The Stakes Are Rising in Syria

President Obama may be facing a big test of his leadership as he acknowledged last Friday that “we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria.”

Although he dubbed those findings “preliminary assessments,” the president conceded  that “ I’ve been very clear publicly but also privately that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus…”

However you mix your metaphors, he’s in a tough spot.

Chastened by President Bush’s catastrophic war of choice in Iraq, President Obama has gone to the other extreme in Syria, even as an estimated 70,000 civilians have been killed in its civil war between rebels and the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Now the pressure on him is rising. Perennial interventionists Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have called for the U.S. and allies to install a “no-fly zone” to prevent Assad’s air force from massacring rebels and civilians.

And the liberal interventionists are getting in on the act, too. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, former Obama Administration State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote:

…The White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act.

Problem is, the U.S. doesn’t have much leverage, and the president knows it. The Assads have been sworn enemies of Israel and terrorist sponsors for decades. Syria heavily backs Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and is Iran’s chief ally in the Arab Middle East.

Behind Assad as well is Russia’s truculent leader Vladimir Putin, who has provided the regime with advanced weaponry.  Russia has a major naval base at Tartus, its last remaining naval outpost in the Mediterranean.

Russia and China have worked behind the scenes to prevent action against Syria, under their banner of “non-interference in nations’ internal affairs” but really part of their policy to check the U.S. around the globe. Their veto power at the U.N. Security Council is the principal obstacle to taking collective action against Assad.

Citizen journalists captured damage in Aleppo, Syria following battle between rebels and the government in February 2013. Photo: Flickr/Aleppo Media Center

Citizen journalists captured damage in Aleppo, Syria following battle between rebels and the government in February 2013. Photo: Flickr/Aleppo Media Center

Richard Haass of the Council of Foreign Relations laid out some possible options for the president on “Morning Joe” last week:

  • “Start supplying lethal aid to selected Syrian oppositionists.”
  • Consider “cruise missile strikes against things associated with chemicals and possibly against the regime…”

However, Haass and even warhawks McCain and Graham warned against putting American boots on the ground in Syria.

As to arming the rebels, the question now is, whom should we arm? A disturbing report in The New York Times over the weekend suggests it may be hard finding the “good guys” at all:

…The Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.

Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace,… acknowledged… that the current momentum toward radicalism could be hard to reverse.

Should we have armed them earlier, before they were radicalized? Maybe. But would any American president funnel aid to a potential Syrian Taliban now? No way!

That’s one of many reasons this looks like a situation with lots of bad choices and no good outcomes. The president is in a tough spot indeed.



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