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The White House’s Unworkable Syria Strategy

There is mounting evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has deployed a limited amount of chemical agents against the rebels who are trying to depose the beleaguered Syrian president. Israel, the UK, and now the U.S. intelligence community have asserted that Assad has used chemical weapons against Syrian insurgents. In a letter to U.S. lawmakers, the White House notes, “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

Hawkish US lawmakers jumped at the White House’s statement that Obama’s “red line” had indeed been crossed and that a more robust policy must be implemented. The inherent dilemma faced by conservative lawmakers is that public support for U.S. involvement hovers around 20 percent, so they have been noticeably vague about what that involvement entails. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee said on ABC’s “This Week” that “some action needs to be taken” against Assad’s government for its alleged deployment of chemical weapons. Rogers emphasized, the Obama administration’s red line “can’t be a dotted line.”

What complicates the US position and might force action are the recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria. According to Israeli officials, Israel struck suspected weapons sites believed to hold Iranian Fateh-110 missiles bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Whether the Israeli strikes prompt a new battlefront with Israel remains to be seen.

Israeli defense officials are seemingly weighing the calculation that Assad neither has the means nor the will to do so. Even so, following the strikes, Israel deployed two of its Iron Dome missile batteries to Israel’s north in what has been described by Israeli officials as “ongoing situational assessments.”

America’s decision to intervene would show the region, particularly Iran, that Washington’s warnings should not be taken lightly. Moreover, there is a possibility that any US wavering on mobilizing more aid in order to bring an end to the expanding humanitarian crisis would provide Assad’s supporters the belief that the regime will not fall, while disillusioning the opposition.

As the conflict continues and conditions become increasingly dire for the Syrian people, there is a growing concern that radicalization will spread throughout the population. It has become apparent that extremists have entered into the conflict on both sides and the situation is expected to worsen. This concern is the reason for Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) recent call “to arm the rebels.” This declaration to provide lethal aid is undermined by many opposition forces pledging their allegiance to al-Qaeda. Support for the opposition, in any form, could easily increase support for enemies of the West.

So what if any options are available for the Obama administration? First, the most likely scenario is to avoid boots on the ground by arming the Syrian rebels with shoulder-fired missiles to provide them some advantage against Assad’s air power. Second, the administration could use airstrikes to hit strategic targets, like chemical weapons stockpiles and some of Assad’s ground forces. Lastly, the option being advocated by Senator McCain and others is to establish safe-zones to protect civilians, in concert with a no-fly zone.

If the administration pursues any policy beyond arming the rebels, the administration would need to give Congress notice and certainly explain any decision to intervene to a war-weary American public. In a news conference on Friday in Costa Rica during his tour of several Latin American states, Obama all but ruled out the use of US ground forces. “As a general matter, I don’t rule things out as commander-in-chief because circumstances change.” Adding, “I do not foresee a scenario in which boots on the ground in Syria — American boots on the ground in Syria — would not only be good for America but also would be good for Syria.”

While upwards of 70,000 or more have been killed in Syria since 2011, Obama has been prudent and cautious, inevitably influenced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US has supplied non-lethal aid to the rebels but has stopped short of offering munitions. The Syrian people and opposition have been greatly supported by this foreign assistance, but much more will be needed in order to tip the balance of power.

While the New York Times reports that the administration is considering changing course, it is not at all clear whether, at this point in the conflict, this will help the rebels significantly. While the continued bloodshed is disturbing, it remains a matter of contention whether the onus should fall on the United States to intervene. It is expected by many in the region that the conflict will get worse without Western involvement. Despite the opposition’s growing strength and its ability to take hold of strategic government strongholds, Assad remains firmly in power.

It is expected that any effort to gin up support for a no-fly zone by the UN Security Council will likely be blocked by Russia and China. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia and China’s stance on blocking Syrian intervention is based upon “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law and the principles contained in the UN Charter, and not to allow their violations.” To circumvent the “sovereignty caucus” the US would have to pursue unilateral action in concert with a limited number of allies.

Much is made of the Libyan intervention as being a case study in how to successfully intervene in Syria. Undoubtedly the most important reason why Western intervention in Libya succeeded is that it was launched so soon int0 the conflict. Qaddafi’s forces were identified early on and subsequently destroyed by US and allied warplanes. Syria is a much smaller state with no major core group making up the opposition. Further, any weapons that could flow into Syria could, once the conflict ends, spread throughout the region causing further chaos, similar to what occurred in North Africa once Qaddafi fell. Niger, Algeria, and the Western Sahel are currently witnessing the unintended consequences of the US coalition intervention.

Moving forward, any decision to intervene solely rests with Obama, who, again, by all outward signs seems hesitant to commit to another entanglement in the Middle East. A number of moral arguments can be given for intervention, but in calculating whether to intervene: should moral arguments trump decisions on whether it’s in America’s interest to, ostensibly, commit to another regime change?

Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid argues, “Ultimately, Western powers have no choice but to intervene. Until outside forces compel them to stop, the Assads will continue their murderous rampage with utter impunity…As Syrian activists are broadcasting on YouTube for all the world to see, the massacres continue unabated. President Obama has described the indiscriminate bombardment of the city of Homs as ‘outrageous bloodshed,’ but it is much more. The Assads are carrying out a virtual genocide there.”

The costs of intervening in Syria outweigh the benefits. More than likely the US would get bogged down in a sectarian conflict like in Iraq. The civilian death toll in Syria is horrific, but, while morality should certainly be calculated in foreign policy decisions, the question remains whether US’ intervention will lead to a series of unforeseen circumstances, which may be beyond the control of Washington.