Obama’s Syrian imbroglio

By Jonathan Power

President Barack Obama let the chickens out of the cage when foolishly he pronounced that he had drawn a red line across which the Syrian government should not go. Now, after what he says is its second use of chemical weapons, the red line has been crossed and the chickens are coming home to roost. He has announced he plans to strike Syria, albeit it in a limited fashion.

He has made it clear that he won’t go to the UN about it, even to the General Assembly where a Russian veto doesn’t count but where there could be a slim majority in favour. It would give Obama some sort of political cover.

Neither is he prepared to wait for the results of the investigation by the UN team that has just visited the site of the atrocity. At the weekend Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Administration had hard evidence that the Syrian military had used gas. But the US has no spies on the ground in the vicinity of the attack.

Obama has taken the issue to Congress for a vote. Congress doesn’t resume until the 9th September and a vote won’t take place until a few days after. So what difference does three weeks of waiting for the UN inspectors to report matter? The Syrian army isn’t going to go away. Moreover, the UN is like a rubber band. When you pull the band as far as it will go it doesn’t bounce back to its original shape.

This is all very strange coming from a president who for two years with convincing arguments has repulsed all those who have pushed for some sort of military intervention. It is all very strange coming from someone who is proud he has withdrawn troops from Iraq and who now is doing the same from Afghanistan, (even though he knows the Taliban may take over). It is all very strange coming from a man who has long made it clear there will be no more US wars in Asia. It is all very strange coming from a president who accepted the Nobel peace prize awarded for not much more than his critical words on the use of force in his first election campaign and who had devoted a good section of his two books on the imperative of avoiding war.

It is all very strange that Obama drew a red line on chemical warfare when only last week the Syrian army lobbed an incendiary bomb on a children’s playground. He knows that the non-chemical weapons used so far have killed many tens of thousands of innocent children and women. What is so special about these alleged uses of chemical weapons?

So why now? General Martin Dempsey, head of the military, has made it clear that he thinks it a bad idea for America to get militarily involved. The Arab League, although condemning President Bashar al-Assad, has not unambiguously backed Obama on bombing Syria. The British parliament has humiliated Prime Minister David Cameron and voted against going to war. In France, the only government to support Obama, opinion polls show that the electorate is against the government. It remains to be seen if President Francois Hollande can go on resisting the popular tide in the 10 or so days of American debate to come when he is totally isolated in Europe. Not even pro-American Poland, which ardently supported the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, is likely to resist the European consensus. US public opinion has long been against intervention in Syria and will give Obama a hard time if things go wrong. If it is just a missile attack there will be no troops to rally around- the habitual way American presidents garner public support for a decision to go to war.

At the same time a US attack will strengthen both elements of the opposition and the Assad regime itself. Ironically the Al Qaeda faction, increasingly dominant among the rebels, will thank America for intervention on its side. The regime will see a coalescing of doubters behind its war-making- patriotism is at its strongest when your country is under attack. Neither are the new refugees, fearful of a US attack, now streaming from Damascus and its hinterland, happy about Obama’s decision.

It is likely that Assad won’t take the attack lying down. He has many cards to play, including encouraging his ally, Hezbollah, to attack northern Israel and making his own missile attack on a nearby US warship or on Jordan or Turkey, strong US allies. Will then the US feel it has to ratchet up its own attacks to remain credible?

What does Obama think he is doing? We await a fuller answer than the one he has given so far.

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