The flurry of excitement over Syria’s “moving” of chemical weapons highlights yet again the paralysis gripping U.S. Middle East strategy. “We’re kind of boxed in,” an administration official confessed to the New York Times. “There’s an issue of presidential credibility here, but our options are quite limited.”
Indeed, there is a credibility issue. President Obama said at an August 20 news conference that it was a “red line for us [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” That would “change my calculus,” he declared. But what has changed is the definition of “move.” Apparently, it doesn’t mean the Syrian Army moving chemical rounds in order to use them on rebel forces or mixing the “precursor” elements that give a chemical warhead its lethality, but, in the clarifying words of National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, “ ‘moving around’ means proliferation,” as in transferring them to Hezbollah.
It’s also true that options, that is military options, really are limited. Take the question of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Obama Way of War—cyberattacks plus drones plus proxies plus, in extremis, SEAL Team Six—would be hard-pressed to handle the mission. It’s doubtful, to begin with, that we have anything like a comprehensive understanding of Syria’s chemical capabilities. We do know that there are five main chemical facilities in Syria, scattered around the country, and maybe two dozen lesser sites. The Syrians have a limited number of Scud missiles—maybe 150 or so—capable of fitting a chemical warhead. And most of those are thought to be in southern Syria, in range of Israel, stored in caves. The Israelis watch them closely, and probably we do, too. Scuds also take some time to fuel and prepare for launch.
Preempting Syrian chemical weapons use or trying to prevent repeated use would require a substantial and extended air campaign and is more likely, as the anonymous administration official confessed to the Times, to “create the exact situation we’re trying to avoid”—that is, the probable dispersal of whatever’s left to Hezbollah and others. Realistically, the situation would demand the use of ground forces. In effect, Syria’s chemical weapons become a different sort of red line—to foreclose American intervention of any sort.
The administration seems to be contenting itself with the conclusion that the Syrian Army is on the brink of collapse and that the Alawite coalition will crumble once deprived of the leadership of the Assad family. That’s far from clear. Even in the north around Aleppo, Syrian outposts are being evacuated in good order or overrun—garrisons are not surrendering en masse. The regime is fighting hard in Damascus and in control of the vital link between Damascus and the Alawite homeland in the north, the area around Homs.
So President Obama might well get another bite at the apple. A post-Aleppo, rump “Alawistan” would be a tough nut to crack for the Syrian opposition; the rebels still lack the firepower or anything like the national command-and-control mechanisms to finish the job quickly, particularly if Iran and Russia continue support for the Assad regime—and if the regime has a weapons-of-mass-destruction deterrent.
The outcome in Syria will be determined first on the battlefield. If the United States remains militarily self-deterred, we’ll have little say in what happens in Syria. Or across the rest of the Middle East.