Even as the White House asserts that Syrian President Bashar al–Assad has used chemical weapons against rebel insurgents, there are skeptics. The Russians, who support Assad, instantly questioned Washington’s evidence. So, now, do more objective experts who wonder why there are no photos or other physical evidence of such attacks.
But did-he-or-didn’t-he is no longer the question. Dreadful as chemical weapons are, halting their use cannot define the objective of a policy shift of the magnitude President Obama now proposes. Based on US intelligence claims, America is to escalate its involvement in Syria by providing anti–Assad fighters with small arms. This is what it should do. But it requires that the US pose and answer the larger, more pressing questions it will now face:
• What are America’s goals as it deepens its commitment in Syria? This is easily addressed. Chemical weapons or no, a war that has so far claimed 93,000 Syrian lives calls for a humanitarian response. National borders cannot justify inaction in the face of murder. There may also be strategic goals having to do with Middle Eastern power shifts, but these are harder to define.
• Can US goals be achieved, and how? This is far from clear. In escalating its involvement, the US hopes to tilt the conflict’s balance so that Assad and his Russian backers will be willing to negotiate a political solution that sees Assad out of power. Small arms are unlikely to make anything near to the desired difference.
• What is the US willing to do to get the job in Syria done? Washington has not even put a pistol on Syrian ground and the talk already is of air attacks, establishing a no-fly zone, and/or cratering Assad’s airports. Here lies treacherous waters. Such moves could involve Hezbollah, the Lebanese group, which now backs Assad; they could involve Iran, which also backs the Syrian leader. This is how legitimate humanitarian undertakings slide toward wars.
It is nearly a year since Obama made his famous “red line” statement, saying that if Assad were found to be using chemical weapons it would alter US thinking. For a time it looked as if Obama had set himself a political trap, creating room for opponents to berate him for weakness in the face of mounting evidence of Assad’s humanitarian abuses.
Red lines and provocations are beside the point now. Obama has given the US a new position on Syria, even as credible scientists and chemical weapons experts in the US and in Europe, as well as respected policy analysts who speak and write with unassailable balance, cast doubt on the conclusions of US intelligence agencies.
If small arms are likely to do little to shift the battlefield balance, why bother with them at all-- especially since we don’t know who the insurgents are. There appears to be a secularist faction, but there is a large, not to say dominant, sectarian dimension to the Syrian conflict, Shiite against Sunni.
This is why Hezbollah supports Assad, who is of the Alawites, a Shiite sect. It is why the Saudis (Wahhabist Sunnis) and Qatar are supporting the rebels against Assad. It is why Jahbat al–Nusra, which fields some of the best fighters in the opposition (and which is gaining recruits), turns out to identify with al–Qaeda.
And it is why the US has no clue as to who would replace Assad should his regime be dislodged. Some members of Congress have already taken to calling the insurgents “freedom fighters.” This is irresponsible, even dangerous language.
Another question will be answered this week, when the Group of 8 convenes—beginning Monday in Northern Ireland. Obama has two jobs (at least). One is to gather support among close allies—the British, the French—and hear them out as to the limits of intervention from their perspectives.
The other is to meet privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin and take his pulse as to the prospects for the peace conference Secretary of State John Kerry has labored mightily to convene. Reports from Washington suggest that, having committed to arming the insurgents, the White House would now like to go slowly toward a conference so Assad’s opponents have time to gain strength.
The Syrian conflict has suddenly emerged as the most delicate moment of the Obama presidency. The president foreshadowed this when he spoke at the National Defense University last month. The US faces a 21st century imperative, he as much as said, that it is only now beginning to address: In a world of rising new powers, what is America’s role and how is it supposed to make use of its still-dominant strength?
Over the weekend, TFT’s David Francis explored another, more material aspect of the transition the Syrian question crystallizes for the US. Quoting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at length, Francis suggested that American defense spending and the military-industrial complex have reached their high points.
This may be bad news for defense contractors, but almost certainly not for everybody.