria Attack: White House Holds Internal Talks, Confers With European Partners

Categories: Latest News, Middle East Conflicts, U.S. Policy

On The Campaign Trail

Check the dates and see when we're in your town!