The leaders who talked tough and lodged veiled threats at Syrian President Bashar al Assad may have been blowing smoke.
The international community on Thursday began to dither in its response to alleged chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against civilians in a rebel-controlled Damascus neighborhood more than a week ago. Britain and France tempered their earlier hawkish statements toward the Assad regime, while Russia attempted to slow matters at the United Nations.
Even Assad is attempting to delay action by urging U.N. weapons inspectors to stay in the country longer to determine if rebels committed the chemical attacks that shocked the world.
But the most conspicuous inaction came from Washington. After forceful comments by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier in the week – after which an attack seemed imminent – the Obama administration has done little but anonymously leak possible courses of action to the media. Now, an attack that once seemed virtually certain is no longer guaranteed.
“I have gotten options with our military, had extensive conversations with my national security team,” the president told the PBS NewsHour Wednesday. “If the Assad regime used chemical weapons on his own people, then that would change some of our calculations – and the reason has to do with not only international norms but America’s own self-interest.”
More than 100 lawmakers, in the meantime, have written the president a letter asking Obama to consult with them before taking any military action. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) also said Obama needs congressional approval before any action is taken. Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) went so far as to say the president had not made a credible case for action.
“It may be that there is a compelling case to be made that intervention in Syria is necessary to defend U.S. interests,” Cruz, the small-government conservative, said in a statement Thursday. “But to date no such case has been made by President Obama, leaving those of us in Congress with some serious questions.”
But many believe the president has missed his window of opportunity. Any cruise missile attack that takes places now would be ineffective strategically, would do little to swing the outcome of the war, and might even do harm to American interests in the Middle East.
1. Assad has already moved his forces away from strategic targets, and his chemical weapons are untouchable. The problem with hinting at an attack and doing nothing is that it gives the target time to adjust. Assad has done just that, according to reports, removing key military assets from areas likely to be targeted in a cruise missile strike. He’s replaced troops with prisoners.
Also, the United States is not capable of attacking chemical weapons sites without risking the spread of those weapons. Any sites it does take out aren’t likely to greatly diminish Assad’s capabilities.
2. The so-called “red line” is non-existent. Some argue that strikes are necessary as a deterrent to Syria and other countries against using weapons of mass destruction with impunity. But Obama’s red line credibility has been shot: Rogue nations now know that he is not a man of his word when it comes to WMDs.
Plus, the whole red line ultimatum exposes a continued disinterest in civilian casualties within the White House. Conventional weapons were at one time killing up to 5,000 Syrians each day. The White House did nothing.
When the red line was crossed and thousands more died, still it did nothing. The president appears to have no desire to stop the slaughter. The interventionists such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who he brought in to shape his second-term foreign policy, have obviously lost.
3. There’s no reason to add chaos to an already chaotic region. The Middle East is a mess and American military action in Syria would simply contribute to that. Military action also risks drawing Israel into a wider regional conflict, one that the U.S. would be powerless to control without a substantial military investment.
It’s also apparent that American allies are in no rush to enter another Middle Eastern military adventure. “I do not believe we should be rushed to judgment on this issue based on a political timetable set elsewhere,” British Labor Party Minister Edward Miliband said. “I do not rule out supporting the prime minister, but frankly, he [Cameron] needs to make a better case than he has today.”
Prime Minister Cameron, in fact, lost a vote late Thursday in Parliament about possible military action against Syria. Cameron responded, “I will act accordingly.”
4. An attack of the nature suggested earlier by the Obama administration would inevitably lead to civilian casualties. Cruise missile strikes are notoriously messy and take the lives of civilians. In 1998, cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan killed 124 civilians. Thousands of civilians were killed by missile strikes in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The strategic payoff is simply not worth the civilian toll or the toll that pictures of these casualties would take on the image of the United States.
Obama, for better or worse, has isolated the United States.