Obama: Spineless on Syria


United Nations Middle East envoy Robert Serry claimed last July that the United Nations had rec-eived 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. On Aug. 21, Assad gassed to death 1,429 civilians.

What principle was violated upon the 14th use of chemical weapons but not on the first 13 uses? Obama’s reactions to the violations of his red line have been spineless and incoherent: Apparently, the use of chemical weapons is fine if fewer than 1,429 civilians are killed.

Obama now wants congressional approval for the enforcement of his red line. If Assad’s 14th chemical weapons attack had killed 30,000 people, would Obama still ask for congressional approval for military action? How many Syrians have to die before Obama acquires the necessary conviction to lead?
Obama’s latest about-face is problematic in at least five ways:

  • It gives Assad weeks to move all of his military assets into protected locations, rendering any eventual U.S. strike less effective.
  • Given Obama’s stated goal (deterring further violations of an “international norm”), what is to stop Assad from launching more chemical attacks during the window of time that Obama just created?
  • What signal does Obama’s dithering send to the Syrians, who wonder how much more wholesale slaughter the U.S. will tolerate when the mere prospect of violence on a horrific scale was enough to prompt U.S. military action in Libya? What signal does Obama’s hesitation on Syria send to a far stronger Iran that has been threatening to destroy Israel while developing the nuclear means to do so? And what is Israel to make of Obama’s assurances that it will prevent Iran from acquiring nukes?
  • What happens if Congress, like the British Parliament, votes against any military action against Syria? Obama would then be left with an even worse set of choices: Flout the will of the very institution he purported to respect and attack Syria anyway (in what might then be a constitutionally questionable move), or renege on his declared intent to punish the violation of a universal norm and undermine whatever little is left of his credibility and the United States’ power and influence.
  • Meanwhile, Syria’s neighbors — particularly Israel and Turkey — must now remain for weeks in a state of jittery limbo regarding a potential Syrian retaliation against them, as they wait to see if Congress votes to attack Syria.
  • Worse still, Obama’s symbolic punitive strike, if it even happens, will change nothing on the ground. Assad will emerge unscathed, declare that even the mighty U.S. can’t stop him, and he will continue to massacre his citizens, perhaps even with chemical weapons again, knowing how tepid the U.S. response will be.

    A sounder U.S. strategy would support the moderate rebels and deliver a decisive military blow that destroys Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons so that they no longer threaten anyone in or out of Syria; restores U.S. deterrence by establishing that U.S. red lines actually mean something when it comes to WMD; and encourages the Assad regime to redeploy its remaining resources away from reconquering territory and toward establishing a defensible Alawite state in the northwest provinces of Tartous and Latakia (where Alawites predominate and can form their state after the inevitable Balkanization of Syria).

    Such an approach will also make it far easier for the U.S. to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff peacefully. The only time that the Iranian regime suspended its enrichment activities was briefly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Iran feared that it would be attacked next.

    But the longer Obama remains spineless on Syria, the longer the bloodbath will continue, with increasingly unpredictable and catastrophic consequences (that could still compel U.S. involvement), and the more the U.S. will telegraph timidity to dangerous regimes deterred only by strength.

    Noah Beck is the author of “The Last Israelis,” an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.

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