Barring some dramatic and credible revelation before this evening’s address by President Obama, his administration has not made the case for launching an attack on Syria, the president’s red line notwithstanding.
The problems with an attack are multiple and compounding and, despite the belief of many that Obama must act to maintain U.S. credibility, other options are available.
First of all, what is occurring in Syria is a civil war, and as brutal and unforgiving as it is, those uprisings occur. One happened here and no other country intervened.
Secondly, an attack wouldn’t directly affect Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons, which the administration says Assad used on his own people last month and which were the subject of Obama’s red line.
At best, it would send a message that use of those weapons will draw American and possibly French and Turkish reprisals. Interestingly, no Middle Eastern nation – countries with the most to fear from Syria’s deterioration – want anything to do with attacking. Use of chemical weapons could, under the right circumstances, be justification for a military response, but there would be consequences.
The most obvious is that it would benefit the rebels trying to topple Assad. Some of the rebels are fighting to escape the yoke of Bashar Assad’s dictatorship, but they are supplemented by many fighters from al-Qaida and hard-line Islamists. Is our revulsion of Assad’s use of chemical weapons enough to warrant the possibility of further empowering al-Qaida?
It’s a miserable choice, but it’s also the nature of the Middle East. We have made those choices before, propping up the former shah of Iran, whose eventual abdication left the world with the Iran that exists today.
That’s not an argument for supporting Assad, but for ensuring that our actions in Syria are not only commensurate with the crimes committed by him, but with the cold facts of the U.S. self-interest.
Perhaps most troubling is the not-insignificant possibility of producing a wider war that draws in Iran, Hezbollah and possibly Israel. It’s not worth it for an attack that won’t target Assad’s chemical weapons and that would likely benefit and embolden al-Qaida.
For all the sometimes justified skepticism about the usefulness of the United Nations, this is a time to make use of it. It should assert itself, insisting on the right to inspect for chemical weapons and to take them out of Assad’s control.
That possibility, or something like it, became at least somewhat more realistic on Monday, when Russia announced that it will pressure its ally Syria to give up control of its chemical weapons to international monitors if that will prevent the United States from launching an attack.
Suspiciously, Syria quickly welcomed that proposal, a fact that can’t help but raise concerns of its seriousness. Still, it is worth exploring – urgently. If, through international action, it is possible to deprive Assad of these weapons without resorting to warfare, without directly intervening in a civil war, without risking a regional conflict and without giving aid and comfort to al-Qaida, Obama should take advantage.
Assad is a very bad actor on the world stage, and he needs to pay a price for using chemical weapons – assuming the evidence continues to support that conclusion. The problem is that there are few good players in this conflict and no good choices for responding to the abhorrent use of these weapons.
But as of now, a military attack is the worst of all possibilities.