US President Barack Obama landing at Ben Gurion Airport..
(photo credit: ISRAEL AIRPORTS AUTHORITY)
WASHINGTON -- Top national security officials are once again presenting to US President Barack Obama options to strike at the regime of Bashar Assad, at a critical moment in a five-year war throughout which he has repeatedly declined to act.
Ever since Assad used chemical weapons on a massive scale against civilians in August of 2013, Obama has ruled that the costs of direct US intervention against Assad– protected by land, air and sea by Russia– outweigh any potential benefits. But several of his cabinet-level secretaries now argue that calculus has changed, for several reasons.
The first argument is that the fall of the city of Aleppo into Assad's total control would be of great detriment to Washington's counterterrorism efforts, which primarily target Islamic State, but also several other offshoots of the al-Qaida network seeking to recruit battered rebels there. A rebel defeat in Aleppo might prove a fatal blow to the cause of moderate groups that began the uprising against Assad in the first place.
The second is humanitarian: Less than 30 doctors operating in eastern Aleppo are working to aid over 250,000 civilians, where British Prime Minister Theresa May this week said Assad forces are implementing a "starve or surrender" strategy, to great effect.
The third reason for action is political. Whoever wins the White House in November, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump support the creation of humanitarian safe zones in northern Syria that would require kinetic action to protect them should they be breached by Assad forces or Russian warplanes. The policy would alleviate Syria's refugee flow into Europe– dramatically affecting the continent's politics– but would require tens of thousands of US ground forces to implement, according to the president's national security adviser, Susan Rice.
If both candidates are resolved to increase US activity in Syria, the president may choose to get out front of his successor on his own terms. And the situation in Aleppo requires quick decision-making, given the Assad government's denial of access to humanitarian aid workers and Russia's ferocious, Grozny-style assault.
Strikes against Assad might include the targeting of his airstrips and command centers, as well as his units gathering on the outskirts of Aleppo. In 2013, Obama said he did not need congressional authorization for the use of force before taking action, but that obtaining an AUMF was his preference (Congress never held a vote).
Russia seems to be taking the White House policy reassessment seriously, positioning more advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries in Syria this week. Obama administration officials note that the forces Russia and Assad are purporting to fight– non-state terrorist actors– do not have air forces.
The president is reportedly concerned over whether the US has international legal standing to strike Assad, whose government is still represented at the United Nations. Obama has been presented with two paths forward on this front should he choose to proceed.
If the United States were to formally accuse the Assad regime and Moscow of war crimes, or specifically of genocide, he would then have legal justification to strike Damascus by citing the responsibility to protect. His second option would be to neither confirm nor deny that attacks on Assad forces and infrastructure are being perpetrated by the US– a tactic he does not favor, according to US officials, as it feeds suspicion of Washington abroad and a narrative of US deception that stokes Russian politics.
A spokesperson for the State Department says that all options are on the table now that the US has suspended a bilateral channel of communication with Moscow over the Syrian conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 400,000 people, the majority of whom are civilians.
US officials declined to comment when asked whether they believe Obama is more likely now, than he has been in the past, to consider US action in the conflict to stop Assad.