Why inaction is the best response on Syria

Obama may care about the people of Syria, but in an era of declining American influence, he might not be in a position to help them.

Syria Chemical materials and gas masks 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria Chemical materials and gas masks 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Gruesome videos were released last Wednesday reportedly proving that poisonous gas had been used against innocent Syrian civilians. NBC News reports that anti-government activists have accused President Bashar Assad of responsibility for the attack. Despite these morally repulsive actions, President Barack Obama should resist pressure from members of Congress and others to actively intervene in the Syrian civil war.
US Sen. John McCain attacked Obama’s inaction on Twitter, saying that “no consequence for Assad using chemical weapons and crossing red line – we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s using them again.”
On Thursday, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, called for “a reaction of force” against Assad if the reports of chemical weapons use are confirmed.
In an op-ed for Bloomberg, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg asks why Assad would have launched a massive chemical attack, and answers that it is “because Assad believes that no one – not the UN, not President Obama, not other Western powers, not the Arab League, will do a damn thing to stop him.” Titling his post “Does anybody care if Assad uses chemical weapons again?” Goldberg emphatically answers “no.”
Although it may be tempting to agree that Obama should now escalate his response against the Syrian regime, doing so would be a mistake. The United Nations estimates that over 100,000 people have been killed so far in this ongoing crisis. While the use of chemical weapons is shocking, it is important to remember that the deaths caused by non-conventional weapons are only a small percentage of the total casualties in this conflict. Is the life of a Syrian slaughtered by mortar fire less valuable than one killed by poison gas? If all Syrian lives are equal, there is no reason why the use of chemical weapons should lead America to escalate its intervention. At the same time, it is important to remember that despite the high death toll, this is a civil war and not genocide. Both sides have committed human rights violations, and both are equipped with the means to flight.
Obama declared over a year ago that “we have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.
That would change my calculus.”
Nonetheless, during the past year – even after several reports of chemical weapons use – Obama never significantly altered American policy. In this case, Obama’s error was not his inaction in Syria, but rather announcing before the world that America had a red line in Syria when no such line existed. Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, Obama did the opposite.
In a recent letter to Congressman Eliot Engel, the head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey opposed attempts to increase American military involvement in the conflict. Dempsey said, “In a variety of ways, the use of military force can change the balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”
Such a skeptical statement by the Joint Chiefs chairman speaks volumes about how the military views the potential success of American involvement.
With opponents of Assad including al-Nusra, labeled a terrorist group by the US State Department, the idea of funneling advanced weapons to anti-Assad militias remains dangerous to US interests.
Nor can we forget the dangerous side effects of escalating American involvement in Syria. During the First Gulf War, after America attacked Iraq, Saddam Hussein launched missiles against Israel in an attempt to provoke a response and rally Arabs around his beleaguered cause. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blaming Israel for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s downfall, it is quite possible Assad would use an American invasion as an excuse to blame Israel and attack the Jewish state to create a much wider-scale conflict.
Although it is easy to condemn President Obama for his unwillingness to intervene, in reality, there are few viable alternatives in dealing with this intractable civil war. To answer Goldberg’s question, it is not that “nobody cares if Assad uses chemical weapons,” but rather that intervention is far more complex than a populist newspaper title can suggest.
Unfortunately, Obama may care about the people of Syria, but in an era of declining American influence, he might not be in a position to help them.
The author is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern studies. He is a staff writer for The Jerusalem Review of Near Eastern Affairs. He can be reached via Twitter @AaronMagid.