Obama hits the pause button on Syria

By Robert Presser on September 7, 2013

After intelligence evidence emerged that Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons on his people, the Obama administration ramped up its military presence in the Mediterranean and initiated efforts to build an international coalition to attack key strategic sites in Syria.  That was up until Friday August 30th.  On Saturday afternoon, Obama and VP Joe Biden appeared in the Rose Garden and announced that the administration would seek Congressional approval to use US forces to attack Syria.  A resolution was drafted and sent to Congress indicating that vital US security interests in the region are at stake, necessitating decisive action.  In effect, the two carrier groups, support ships and other assets steaming towards the Lebanese coast have been put on hold.  In one of the greatest sudden reversals in modern Middle Eastern history, a major world power has halted the march to war in favour of debate, deliberation and internal discourse.

Note that I left out the phrase “sober second thought” since many military and political pundits believe that this was the greatest of blunders in what has already been an inept and ineffective Middle Eastern foreign policy since coming to office in 2009.  Key Arab allies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan are dismayed and disappointed, seeing a weakened United States, fatigued by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, unable to take action when a red line of its own definition has been crossed.  For Israel, this is another US blunder that, coupled with the failure to contain extremists in Iraq, to effectively manage its relationship with Egypt and to pursue Iran for its nuclear program, means that Israel is truly alone in the defense of its own security.  No matter what action is eventually taken in Syria, the US has taken a big step down in influence with its allies in the region that is unlikely to be reversed during the balance of Obama’s second term.

Obama had the executive authority to act; in the same way as Clinton acted in Kosovo and Bush initially launched into Afghanistan and Iraq.  What Obama came to realize is that constitutional and moral authority were not enough, what he really needed was the political cover of Congress behind him so that when the whole Middle East situation rapidly unravels he will be able to mitigate the political fallout at home by saying that he did not act alone.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave him attack scenarios which indicated that he could wait; the targets identified would still be available in two weeks’ time.  With that advice in hand, he cast aside the misgivings of his national security team and hit the pause button.

When British PM Cameron lost a similar vote in the House of Commons earlier in the week, the US lost its only coalition partner prepared to commit to joint operations.  While French President Hollande has indicated a willingness to use aircraft to bomb Syrian targets, the US and Britain were reluctant (at best) to cooperate with the French and negotiate strike targets on such short notice.  Without Congress’ sanction for US action, Obama would go down in the history books as being just as impulsive and headstrong as the second President Bush, against whose legacy he effectively campaigned in 2008.

So, in two weeks’ time, the US attacks Syrian targets.  The resolution that will eventually pass in Congress will limit the President to a short campaign, no boots on the ground, no regime change, no tilting the strategic balance in favour of the rebels.  Just send Assad a message, that chemical weapons are a no-no.  Please revert to killing your own people with conventional means, as we have allowed you to do for the past two years.  Don’t make the West come back and bomb you again, it can’t handle the political fallout from its voters.  Thanks for understanding our pressures back home, Bashar, you know what it’s like to manage a restless population.

In exchange for this limited attack, what is likely to happen in the region?  Hezbollah, armed by Iran via Syria, will launch whatever it can against northern Israel.  Syria itself will not attack Israel since Assad has probably been warned via backchannels that any violation of the uneasy truce that has existed since the 1973 war will result in a more effective attack against Syrian targets than the one planned by the US.  Violent demonstrations will take place in Egypt and Iraq causing further deaths in Cairo at the hands of the military government and the Shiite and Sunni conflict in Iraq may finally emerge into the full-fledged civil war that many have been expecting.  Iran will flex its influence by rushing “aid” to the Syrian regime, supported by Russia overtly and tacitly by China.  China, with vast economic interests in sub-Saharan Africa, will use the disenchantment with the US to seek new alliances in North Africa and even in the Middle East as old American allies will see a President, constrained by Congress, as unable to provide them with the military presence in the long run to provide security to their region.  The Chinese have finished their aircraft carrier and would like nothing better than to sail it into the region for its first international tour of duty.

Some readers may remember General Westmoreland, the commander of US forces in Vietnam.  After the war, he often argued in interviews that the Johnson and Nixon administrations never gave him the authorization to commit the required military assets to win the war.  In retrospect, what would have been the point of winning and occupying another country for a decade, the way the US ran Japan after World War II?  The US is no more willing today than it was 40 years ago to undertake that scale of nation-building and the half-baked effort in Iraq has only further dampened whatever minority enthusiasm was left.  The poor intelligence on WMD that was used by the Bush administration to invade Iraq is also weakening the credibility of the evidence that Secretary of State John Kerry has been promoting as justification for military intervention.

For an increasingly isolationist US Congress, the big question is: what’s the end game?  The truth is that there is only bad or worse.  Bad will be the expected results of the limited strike that were described earlier in this article.  Worse would be the collapse of the Assad regime with no moderate local leadership to take its place, and then Al Qaida-backed Sunni rebels fight Iranian-backed Shiite rebels for control of the country and hundreds of thousands more civilians die while the West watches and refuses to pick a winner amongst its enemies.  Worse still would be an incremental escalation of US involvement that eventually puts troops on the ground where no one wanted them, starting with “advisors” for whichever “good” rebels exist, and a slippery descent into more overt military involvement from there.  Remember, that’s how the Vietnam War started.  Sorry, the Vietnam “conflict”, because Congress never actually authorized its transition into a war.

Readers should recall that the US joined both world wars when they were already underway, our allies were heavily involved and stalemated (WWI) or losing (WWII) and in both cases there was clear evidence that US liberty would be compromised if the allies failed.  Americans like seeing how their wars are playing out before they heavily commit.  In wars that they develop themselves, such as Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, there is far more opposition to the initial involvement and never the same level of commitment to do whatever it takes to win.  This is especially true of wars in the Middle East, where winning is often impossible, objectives short of winning are difficult to elaborate and explain to a skeptical public, and the underlying issues remain unresolved.  The conflict in Syria is no different and will never produce a clear winner no matter what the US decides to do in the next few weeks.


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