Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld
August 28, 2013
The international media is rife with speculation about a possible Western intervention in response to last Wednesday's chemical attack on civilians by the Syrian government. We've had "all wind and no rain" on Syria after previous gas attacks. This time, however, the US may feel compelled to do something–anything–to avoid adverse political fallout at home and possibly to regain some of the US credibility abroad.
While leaks from Washington suggest an imminent cruise missile attack targeting Syrian military as a warning to Assad, Syrian officials countered that they will retaliate with "strategic weapons ... aimed at Israel." Moreover, Syria and Iran warned, "If the US or Israel make the mistake of taking advantage of the chemical issue ... the region will go up in flames ... that will affect security not only in the region but across the world."
Thus far, the change in the Obama administration's posture since last Friday morning–when the president gave every indication that he would once again do nothing–is mostly in talk manifested in two forms: in the pronouncements of Secretary of State John Kerry and in leaks circulated around Washington.
Kerry has said, "Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny." Regrettably, he did not say what "accountability" means. However, contrary to what the White House has been saying since the Syrian chemical weapons incident last Wednesday about the role of the UN and the need for evidence–a sure way to avoid action, also practiced by Iran–Kerry said that the UN evidence was not necessary to prove what is already "grounded in facts." Besides, Syria's stalling a UN inspection contradicts the regime statement that it has nothing to hide.
According to the Washington Post, "A cruise missile strike, widely considered the most likely scenario, would be of limited duration–perhaps as few as 48 hours–without wider follow-on action such as the extended NATO bombardment of Libya in 2011, according to lawmakers and to individuals close to decision-making who spoke on condition of anonymity about the closely held plans.
"The strike would probably not be directed at numerous and widely dispersed chemical weapons sites, but at damaging the Syrian air force and bases. It would be calculated as a deterrent to prevent further atrocities rather than ending Syria's civil war." Britain and France can hardly wait and NATO will take up the matter with a meeting on Wednesday.
While the leakers suggest possible serious attack on Assad's military capacities, they offer no analysis of the ramifications of such an attack. Assad and Iran already announced they'll attack Israel first, and then American and Western targets everywhere. What will Putin, who opposes any attack on his Syrian ally, do? Are we prepared to preempt or respond to such attacks?
If missiles are launched, the greater likelihood would seem to be a more "surgical" approach, perhaps targeting the Syrian military units that were involved in the use of chemical weapons and providing the opposition with the military support needed to identify and strike military units armed with chemical weapons. No one knows the feasibility of such things, however. Strategic analyst Eliot Cohen has warned against what he calls "therapeutic bombing," that is to say, bombing that makes us feel better but does nothing of any significance. In his opinion, the taming of Assad will take more than a few cruise missiles.
This, and past Assad behavior, brings to mind two things. First, that no threat from Barack Obama has thus far had the slightest restraining effect on Assad. A few cruise missiles could ignite more violence. And, second, whether we like it or not, the resolution of the Syrian situation will not be resolved by US and European intervention.
It would be surprising to witness a fundamental US foreign policy change in the Middle East. The distance from where Barack Obama was on the morning of August 23, when interviewed by CNN, to what Kerry had to say today is vast.
On Friday, Obama, as might have been expected, said that the administration was still gathering evidence on Assad's use of chemical weapons. However, he gave a hint as to what happened the last time that regime was accused of using chemical weapons: "but I can say that unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern." This is an indication that, as far as Obama is concerned, UN-gathered evidence is all. The president said this knowing full well that Assad, although he said he would let UN inspectors in, would stall just long enough for the evidence to dissipate. Obama also must have known that the UN inspectors' security detail would delay the inspection out of fear for the safety of the personnel involved.
Yes, the UN inspectors are now at some part of the site of the chemical incident. However, this comes five days after the event, and nerve gas evaporates quickly. Furthermore, there are reports that Assad's forces have been constantly attacking the neighborhood constantly since the chemical incident.
In line with his past utterances about the importance of the UN in such matters, Obama also said that "We're moving through the U.N. to try to prompt better action from them. ... And, you know, if the US goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account."
In these few sentences, Obama indicated that the UN and international law and coalition-building are considerations that trump urgent responses to genocidal acts and future preventive action.
The president then moved on to our long-term national interests. He said that the American people expected him to consider them. Referring to his predecessors, Obama gave a little history lesson:
"And, you know, I -- you know, sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."
Given the duration of the Syrian civil war, more than 100,000 civilian casualties, millions of refugees from Syria, and reports of the government's past use of chemical weapons, last week's incident is (possibly, if the UN gets the evidence and blesses action) might get the West to take some action. States normally make plans A to Z when trouble is on the horizon, which the US apparently has not done and therefore says it needs more time.
Besides this, Obama indicated that most of the American people object to direct involvement in Syria, because "we've still got a war going on in Afghanistan." He made a few more remarks about his intention to end that war and how he feels every time he visits veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
After citing all the reasons why the US should do nothing alone, he said:
"So, you know, we remain the one indispensable nation. There's a reason why, when you listen to what's happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the US is doing. It's because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders.
"But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians."
The one indispensable nation? If the rest of the world (besides Russia and Iran) doesn't want to get involved in Syria, then the US is indeed indispensable. Nothing done by the US assures nothing done by anyone else. The last time the Obama's US took action (Libya), it's indispensable character had us "leading from behind."
Thus, Secretary Kerry statement today seemed to indicate departure from his boss' indecisive statements. We should remember, however, that Kerry has "spoken out of school" before, providing the president deniability.
But the Syrian civil war must not be allowed to continue as it is and must be stopped from igniting the region and creating unrest everywhere. Jonathan Halevi lays out the military situation in Syria that needs to be considered by those who see the present as a crunch point.
This article was originally published at The American Center for Democracy. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
The BasicsProject.org informational and educational pamphlet series is now available for Kindle and iPad. Click here to find out more...
The New Media Journal and BasicsProject.org are not funded by outside sources. We exist exclusively on tax deductible donations from our readers and contributors.
Please make a tax deductible donation today.