Obama’s dilemma: No good options in Syria

Washington Watch: Going to war on faulty – and probably intentionally misleading – intelligence about weapons of mass destruction had to weigh on Obama’s mind.

Obama's Speech521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Obama's Speech521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There was more than a touch of irony as Barack Obama sat on the stage in Dallas, Texas, watching his predecessor dedicate his presidential library, which opens this week on the 10th anniversary of George W. Bush strutting on the deck of an aircraft carrier declaring he’d won the war in Iraq. That turned out to be Mission UN-accomplished; the war wasn’t over, and the winner turned out to be Iran. Maybe that’s why didn’t even mention Iraq once in his speech that day.
Going to war on faulty – and probably intentionally misleading – intelligence about weapons of mass destruction had to weigh on Obama’s mind, knowing that the story was breaking that day of Syria’s apparent use of poison gas against its own citizens.
After the experience of Bush’s wars Obama knew neither the public nor the Pentagon was ready for a third war, but he had drawn a red line that would be a “game changer”: Syria using chemical weapons. Failure to follow through would be a sign of weakness and costly to America’s international leadership and the president’s stature.
He knows his actions will be closely watched in Jerusalem, Tehran and Pyongyang, as well as in Damascus. The president and his secretaries of state and defense had just been to Israel repeating American resolve to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. North Korea for the past several weeks has been threatening nuclear war with apparent impunity. What would they think if he wimped out in Syria? Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said there is “no international or regional consensus” for armed intervention.
Not quite. There were plenty of demands on Capitol Hill. Republicans and neo-cons ratcheted up their calls for action, careful to avoid specifying just what action they wanted. The war lovers, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and his echo, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), were the loudest, calling for intervention, as they do in just about every conflict that pops up.
McCain said he opposed putting “boots on the ground” while his sidekick said, “Absolutely, you’ve got to get on the ground” and go in to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons. McCain even accused Obama of giving Bashar Assad a “green light” to use WMD by drawing that red line at chemical weapons and not intervening earlier, as the senator had demanded.
Humorist Andy Borowitz had the senators and other interventionists pegged when he wrote that they are “demanding that President Obama take some action in Syria so that they can attack whatever action he took in Syria.” Similar statements peppered the blogosphere.
But what options does Obama have? This much is clear: none of them are very good. The administration has said nothing is off the table, but what is on the on the table are few options, and not very appealing. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in his Bloomberg View column that if the evidence Assad gassed his own citizens is conclusive, not acting might be the worst option.
The president has said he wants confirmation of what was used and by whom, and when he gets that he will respond “prudently” and “deliberately.”
Obama is a cautious man who wants to avoid acting hastily without the evidence he needs, but that asset can become a liability through prolonged inaction because he risks letting Assad think there are no consequences to employing WMD and that he can escalate their use.
A Syrian general who defected has said he used chemical weapons more than 13 times on orders and that “when the world remained silent about this, the regime thought that the international community didn’t care,” so they were used again.
If Iran and Israel think Obama won’t act against Assad they may take that as a sign Obama’s threats to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are a bluff.
The Pentagon estimates it may require more troops than currently deployed in Afghanistan to seize control of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles, if they can even all be located. Some media reports claim American and Jordanian commandos are training in Jordan now for such a mission.
Another option is missile strikes on command-and-control headquarters or other high-value military assets, but bombing the WMD storage facilities could scatter the gas, not destroy it.
British, French, Israeli and American governments have said there is evidence Sarin nerve gas was used but they don’t know how much or even who used it.
Could it have been ordered by the Assad regime or by a rogue commander? The regime angrily denounced accusations as a “barefaced lie,” but it refused to permit the UN to verify its innocence, and Assad’s Russian enablers are making sure the inspectors stay out.
Arming rebels is dangerous because many of them hate us as much as they hate Assad and they could well turn them on us at some point, more likely on our friends in Israel and Jordan. So far Qatar and Saudi Arabia have supplied the weapons while we’ve provided humanitarian aid and “non-lethal” assistance like night vision goggles and intelligence information.
The biggest risk in arming the opposition is the lack of cohesive leadership, the weakness of the secular nationalists preferred by the West and the strength and effectiveness of the Islamist extremists, including al-Qaida allies, Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some of the rebels are a lot worse than Assad, particularly in the eyes of the Israelis. Since Syria was defeated in the Yom Kippur War 40 years ago it has kept peace along its Golan Heights border with Israel, notwithstanding its backing for Hezbollah. If the jihadis drive out Assad they could well create a radical Islamist state and turn their attention toward Israel.
Israel’s greatest fear is that Assad’s WMD and large missile arsenal will fall into the hands of his Hezbollah allies or the other terror groups now fighting on both sides.
There are calls for a no-fly zone to protect the refugees and provide them safe havens, but that would require neutralizing any threat from Syria’s air force and advanced air defense system, which Russia reportedly has recently upgraded.
Nicholas Burns, who was Bush’s undersecretary of state, said the former president was “disastrously wrong” in going to war on unsubstantiated intelligence, and Obama is right to be prudent and cautious, but once he has the evidence the worst option would be to do nothing.
Obama really has no good options, only the knowledge that if he draws a red line in the sand, it is dangerous not to act. His actions will be watched around the world, and nowhere more closely than in Israel, Iran and North Korea.
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield [email protected]
www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_blo omfield