No Good Options for Obama in Syria

News Abroad
tags: Middle East, Barack Obama, Syria, genocide, wars, intervention

Michael H. Creswell is associate professor of history at Florida State University.

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Following the Syrian government’s reported use of chemical weapons on its own people, President Barack Obama ponders whether to strike Syria militarily. In recent days, Obama warned that a U.S. military strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in retaliation for employing chemical weapons would send “a pretty strong signal that they better not do it again.”

Despite Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances that any U.S. military action against Damascus will be “limited” and “surgical” and “will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya,” the Obama administration faces no good choices in dealing with Syria. Whatever choice it makes will have negative consequences both at home and abroad.

Obama contends that any military action against Syria would be limited in scope and duration. In his words, “I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict with Syria.” Yet military action by its very nature is open-ended. There is no way to know with certainty how your opponent will respond. What if the Syrian government continues to use chemical weapons even after any U.S. attack? How will the United States then respond?

Failure to respond to a second Syrian use of chemical weapons would deal a huge blow to Obama’s credibility and signal to Assad that he can employ such weapons with impunity. But a follow up American attack on Syria would be an admission that the United States’ initial effort was ineffective and thus further damage U.S. credibility. A second military strike could also destabilize the region. In either case, Obama winds up looking bad.

The Obama administration has said that its goal in attacking Syria is not to topple Assad. Allowing the Syrian regime to remain in power, however, could turn Assad into a regional hero. He could then rightly claim that he stood up to the powerful United States. Ironically, an American strike could strengthen his grip on power, not weaken it.

In an abrupt about face from earlier comments about punishing Syria, Obama has pledged to first seek Congressional approval for any use of force, noting that “having made my decision as commander in chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.”

While Congressional leaders welcome this decision to seek the legislature’s permission to use force, there is no guarantee that Obama will receive its blessing. The Democrats are deeply divided on this issue and House Republicans may attempt to deal the president a defeat and weaken him politically. A Congressional rebuke would give Obama the dubious distinction of being the first president in modern times to lose a vote on the use of military force.

Such a defeat in Congress would have serious repercussions for Obama. It would embolden his domestic and international critics and perhaps weaken him for the remainder of his presidency.

Obama faces an insurmountable task in seeking approval from the United Nations (UN). The president has said that the use of force against Syria would be to uphold international law. But the UN Security Council, which is charged with upholding international law, will surely say no. Any effort to obtain UN approval will certainly be blocked by China and Russia, both of which are permanent members of the Security Council and thus enjoy absolute veto power over any use of force. Indeed, Russia is an active supporter of Syria and will seek to deny a U.S. victory in the UN. Obama would thus have little international legal cover if he were to proceed with military action.

There exists the possibility that an American strike against Damascus could drive Assad from power. Were this occur, Syria might devolve into the sort of sectarian fighting which bedeviled Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Assad’s regime might then be replaced by the opposition Al-Nusra Front (ANF), an Al-Qaeda associate operating in Syria. The country’s strongest rebel force, ANF has been designated as a terrorist organization by both the UN and the United States. Such an outcome might actually be worse than leaving Assad in power.

While using force is fraught with peril, doing nothing is also problematic. For one, it would ensure Assad remains in power. Obama wrote in August 2011 that “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Then in 2012 Obama said that the large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross his “red line.” Failing to make good on his threat would leave Obama open to charges of weaknesses and hypocrisy.

We can all agree with Obama that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was despicable and deserves international condemnation. Yet in deciding how to respond, Obama is playing with a bad hand. He is bound to lose whatever card he plays.

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