There is a lot of talk now about a possible US intervention in Syria following what looks like a devastating and heinous attack in which the government used Chemical Weapons (CW). The common notion is that these attacks have not yet been independently verified (though even the Iranians seem to be accepting that they were employed), while some already scream that the United States is pushing for war. To which I really want to reply: stay calm, carry on and consider some of the following thoughts:
|Courtesy of the U.S. Navy|
No, the United States has not yet decided to intervene. No, seriously, it has not. So far, President Obama has only said that the attack is of grave concern. Whatever this means, he stopped short of calling for military action. If there is any movement at all, it's that the White House is beginning to take the issue seriously, simply because further inaction is now going to cast a shadow over Obama's foreign policy legacy. Take the military side of the issue. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are still adamantly opposed to any intervention, its Chairman, Martin Dempsey, has time and again stated that there is no real ally in the country and that the opposition is too weak to establish any order, even if Assad were forced out. This is the classic Colin Powell tactic of delivering assessments that are so bleak that no military options really remain – you might remember Madeleine Albright going ballistic on Colin Powell during the Bosnia war, asking him what good it was to have the finest military in the world, if you are not prepared to use it. (On a different note, why is the White House relying on a Pentagon assessment of what at least to me sounds like a job for the intelligence services and the State Department?) Which is why I would add a second note of caution: No, the United States is not preparing for an intervention, at least not yet. There is always significant confusion over this in the press, but there are two different steps in preparations. The first is to draw up contingency plans, which is what is happening. This is by and large a paper exercise (though a useful one), in which the Pentagon is beginning to crunch numbers and looking at available assets to figure out what resources could be mobilised to meet certain objectives. Its basically an exercise in what could be done. This is not the same as mobilising to implement a contingency plan, which is only happening once a principal decision has been reached, which the White House insists has not been made. What the US is doing is delaying the return of the USS Mahan, a destroyer with some guided missiles. Leaving it in place in the Med is not exactly the same as a massive build-up of forces.
Which would be surprising in any event. After all, the basic calculus of the Obama administration remains the same: No intervention on any foreign soil if that is at all avoidable. This has been a basic Obama rationale and should be kept in mind when talking Syria today. The president has been going to some lengths to avoid interventions, he was pressed into doing Libya and when he actually is ordering military operations, its usually of the smallest footprint possible. Drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and some special forces to haunt down Joseph Kony and the LRA in Central Africa. Apparently he has a liking for small-scale precision missions with narrow political objectives. With regard to Syria, this probably means that any intervention in Syria would not be Kosovo 2.0, as some have argued, but rather a version of Clinton's 1998 bombing following the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Which is why I remain overall hesitant to predict that any sort of intervention is going to be mounted. If Obama is prepared to only go in a really tiny little step, someone better advises him to stop – you cannot get involved in wars and hope to extract a win by staging what isn't even a half-measure.
The basic conundrum for Obama is this: by not acting in Syria—despite having drawn a pretty clear red-line—he has allowed for US credibility to be lost. Assad would not have crossed this line yet again, would he really think the president is prepared to regain his credibility by staging an intervention. This whole CW attack was a sort of in your face move by Assad. If the US were to conduct missile strikes and nothing more, Assad might still survive and would then have defeated not only the opposition but also escaped US air-strikes and punishment for killing thousands. And if you think dealing with him now is a nightmare, wait for what happens if he does win. But US credibility would then be lost permanently. By the way, the war in Syria has now claimed more lives than the entire civil war in Iraq following the 2003 ouster of Saddam. If that doesn't give you pause, I don't know what will and if there is a red-line where President Obama should consider an intervention its this.