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.
Having invested so heavily in Assad’s survival, Khamenei has made it plain that Syria is a central part of Iran’s expansive regional project. Obama on the other hand sees the issue narrowly, as if Syria isn’t a chief concern of our regional partners, as if Damascus hasn’t been part of a larger war against the American order of the Middle East for the last decade that jeopardizes our allies Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and the Gulf states. For Obama, it’s just about how Assad put him in a bad spot by gassing his own people. Obama’s not angry with Assad; he’s just disappointed in him. So, he may have to punish him, which, the way Obama sees it, is likely going to hurt him more than it does Assad. In fact, it may not hurt Assad much at all, because in announcing that he means to target the military, Obama has given Assad plenty of time to move equipment and personnel out of harm’s way and insulate potential targets with human shields. The U.S. president is keen to let Assad know that this isn’t about regime change, and in fact it’s not really even about chemical weapons and gassing children in their sleep—it’s about Obama, who no doubt wishes he’d just kept his mouth shut last August when he said the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus.
Over the last week, a number of former U.S. policymakers and Middle East experts (among them Elliott Abrams, Eliot Cohen, Michael Doran) have urged the administration to think strategically about a strike on Syria. What’s the next step after airstrikes? Topple the regime? How do we want to shape the outcome? How does this enhance the American position in the Middle East at a moment when even our allies say we’re losing the ability to project power? None of these concern Obama. If there are strikes on regime targets, that’ll be the end of it—“limited, tailored approaches,” he told Newshour, “not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq.”
If Obama does see a bigger picture here, he’s concerned that even a brief campaign against Assad may keep Iran from sitting at the negotiating table to make a deal over the nuclear program—and just when things were looking so good with the election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate! Perhaps someone in the White House is telling the commander-in-chief that the best way to get Iran to sit for talks is to show them the United States is serious and dangerous, that it has the will and the wherewithal to compel adversaries. It’s only by punching someone in the nose, Mr. President, that we can get Iran to believe that we really have kept the military option on the table.
Obama had the chance to show Tehran he was serious two years ago, when the Syrian opposition first took up arms in its own defense. But rather than backing a proxy force to break the weakest link of Tehran’s resistance bloc, the White House signaled it accepted Iran as the alpha dog. Obama, the Islamic Republic surely understands, would be content with a piece of paper allowing him to pass the nuclear issue on to the next administration. The problem is that he might not be able to. The latest Institute for Science and International Security report shows that Iran will be ready for a nuclear breakout by mid-2014 or sooner.
The reason that Obama is incapable of understanding Syria in strategic terms is because he believes that the pieces of the puzzle that make up the larger regional picture are in the wrong places. Yes, Assad is aligned with Iran and backs Hezbollah, which threatens a key American ally Israel. But Assad’s relations are simply tactical, means to an end. It’s wrong to see this as a strategic relationship based on shared principles—above all, a mutual opposition to American influence in the region—for Assad is finally a practical man. Sure, Assad waged war against the United States starting with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it was the wrong war anyway. You can’t really hold that against Assad because America shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Yes, Damascus international airport became the transit hub of choice for foreign fighters, then bused to the Iraqi border where they crossed over to fight American troops. In 2005 there were a number of clashes between U.S. troops and Syrian soldiers, including a firefight in the summer of that year that left several Syrians dead when Army Rangers tried to close off the border to foreign fighters. In 2007, the Pentagon found that 90% of the suicide bombers in Iraq had come via the Syrian border. Washington repeatedly asked the Syrian government to hand over Abu Musab al-Zarqawi lieutenant Abu Ghadiyeh, and in 2008 finally dispatched American forces to cross the border and kill him. But why blame Assad for trying to spoil the American project in Iraq that would have put another U.S. ally on his border, in addition to Turkey, Jordan and Israel? So what if the violence he exported to Iraq was meant to show Syrians that the Americans’ so-called democracy was nothing but freedom for Arabs to kill each other? It’s unfortunate that Assad wrote his little play within the play with the blood of American soldiers, but objectively speaking, he was simply shoring up his own regime.
Bush’s war in Iraq had put Assad in a tough spot, but Obama was going to give him a fresh start—engage the regime, fill the ambassador’s post, empty since 2005, and relieve sanctions. Whatever Assad had done before came under the previous administration. Yes, Assad supported Hamas, yes he backed Hezbollah, yes he likely ordered the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and waged a murderous campaign against anti-Syrian regime figures in Lebanon, yes he’d built a secret nuclear weapons facility in the desert, but that was irrelevant. Senator John Kerry, auditioning for the secretary of state job, told him there was a deal to be had with Damascus—they could be wedged away from Iran if given enough incentive. And that would lead to an even bigger deal with Iran.
Talk. The White House’s entire Middle East strategy was premised not on matching means to ends, or the balance of power, or exercising leverage against adversaries, but simply on the power of words, Obama’s words. Who knew that talk was destined to bring the president to this impasse, that warning of his calculus being changed would put him in a place where he would be forced to see if he was really capable of changing his calculus?