Analysis: Despite criticism, Obama's cautious approach on Syria is justified

In Syria, there is no choice between “good” and “bad.”

US President Barack Obama 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
The images of the carnage on the outskirts of Damascus highlighted to Israel and the international community the degree of horror unfolding just over the border.
The immediate suspicion was that the Syrian regime led by Bashar Assad once again made use of chemical weapons – from all indications, sarin gas – against the civilian population in areas where the opposition is working to remove him from power.
The timing is perplexing. It was one year ago that US President Barack Obama proclaimed that use of chemical weapons would constitute crossing a “redline” that would prompt American intervention.
The attack took place after a team of UN inspectors arrived in the country over the weekend to probe claims that non-conventional arms were indeed used during the course of the civil war.
The timing of such a massive offensive action against civilians suggests that it is premature to definitively determine that chemical-tipped missiles were fired at Assad’s orders. The exact casualty count is unknown, but the Syrian opposition says that the number of dead exceeds 1,300.
The almost immediate, knee-jerk response from pundits and analysts was to criticize the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Here, once again, we have a scenario in which a redline was crossed and the administration in Washington remains passive.
At the same time, the White House has been highly critical of the new regime in Egypt, which is fighting radical Islam.
It is difficult to resist the urge to join in this chorus of criticism as it relates to the Obama administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis. The alternative to the Egyptian military-ruled government is either the return of an even more radicalized Muslim Brotherhood or the disintegration of Egypt into a number of disparate zones ruled by armed militias. That is a scenario the White House would rather not see.
The administration’s cautious approach to events in Syria is well justified. In fact, it has very good reasons to maintain this tack.
In Syria, there is no choice between “good” and “bad.”
The Assad regime is bad, but the opposition that is in its formative stage is shaping up to be quite bad as well, perhaps even worse from a Western perspective.
A coalition of al-Qaida-affiliated gangs is gaining control of more and more territory in Syria, including some of the country’s larger cities. Assad’s fall would lead to a situation whereby the West will find itself faced with a threat that is no less scary – a regime led by extremist Sunni militias that will have neither the ability nor the inclination to engage the US and the West – and, by extension, certainly Israel – in dialogue.
As awful as it may sound, the administration has precious few options in Syria; hence its extreme caution.
Despite impassioned pleas for the US to strike at Assad’s regime, perhaps it would be best to wait for definitive evidence that would confirm the identity of the actors who fired the chemical weapons missile.
The chemical strike was a culmination of a particularly violent and bloody week in the Middle East. In the Sinai Peninsula, 24 Egyptian police officers in civilian clothing were massacred as they approached an army position.
In Cairo, a court announced the release of former president Hosni Mubarak from prison. Meanwhile, Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide, was taken into custody by authorities, though not before 38 prisoners choked to death in one of the Egyptian detention centers.
Missiles fired from Syria hit al-Harmel, a Lebanese town known as a Hezbollah stronghold.
In Iraq, dozens were killed in a string of attacks.
Unlike most Israeli citizens, the Middle East didn’t take a vacation in August. Heck, it didn’t even take a break.The writer is a commentator for The Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew-language sister publication Sof Hashavua.