Obama's disappearing ink

If Obama did not want to get heavily involved in the Syrian quagmire, he should not have established red lines in the first place

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Jeremy Havardi
On 11 May 2013 10:06

Last week, Israel's air force carried out a number of air strikes inside Syria. The Israeli air force reportedly targeted shipments of sophisticated Iranian missiles that were bound for Lebanese territory, specifically for Hezbollah. These missiles, with their 300 kilometre range and precise guidance systems, could have hit targets in most major Israeli cities.

Such formidable weaponry would have given Hezbollah a powerful means of striking Israel in the event of renewed hostilities. That was why Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's defence minister, announced last month that any attempt to transport sophisticated weapons to Lebanon would cross a red line.

Yet while the crossing of Israeli red lines has led to decisive action, the same cannot be said of the United States. In August 2012, the President declared that a red line would be crossed in Syria if "we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized".

As if to dismiss any doubts, he reiterated on March 21st this year that the US would not tolerate "the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists". In an ominous tone he warned Assad, "We will hold you accountable".

But as evidence of chemical weapons use has accumulated in recent weeks, a frustrating mood of passivity has taken over in Washington. The White House has admitted that the use of sarin "very likely originated within the Assad regime" which was now becoming increasingly "desperate". Yet Obama added that he did not know "how they were used, when they were used, who used them".

Of course, there may be some room for caution here in light of past intelligence failures. But it could equally be an attempt to close the door on any intervention using finely honed legal reasoning. After all, obtaining proof of government involvement beyond a reasonable doubt may be impossible to obtain, especially in a fast moving war zone. On the balance of probabilities, intelligence assessments now point to government involvement.

One American official responded to this criticism with this question: "How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defence and with no Security Council resolution...If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

But a Russian veto at the UN did not stop President Clinton from authorising air strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop Milosevic's ethnic cleansing. Moreover, if the only legitimate basis for attacking Syria was self-defence, why was a red line drawn in the first place? After all, preventing chemical weapons use is about defending Syrian people rather than American interests.

One senior administration official said that Obama's remark was calculated merely to "put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action". If so, this dangerous game of bluff has backfired rather spectacularly. Obama's near obsessive pursuit of soft power may impress the New York Times but it has made little impression on the ruthless Assad.

The American administration appears to be like a rabbit caught in the headlights, trapped by past commitments that it does not want to meet. Hence John McCain's recent quip that the President's red line on Syria appeared to have been drawn in "disappearing ink".

Granted, this is a compellingly complex civil war in which there are very few easy options for the U.S. American intervention could easily misfire and end up providing support to extreme jihadist forces that are vastly worse than Assad. And some options, like full scale military intervention or a no fly zone, would appear to be a non-starter. Obama is more than aware that the American public would be highly unlikely to support full scale involvement in the Syrian civil war.

But if Obama did not want to get heavily involved in the Syrian quagmire, he should not have established red lines in the first place. For having made a prior commitment to intervention, he now looks an increasingly weak and irresolute leader prone to making excuses for inaction. If his procrastination continues, Obama's credibility will be left even further in tatters while America will appear to be, at least in Assad's eyes, a paper tiger.

More worryingly, Washington's inaction will not go unnoticed by the leaders of Iran and North Korea. They could be forgiven for thinking that any red lines imposed over their nuclear programmes are now increasingly meaningless.   

Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton

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