By: Jonathan Godoy
On the issue of the use of chemical weapons, there has been a widely accepted, if unwritten, rule that the world powers that be would act swiftly and deliberately, likely with force, to hinder further attacks and punish the guilty regime. President Obama, acting in accordance with this approach, drew up his now infamous “red line” for the Syrian civil war, warning President Bashar al-Assad that such action would trigger direct military action from the United States. The rhetorical threat was something of a centrist ploy that satisfied the president’s own personal reluctance to engage directly in this conflict while giving consolation to the officials and diplomats who argued in favor of greater intervention. There is no way of knowing whether or not the president and his administration believed, at the time, that Assad would use such weapons or if the “red line” was something more akin to an insurance policy. Whatever his thoughts were then are all but moot now, as we presently face a situation where Assad has almost certainly used chemical weapons not once, but twice, on Syrian civilians and rebels. The latest attack represents a major escalation of hostilities, as estimates place the death-count somewhere between 300 and over 1,000, with the number injured well over that figure. The first attacks, which occurred last year, were not nearly as destructive or costly, but in the world of chemical attacks, size is not as important as the simple fact that such arms are used.
But with that first assault, the president did not so much as flinch, at least publicly. The red line was ignored in favor of the president’s trepidation about escalating the conflict with direct foreign intervention. The reasons for this approach are not clearly evident, but have been implied. Those opposing intervention in Syria can, for purposes of convenience, generally be placed into two categories: those fearful that a post-Assad Syria will present the country and region with major issues and likely hurt our interests by allowing for Al Qaeda-backed rebels to gain power; and those who fear that any escalation could ultimately culminate in a full-fledged ground war involving U.S. and allied militaries. Though many opponents likely cite both mitigating factors in their arguments, most usually reference one to be more compelling than the other. President Obama seems to fall flatly in the latter camp. As a politician whose popularity was, in part, driven by his fiercely anti-Iraq War stance and someone who holds something of a disdain for military intervention, it is not altogether surprising that the president would use such reasoning to justify a tepid response. Even in his most recent interview on CNN, which followed the latest attack, he took more time to caution against the dangers of intervention and long, drawn out warfare than speak to the national security and international stability risks inherent in such a chemical attack. Additionally, likely taking his guidance from the Clinton administration’s actions in Kosovo and following the procedure he used for Libya, the president has stressed that any action should be coordinated with members of the international community.
The image of the administration’s response that ultimately results from such a clash of approaches and quandaries is one that is muted, insensitive, and self-harming. Assad, seeing that he received no significant or substantive backlash for his first chemical attack, felt that he was well positioned to launch another similar attack, this time on a larger scale, without the fear of any direct action from Western countries. The current situation, one in which even six days after the first reports of the attack the administration is still trying to determine the appropriate response and gather international support while openly leaking its plans, does not pose much of a threat for the Assad regime either. In a fashion similar to his approach to Libya, the president has refrained from taking the lead on a response and deferred instead to taking an internationalist line. In the meantime, administration officials have leaked ad nauseam, it seems now, snippets of information suggesting that an official response is in the workings. Four aircraft carriers have been moved to the western Mediterranean, an area that would put them in a good position to launch cruise missile attacks against Syrian targets, if given the orders. Meanwhile, news reports continue to cite the administration’s sudden rhetorical shift in tone regarding Syria and the list of potential sites that could be targeted in such an attack.
The current circumstance, however, seems to reveal three important and disconcerting facts. The first is that it looks as if the administration or, at the very least, President Obama had not pre-planned the response to this attack. Secondly, the now six day long delay, whether intentional or not, communicates the wrong message to Assad and sets forth a potentially destructive precedent that could embolden American adversaries elsewhere. Thirdly, the situation reaffirms many officials’ previous concerns that the administration is willing to leak vital national security information that could compromise our goals and harm our interests.
On the first revelation, the fact that the president has, by all accounts, been briefed on the attack and given his options but has yet to make the decision is baffling, especially when considering how long it has been since the “red line” was drawn. Suggested in this delay is that the idea that the supposed “red line” he imposed over a year ago was little more than a baseless and ill-planned threat. Levying a definitive limit on the use of power is suggestive, and indeed warrants, the creation of a contingency plan of response that could be implemented should the figurative line be crossed. The idea that the president has waned on conceptualizing such a plan, failed to previously negotiate with world leaders an appropriate and coordinated international response, and prolonged the decision for almost a week after the attack is inexcusable. It would be one thing if this were a situation that was unexpected. It is another thing to say that this outcome was predicted by many officials and was already played out on a smaller scale not long ago. The American response to the Syrian civil war, since its inception, has been muddled and imprudent, but this case of poor planning represents what could be the administration’s most egregious error to on Syria date.
The second issue the current predicament highlights is perhaps the most destructive one, at least in the long run. As mentioned above, the first chemical attack, contrary to President Obama’s promises, was left unrequited and was taken by Assad as a sign that the West saw no need to militarily respond to such attacks. The current muddled and rather weak statement-centered response from the administration and the international community has done little to reverse the dangerous precedent set or allay the concerns many officials have that Assad will feel free to exert his power over the Syrian population by any means. For evidence of this we need look no farther than the Assad regime’s actions following the attacks. In an effort to cover up the assault, the Syrian air force bombarded the attack area with non-chemical bombs to rid it of any potentially damning evidence and allow time for the deadly chemicals to dissipate. What is perhaps most revealing of Assad’s new-found bravado is the fact that this chemical attack occurred on the day that an envoy from the United Nations arrived in Syria to determine if chemical weapons had been used in the previous alleged instances. In his latest act of arrogance, Assad has invited the UN officials to visit the site where the August 21 attack occurred. If Assad is this willing to call the West’s bluff and openly mock their concern, there is little reason to believe that his confidence is in short order and that similar attacks are not soon to follow should the response be weak. This delayed and haphazard response, however, is noticed and noted not only by Assad, but also, and most importantly, by Iran. They are taking the United States’ response to Syrian actions as a rubric for how this administration will respond to its own provocative actions with the development of its nuclear weapons program. The signal the Obama Administration has sent to Iran is a simple one: President Obama’s promise to not allow Iran to ever fully develop a nuclear weapons program is likely unfounded. Given its inability to adequately and directly enforce its red line on Syria, there is likely little veracity in his promise regarding Iran. Likewise, almost no confidence can be placed in the idea that this administration has drawn up plans on how it will militarily respond to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The indications drawn from this example imply that the administration would likely dither on deciding what is the best course of action for an extended period of time, giving Iran the figurative green light to continue with its uranium enrichment program without fear of facing immediate and damaging repercussions. The standard set here is a costly one that will likely irrevocably harm our efforts to rein in Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
The last revelation this situation exposes is one that begs the question: What exactly is this administration seeking to do? This administration has developed a habit of leaking information that divulges sensitive information regarding our operations and compromises important facts, all for seemingly political gains. However, the intentions with these series of leaks are less straightforward. There is likely nothing to be gained politically from revealing information regarding an attack on Syrian interests. The only effect this could have is to inform Syrian officials of our likeliest actions and allow them to prepare appropriately. It has already been reported that the most probable course of action would be to attack certain sites with cruise missiles launched from our naval ships located in the Mediterranean. However, the more recent reports give some detail as to what sites are being considered and the president’s motivations. For instance, an article in the Wall Street Journal talks about the president’s reluctance to strike more important sites because of his aversion to seeing the conflict escalate. What strategic advantage does this present to the United States? Informing the enemy that you are only willing to attack less symbolic targets sends the wrong message by not deterring them from taking further actions in the future. The article also reports that the president would be willing to consider attacks on higher profile targets only if Assad uses chemical weapons again or escalates the conflict further. The problem with this approach, if it is true, is that this would represent the third such instance where the administration flails on its responsibility to follow through on its promises, thus advancing the belief that it is ultimately unwilling to truly and exhaustively use its power of deterrence and giving Assad a carte blanche to launch new attacks. If the only threat Assad faces is enduring a few missile attacks on strategically unimportant sites, then what incentive does he have to stop his reign of terror?
Given these three extrapolated findings, and the insight they lend into the Obama Administration’s thinking, it seems fair to assume that the response to this attack will more than likely be subdued and ineffective. President Obama is a commander-in-chief who has showed great restraint in his use of military power, especially with respect to direct combat. The president’s hand has been forced on this issue only because the latest attack was so large and costly, in terms of lives lost. If not for the subtle pressure that the news coverage of this massacre places on the administration to act, it is conceivable that it would have simply opted for the route it took with the first attack. Wavering on this issue has been costly, in many ways. Our refusal to become more actively involved in the onset of the civil war likely paved the way for Al-Qaeda to exert its influence over the fragmented rebellion and prevented the various factions from becoming more consolidated and sympathetic to the United States’ goals. Now the benefits of ousting Assad are less defined and obvious. However, his use of chemical weapons, which presents a major national security threat, coupled with the fact that he is an ally and supporter of Iran and is an enabler of many terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah, do justify launching an attack with the intention of ultimately ousting him from power. Hopefully, in the days following the publishing of this article, the administration will have responded to Assad’s unbridled reign of terror with an attack that sends him a strong and clear message that the United States will not stand for such abuse and forcefully and unapologetically root out evil and advance its interests. However, given the president’s woeful record on this and other issues, it seems unfortunately more likely that such an outcome will never come to be.
Jonathan Godoy is a third year in the College majoring in Political Science.