The week started with the White House seemingly determined to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons, but on Wednesday Obama let the air out of the ball. Last night on the PBS Newshour he explained he may yet choose not to pull the trigger. “I’ve not made a decision,” said Obama. “I have gotten options from our military, had extensive discussions with my national security team.”
Some are blaming the delay on the British, who announced yesterday they are waiting for the report from U.N. chemical inspectors due this weekend—assuming the investigating team in Syria doesn’t come under any more fire from regime snipers. In the Obama administration’s political logic, it makes perfect sense to hang the delay on London. Under domestic pressure to fish or cut bait, the White House can argue: “Look, even George W. Bush went to the U.N. when Tony Blair required it before committing to the Iraq catastrophe; of course this president is going to listen to our allies on a matter as serious as delivering a slap on the wrist to a mass murderer.”
If Obama is now giving the impression that, in spite of all the press leaks early this week that made him look decisive and virile, he’s having second thoughts, the defiant Assad’s allies and supporters are rallying around the regime and puffing their chests. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, threatened retaliation against Israel, a boast echoed in pro-Hezbollah corners in Lebanon. On a pro-regime Facebook page, a caricature of a bulked up Syrian soldier tells a trembling Uncle Sam, “Looks like you’ve forgotten what the Syrian Arab Army is.”
Not at all—how could we forget about the mighty Syrian army? Since March 2011, it’s waged war on its own people, making no distinction between armed rebels and the civilians that this proud Arab military has mowed down with aircraft and artillery and now chemical weapons. For two years now, even our own military experts, as well as the Pentagon, have told us that Syrian air defenses are nearly impregnable—except for the several times that Israel has circumvented or thwarted them. The reality is that after absorbing perhaps thousands of casualties and many more defections, the Syrian army, derisively referred to by the rebels as “the army of sandals,” is little but a sectarian militia that must depend on reinforcements from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as well as Iranian-backed Iraqi fighters and of course Iran’s arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah.