The timing was probably not a coincidence, falling as it did on two anniversaries. August 18, 2011, was when President Obama first demanded Syrian president Bashar al-Assad step aside, and August 20 last year was when Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would “change my calculus.” It was a year to the day after Obama’s warning that Assad launched what is to date the regime’s largest chemical weapons attack. At least a thousand people are dead, likely more, in several Damascus suburbs and outlying towns. The video reports from Syria are chilling—children foaming at the mouth, their unblinking eyes full of terror, their contorted limbs frozen like broken dolls.
Yes, yes, it’s terrible, say many, but why would Assad be so foolish as to use his unconventional arsenal when a U.N. investigating team is already in the country collecting evidence on past use of chemical weapons? Well, Assad is not a fool: The purpose of waging an attack under the watchful eyes of the U.N. is to show his adversaries that the international community, the Europeans, and even the Americans are not going to help them, no matter what. Assad’s message to the rebels is: In spite of their moral posturing, their stern admonitions, even their revulsion and horror at watching children paralyzed by nerve agents, your Western friends won’t help you. Indeed, they are so craven, so eager for a reason to do nothing, they will suggest that the chemical attack was perhaps a ploy—that to get them to enter the war on your side, you killed your own children.
There’s also a military logic at work in Assad’s chemical attack last week. For months, the regime has been shelling these neighborhoods northeast of Damascus, explains Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “But every time the regime tries to enter—armored units or infantry—they’re repelled by rebel fighters. Last week’s attacks, and these areas were [also] subjected to chemical weapons attacks in the spring, are intended to disrupt rebel defenses.”
There’s a strategic purpose, too. “These neighborhoods are not far from Mt. Qassioun,” says Badran, “which is the military’s center of gravity. It’s not just a military base, but also high ground from which the regime can easily fire on the rebels.” Moreover, Badran explains, “the neighborhoods attacked last week overlook the Damascus-Homs highway, which is one of the regime’s main communications lines. A little further northeast is an airport in Dumayr where the regime is supplied by direct flights from Iran. Therefore, it’s essential Assad establish control over this strategic territory.”
Assad has no reason to fear escalating against the rebels because the actor most capable of ending the regime’s 40-year reign of terror won’t lift a finger. Sure, the United States could destroy the Syrian Air Force, as Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, explained in a letter to congressman Eliot Engel. “The use of U.S. military force can change the balance of power,” wrote Dempsey, “but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.” So, according to the Obama-Dempsey doctrine, if all the “historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues” that are fueling a conflict can’t be resolved, there’s no point in doing anything. The Obama-Dempsey doctrine would have meant doing nothing in the 1990s in the Balkans. It would have meant—it did mean—doing nothing in the 1930s. It will always be an excuse for doing nothing.
The odd thing is, in saying we shouldn’t do anything, Dempsey would seem to be contradicting Obama’s policy. After all, to enforce his red line over the use of chemical weapons, Obama decided two months ago to send arms to the Syrian rebels. At least that’s what administration officials led everyone to believe back in June, with their many leaks to that effect. Sure, when he rolled out the new policy in a conference call with reporters, Obama aide Ben Rhodes didn’t precisely say the administration was sending arms. In fact when reporters pressed him repeatedly for details, he avoided specifics. He would not give an “inventory” of the items destined for the rebels, Rhodes said. But he sure left the impression that the White House was now sending arms. Same with the president himself when he went on the Charlie Rose show and discussed his new Syria policy—no specifics, Charlie, but, well, you know.
Same last week when State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was asked about red lines. In a press conference after the attack, she said she didn’t want to have a “debate or conversation about red lines.” “Let’s not talk about red today,” she joked. When pushed further by reporters about arms to the rebels, she read from the administration’s script: “I’m not going to outline for you what—a laundry list of what we’re doing. But we’ve talked about it in the past, we’ve talked about why we can’t talk about it in the past.”
Looking through the fog of doubletalk, the reality is that the rebels are getting no arms from the United States. Dempsey admitted as much in his letter to Engel: “We continue to deliver humanitarian and security assistance to Syria’s neighbors,” wrote Dempsey, “as well as non-lethal assistance to the opposition.” Rebel leaders have said the same for two months; there is no lethal military aid coming from Washington. The administration simply has used the press as part of an information campaign to obscure the fact that Obama is not enforcing his red line—if indeed he ever really had one to begin with.
More than two years after Obama first demanded that Assad step aside, the United States is now facing a unique moment in its long history of involvement in the Middle East. What makes it unprecedented is less the violent furies raging across the region than the fact the commander in chief has to an unprecedented degree weakened America’s hand and sullied America’s reputation. With all his empty talk, the president who says he does not bluff has made America’s word cheap.