On Syria, the US has bad options and worse ones

Updated
A rebel fighter takes aim at regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo on August 26, 2013.
A rebel fighter takes aim at regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo on August 26, 2013.
Louia Abo Al-Jod/AFP/Getty Images

Obama administration officials insisted that a decision has not been made to attack the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad Friday, while laying out their case for why Assad is directly responsible for a chemical weapons attack that they say killed almost 1,500 people near the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The unclassified intelligence assessment released by the administration states that “streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.” In addition, a “Syrian regime element” prepared for the attack, in part by using gas masks. The US also claims that it intercepted a communication from a high ranking Syrian official in the aftermath of the attack which both confirmed that the attack took place and expressed concern that United Nations officials would obtain evidence to that effect. In addition, the administration says, the attack was concentrated in areas of the Damascus suburbs that are either contested or held by the Syrian rebels.

Assad’s chemical weapons program, a senior administration official said Friday on a conference call with reporters, is “firmly under his [Assad’s] control.”

In his speech Thursday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that a decade ago, the United States invaded Iraq on the understanding that it had weapons of mass destruction that could threaten the US, only to discover none.

“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience,” Kerry said.”We will not repeat that moment.”

At face value, the administration’s case that the Assad regime is responsible for the chemical weapons attack is persuasive. Less persuasive however, is the administration’s case for a military response. White House officials insist the president has not made up his mind to strike Syria, but in his speech Friday afternoon, Kerry certainly sounded like the decision had been made. “Will [other potential rogue regimes] remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons’ current or future use, or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?” Kerry asked, calling the attack “indiscriminate, inconceivable horror.”

The question is whether the administration’s proposal, a “limited and tailored response,” would accomplish what the administration wants, which is a deterrent against future use of chemical weapons. Administration officials flatly said that “we are not contemplating a military effort aimed at regime change.” Kerry said that any response “will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open-ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway.”

If Assad was willing to use chemical weapons to maintain his grip on power, it’s unclear how “limited strikes” not aimed at deposing him would dissuade him from doing so again, because retaining control is what matters to him. Similarly, if Assad is not dissuaded because the strikes do not threaten his rule, then it’s hard to see why other regimes intent on using chemical weapons would be discouraged.

Indeed, they might be emboldened by the possibility that they could weather a military response from the United States even after being caught violating international law. Surviving an American military strike could actually strengthen a despot’s hold on power, giving him new stature. If the point is that Assad shouldn’t be able to get away with it, the administration seems to be saying in advance that he will.

The reasons to stay out of Syria’s civil war are fairly clear-cut: it’s a conflict that as yet does not threaten the security of the United States, and there’s little chance the US could force either faction to stop fighting and deal. Those who want the US to force regime change in Syria number in the minority. A larger-scale intervention might at least achieve what the administration wants, which is to deter future use of chemical weapons by punishing Assad for utilizing them. But there’s certainly no guarantee of that. And the possible price of an invasion–expending American blood and treasure in yet another unwinnable Mideast war–is higher than most Americans are willing to tolerate right now.

The administration apparently wants to both keep the US out of Syria’s civil war, while hitting Assad hard enough to forestall future use of chemical weapons. The middle course of action the administration is proposing probably won’t accomplish even the administration’s limited goals, and is unlikely to satisfy critics on either side.

On Syria, the US has bad options and worse ones

Updated