Why President Obama isn’t sold on Syria

If the climbing death toll combined with the growing humanitarian crisis hasn’t already compelled President Obama to commence military action against al-Assad, what will?

by Joseph Raskas on 29 August 2013 19:30

It has been said that policy is a set of pragmatic choices between unpalatable alternatives designed to achieve the most desirable realistic result. What is President Obama’s desired outcome in Syria?

To be sure, the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during an attack on a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus has put President Obama somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, there are two compelling arguments for why the US should commit the use of military force against the al-Assad regime. First, military action is necessary to avoid the setting of a dangerous precedent, whereby megalomaniac tyrants can otherwise ignore clear US redlines with presidential impunity. A military strike sends a strong message – both to Assad and to other world leaders – that no dirty deed shall go unpunished.

Second, military action is necessary to maintain President Obama’s credibility and, consequently, to preserve the US military’s deterrence capabilities. Both are essential elements for the US to be able to effectively confront the harsh geo-political realities of the Middle East in general, and to conduct serious nuclear negotiations with Iran in particular. 

On the other hand, there is also a good reason for why President Obama might not want to open up another war front by attacking Syria. That is, the US is war weary and therefore unsupportive of military action.

According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, approximately 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war. In fact, just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act.

So far the civil war in Syria has resulted in approximately 100,000 deaths and several alleged minor chemical weapons attacks. Additionally, the country has become a hot-bed of terrorist activity for groups such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. In turn, this has caused a mass exodus of Syrian refugees who have flooded neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Turkey. Collectively, these atrocities threaten to destabilise the entire region.

If the climbing death toll combined with the growing humanitarian crisis hasn’t already compelled President Obama to commence military action against al-Assad, it is therefore unlikely another chemical weapons attack in a rebel-controlled suburb will convince the president.

Which means it is possible President Obama is carefully weighing a third option: stalling for time. The president on Wednesday even appeared to back away from the idea of a strike on Syria, saying, “I have not made a decision.”

Biding for time is certainly not a panacea, but it would allow President Obama the opportunity to make a more informed decision, rather than rush hastily into the fog of war.

A delay also gives al-Assad time to move his arsenal of chemical weapons into underground bunkers or transfer them into storage facilities conveniently located in densely populated areas, as Hezbollah, Syria’s terrorist proxy, is quite fond of doing.

Burying the weapons underground would make them impervious, or at least less vulnerable, to a potential US attack, depending upon the efficacy of US intelligence. Alternatively, storing the weapons in sites located in civilian areas would make a US strike counterproductive, as an attack is then likely to harm the very civilians it was intended to protect.

Either way, al-Assad has already allegedly committed the heinous atrocity that the setting of redlines was specifically meant to prevent. At this point, therefore, the passage of time only works to the president’s direct advantage.

So for now, the drums of war may beat fast and loud. Given the complexity of the circumstances regarding the region and the vast implications of a US attack for President Obama, however, it would not be surprising for the tide of war to slowly fade, and then quietly recede altogether.  

Joseph Raskas served in the Israel Defense Forces and is a student at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management

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