Lost in the debate over responding to Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve gas is the fact that the United States has other interests in the Syrian civil war, like mitigating the effects of the war on Syria’s neighbors—Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel—and countering the regional ambitions of Assad’s key ally, Iran. Unfortunately, the president has consistently failed to advance these arguments over the last two years. The White House has also been consistent in one other respect: It has repeatedly blamed others for its failures.
When the uprising began in March 2011, administration officials said their “tempered response” was driven by the fears of American allies, like Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that Assad’s “overthrow could unleash even wider sectarian violence.” This wasn’t true—the Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren corrected the record—but that hardly stopped the administration from seeking to evade responsibility. Knowing that Russia would shoot down any forceful action against Assad, or even relatively strong resolutions at the U.N. Security Council, the White House repeatedly used the Russian veto by proxy. Thus, with the uncertain support on the Hill for military action against Assad, it’s hard not to think that Obama has merely looked to Congress to play the Kremlin’s part. Instead of making the call on his own, the president is looking to others to get him out of this jam—if you think it’s so important to uphold the credibility of the United States, then you do it. And if the strike goes pear-shaped, then your name is on this mess, too.
Curiously, other American officials just want to win. Sen. John McCain is pressing the White House for a more comprehensive strategy, one that drives Assad from power. McCain says that Obama is “willing to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army.” To date, however, the administration still hasn’t sent the rebels any lethal military aid, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon was told not to present strike options that might help topple Assad. In other words, Obama has no intention of tilting the balance of power against Assad.
In the past, administration officials have offered three reasons for not seeking regime change: The concern that al Qaeda would fill the vacuum left by Assad’s fall; the fear that toppling Iran’s key ally would anger Tehran, with whom the White House still hopes to cut a deal; and most importantly, the deep desire of the president to avoid his own version of the Iraq war. However, events over the last week show that regardless of what happens on the Hill, or the efficacy of the strikes should Congress authorize them, the administration’s position is untenable.
Obama doesn’t want to bring down Assad, and yet he also wanted to stay out of Syria’s civil war entirely. But in spite of his best efforts, he may be on the verge of getting sucked in to it. Even the most limited response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons may touch off a dynamic that Obama is incapable of controlling, which is precisely why he sought to avoid any involvement in the first place. If it seems ironic that words got this highly scripted president into trouble, the reality is that even if Obama had never said anything about red lines he’d have reached this crossroads eventually.