While speaking to the press in August 2012, President Obama made an off-the-cuff remark that eventually became an albatross around the neck of US foreign policy, stating: “A red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
This one quote, quite possibly intended as a “throwaway” line, implicitly commits the United States to take some sort of punitive action should the “red line” be crossed.
With this statement, President Obama, who had campaigned in 2008 as the candidate who would rebuild America’s reputation in the Middle East, and elsewhere, by refraining from military intervention, placed his administration on the road to possibly its second military intervention in an Arab/Muslim nation in as many years.
As word of the possible use of poison gas in the civil war began to make it out of Syria, accusations flew as to who the perpetrator was, with both sides in the conflict implicating the other.
Reports of refugees and independent international organizations increasingly pointed to government forces as those most likely to have engaged in the use of such weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
In December 2012, Obama “doubled-down” on his earlier threat, stating “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable…And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable.”
Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued her own warnings that the use of WMD would provoke a serious US response.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2013, reports streamed in to news outlets and intelligence sources that hundreds of Syrians, most of them civilians, had been killed in gas attacks in cities such as Homs, Aleppo, and the capital of Damascus. Mounting evidence began to point to the Syrian government as the likely perpetrator of these heinous war crimes.
By June, the Obama administration was openly considering aiding rebel fighters as a means of giving some measure of defense against Assad’s forces.
Last month, new evidence of a more recent and deadly Sarin attack was uncovered and made public. The attack, carried out in the suburbs of Damascus, reportedly killed an estimated 1,400 people, including women and children. Doctors in the area of the attack reported treating about 3,600 people with symptoms consistent with exposure to such toxic agents.
Given the scope of the humanitarian crisis brought about by the Assad regime’s alleged war crimes and the repeated warnings it has issued regarding the “red line,” the Obama administration has effectively painted itself into a corner and is faced with essentially a “no-win” situation of its own making.
On one side is Mr. Assad, an alleged genocidal war criminal, whose regime has traditionally been hostile to the United States and represents a grave threat to Israel. Mr. Assad’s primary allies are Russia, the Islamist rogue state of Iran, and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Iran has warned that if the US were to attack Syria, Teheran would respond by attacking Israel. Any such aggression on the part of the Iranians could trigger a much larger regional war.
It is doubtful, however, that the Iranians would act on their threat as Israel has long been “chomping at the bit” to strike Iran’s nuclear weapons production facilities. Any attack on the Jewish state would certainly unleash a massive response from Jerusalem.
On the other side are the rebels. Long portrayed in the media as “freedom fighters,” the pro-democracy Free Syrian Army (FSA) is becoming increasingly infiltrated by more extremist elements.
A rapidly growing percentage of the anti-Assad opposition are home-grown Islamists and jihadists pouring into Syria from throughout the Muslim world who are eager to establish a hard-core fundamentalist state in the aftermath of the fall of Assad.
It is well documented that numerous rebel groups are composed of, or have sworn allegiance to, the al-Qaida terrorist network, with which the United States has been at war since 2001. Indeed, some FSA commanders and fighters have defected to Islamist militias.
Giving the US great pause regarding overt support for the insurgents are the increasingly numerous reports and images of rebels making newly captured government soldiers kneel and then executing them on the spot.
Getting less coverage in the international media, yet just as disturbing, are attacks by Islamist militias on the Syrian Christian community, an “ethnic cleansing” tactic that is unfortunately becoming increasingly pervasive throughout the parts of the Middle East under the control of such radical groups.
Obama, by making such serious threats over the past year, has placed himself, and perhaps his legacy as president, in a very precarious position. If he fails to take action against Assad, not only does he allow the slaughter of innocents to continue unabated, but he also gravely damages US credibility, not just in the Middle East, but around the world.
Make no mistake, other countries (i.e. Iran, North Korea, etc.) are watching and any failure to follow through in Syria will embolden them to act to threaten US interests and national security elsewhere.
But taking action has become problematic. Obama and congressional Democrats ridiculed President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, stating that there was no international support, despite the fact that Mr. Bush assembled a 45-nation “Coalition of the Willing.”
Not only does Obama have no coalition, but he has lost his key ally, Great Britain. A vote in Parliament in August dealt Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government a stinging rebuke when it failed to grant him authorization to engage in military strikes against Syria.
The only ally that Obama appears to have is France, and there are signs that Paris is now starting to have second thoughts about committing to action against Damascus.
As the US has moved military assets (primarily Navy destroyers armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles) into the region, the American public has reacted strongly against intervention in Syria. Regardless of whether it is unilateral or in concert with allies, polls consistently show that the majority of the Americans are opposed to military action.
An ABC News/Washington Post released on September 3 indicated that 59% of respondents opposed unilateral military action. Even if the US has allied support, the poll indicated that 51% would still oppose going to war.
Despite the fact that the Constitution gives him the power to act as commander-in-chief, Mr. Obama, has started to show some ambivalence to do so, especially if it means America going it alone.
In an effort to rally support, Mr. Obama has asked Congress to endorse his use possible of force. However, a coalition of neo-isolationist Republicans led by possible 2016 presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and anti-war Democrats threaten to deny Mr. Obama the congressional support he so desperately desires.
Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution authorizing the use of force, there is no guarantee that it will pass the full Senate, despite that house having a Democrat majority.
Prospects for passage in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives look even bleaker. Besides the far right/far left anti-war coalition, there is another group standing in Mr. Obama’s way. Led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Obama’s opponent in the 2008 elections, this group supports action, but want the president to go further…to the point of bringing down the Assad regime.
Some in Congress and the public have argued that if Obama does act, the US will effectively be serving as the de facto ally of al-Qaida; any weakening of Assad’s regime will make the terrorist group the likely victor in the civil war. Perhaps, they argue, it is “better to deal with the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
Mr. Obama, himself, certainly has not helped his cause. As a man who clearly prefers domestic policy to international affairs, he has failed to articulate any clear mission for US forces if they are called to action.
Although the president has insisted there will be no “boots on the ground” a report that appeared in the New York Times in December 2012 revealed that the Pentagon estimated that it would take at least 75,000 troops to be inserted into Syria in order to secure the country’s WMD stockpile.
There is a persistent and pervasive fear that Mr. Obama may get the nation involved in what would become America’s third major war in the Middle East in little more than a decade…a prospect that would prove quite ironic for the man that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just months after he became president in 2009.
– Dr. Glen J. Antizzo, Associate Professor of Political Science at Mississippi College