Just when it looked like the US was ready to “punish” Assad for his use of chemical weapons in Syria the President backed down. The US has several ships in the region and has its bases on high alert, indicating action is not out of the question. The President’s signal he would ask for Congressional approval for action shows that their is no easy solution to the problem in Syria (or public opinion polls got to him).
In recent weeks the once strong support for action in Syria has waned. First, the Arab League backed out. More recently, Russia and China indicated they would block any action in the UN Security Council. Prime Minister David Cameron in the UK could not get Parliament to give him the okay to support US action in the country. Combine this with support for action in Syria in the US at a dismal 9% and no wonder the brakes have been put on the idea.
It seems everybody has an opinion on the issue. Advocates for action argue the genocide being conducted by Assad warrants US action on humanitarian grounds. These advocates hold high positions in the Obama Administration. Obama’s Adviser to the UN Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry both have forcefully advocated action. On the other side are members of the military, Congress,the vast majority of the public and it seems increasingly the larger world community.
A little background is in order here. Bashir Assad, the ruler of Syria, has been a thorn in the side of the US and our allies. In 2011, Jordan and Saudi Arabia supported a ethnic revolt from the majority Sunni and Islamic Jihadist rebels. Among this group is the Muslim Brotherhood, called the Syrian Brotherhood which Assad has repressed with brutal efficiency. The conflict has lasted for two long years. In early 2012 it looked likely Assad would fall but timely support from Iran in the form of Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard fighters and Russian arms allowed Assad to push the rebels away from his last few strongholds.
At the start of the conflict the world community and the US indicated they would stay out of the conflict. That is until several weeks before the 2012 election when President Obama said the use of chemical weapons crossed a “red line.” Presumably this meant the US and world would become involved if Assad used chemical weapons. Soon after the President’s announcement Assad thumbed his nose at the world community and used these weapons in a suburb of Damascus. Soon after his forces recaptured the suburb.
It seems one use of chemical weapons is not enough of a reason for the US and world to care but twice seems like to much. Assad’s forces again supposedly used chemical weapons and this time it seemed to get the President’s attention. The intelligence community declassified information to the public which stated these weapons killed 1,429 Syrians and wounded countless others.
Now the US sits with few supporters for action in Syria domestically and abroad. Thanks to the President’s actions the US now faces a very difficult choice. To honor its word that using chemical weapons crossed a “red line” or to back down and show that our word means nothing in the region. Despite the administration’s strong avocation for action in Syria they have continuously claimed that they will not put boots on the ground. Instead, the assault would be waged with unmanned drones and numerous ship-launched Tomahawk missiles.
Such a strike is unlikely to change the trajectory of the conflict. As of today, reports show Assad’s forces have gained the upper hand in the conflict and will soon control all the suburbs of Damascus. If they do gain control of these areas they could push out of the city and hit rebel territory in the Northeast and Northwest areas of the country.
There are problems with the argument for supporting the rebels. First-off, the rebels are not a monolithic group. The rebellion is composed of the Syrian Brotherhood as well as various Sunni jihadist tribes in the Northeast. While Senator John McCain may feel secure in saying he knows among them who the US can trust, few others feel the same way. Military expert Ralph Peters on Fox News has stated that the US has no idea who are the moderate rebels friendly to the US and the real jihadists.
Second, besides limited US involvement not changing the course of the conflict it is unclear if US involvement will incite a reaction from Iran. Iran’s presence in Syria cannot be mistaken for anything less than trying to keep strong control over the country. Assad and Iran have an alliance dating back since the beginning of his rule and Iran would not act kindly to US involvement in the conflict. Possibly Iran would order Hezbollah troops in Northern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to lob rockets down on Israel. Already Israel is making sure all its citizens have gas-masks in case of a chemical attack.
Third, US involvement might weaken our interests in the region. The US and the world has a vested interest in keeping the region stable. Not just because the world wants to ensure a steady supply of oil through the Suez but also because Iranian influence in the region has been steadily growing since the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. While a rebel victory in Syria might deprive Iran of a key ally it could also allow a new group to rule with an iron grip over the country. If this group is not friendly to US interests it could try and slaughter the minority ruling Alawite population or pick a fight with a neighbor.
Another issue is whether the US has the time and money to invest in action? Since 2001 the US has spent an estimated trillions on Afghanistan and Iraq with differing interpretations how well that money has been invested, US involvement could inevitably lead to a similar situation. Consider that a mere no fly zone would cost the US over $1 billion a month. This is not even mentioning that US lives would be endangered as Assad’s forces have been supplied with strong anti-air defenses by the Russians.
There remain even more issues, mostly on a strategic level. US missiles are unlikely to be able to hit mobile targets, the Syrians are already busy moving their chemical weapons to underground storage facilities and there is always the risk of civilian casualties.
None of this is to argue the US should not act nor is it to argue the US should. But the situation is complicated and fluid which might explain why at the last minute the President backed off from ordering the navy to send Assad a strong message. Personally, I think US action is inevitable, especially if more chemical weapons are used or Assad and/or his allies escalate by attacking Israel. If that happens the entire region will be thrown into chaos and the US will have no choice to act.
Syria resembles a lose-lose situation for the US. If we act we could make the situation worse. If we do not act we condone the use of chemical weapons and have our word badly stained through inaction. Either way, the US loses.