Last week, Iran reportedly dispatched more of its Revolutionary Guard shock troops to Syria to prop up its ally. And with that the Obama administration lost another of its justifications for sitting by idly as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad runs his countrymen through a meat grinder. The death toll is approaching 25,000. The White House has feared arming the Syrian opposition would only make the conflict bloodier and give the Iranians cause to commit to force. Well, the civil war has grown bloodier, and the Iranians have joined in—not because of what Obama did but because of what he didn’t do.
For Tehran, Assad’s survival is a vital national interest. That in itself should be reason enough for the White House to seize an opportunity to weaken Iran by helping remove Assad. With the Assad regime’s troops steadily depleted by defections, the White House might have moved in for the kill. Instead, the Iranians are stepping in to protect Assad. And from Tehran’s perspective, the American president virtually held the door open for them.
When Obama announced last month that Assad’s movement or use of chemical weapons was a red line that “would change my calculations significantly,” he gave the regime in Damascus and its allies carte blanche to do anything short of that to put down the uprising. Assad no doubt already understood that if he used chemical weapons against any of Syria’s neighbors, including Israel, he’d be finished. All Obama did in drawing his so-called red line was to confirm that, short of such a suicidal attack, Assad would have nothing to worry about from this administration.
Perhaps it is not surprising that a president who places such a high premium on rhetoric, who often mistakes speech for action, does not seem to have understood the effect his words would have outside of the White House briefing room, especially in places where power politics is a matter of life and death.
Just days after the president articulated his red line, Assad’s forces committed a massacre in Daraya, a Damascus suburb—killing 400. Cause and effect? Some in the Syrian opposition say so. Others are more cautious—Assad was already a killer even before the administration’s intentions were clear. But no one doubts that the White House’s unwillingness to commit to a course of action against the Syrian regime has given Assad the luxury to proceed at will.
“Even when the administration talks about a no-fly zone, or a buffer zone, it sends mixed messages,” says Louay Sakka, one of the founders of the Syrian Support Group, an exile opposition organization. “Secretary of State Clinton says they’re studying the possibility of a no-fly zone, and then Secretary of Defense Panetta says a few days later it’s ‘not on the front burner.’ ” Sakka argues that only when the White House shows a determination to act will the regime’s inner circle abandon Assad. The Syrian dictator made clear in a speech last week he is confident that America and its allies won’t do a thing.
Accordingly, Assad has escalated. In addition to fresh Iranian reinforcements, his war now features regular aerial assaults on rebel positions. Tellingly, Secretary of State Clinton last year seemed to draw a red line of her own, in explaining why the administration had joined the coalition against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi but was leaving the Syrian president untouched. It was because the Libyan dictator was “calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing [his] own cities,” said Clinton.
The fact that the Obama White House is today unmoved by the same sort of strafing and bombing of Syrian civilians suggests that in the end the administration has no red lines at all. And the Republican candidate and his surrogates, who decry the bloodshed and the massacres, have so far refrained from calling for notably stronger action. Will Assad have greater reason to fear a Romney administration than he does an Obama one?