President Obama, the Syrian Civil War and Fateful Indecision

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On August 20th, 2012, President Barack Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons would constitute the crossing of a “red line” that “would change [his] calculus” in intervening in Syria’s Civil War. The conflict has grown and evolved in the past year: Over 100,000 people are now dead, two million have sought refuge beyond national borders and fighting rages on between sworn enemies. On August 21st, 2013, almost a year to the day after Obama drew his red line (Coincidence? I don’t think so), Syrian high command authorized deployment of Sarin gas, killing between 300 and 1,500 people, the majority of whom were civilians. The act committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime stunned the world and renewed pleas for Western intervention. And the West balked.

Since the conflict began in March 2011, Assad has enjoyed the advantage of well-trained troops, superior weaponry and – his most prized asset – isolation from the West. For as often as the crisp horror of the Syrian Civil War made front-page news in the United States and Europe, the leaders of the free world did next to nothing, choosing instead to “monitor the situation.” To be fair, this was no simple conflict to monitor, much less to enter, even via proxy. However, impatience among the rebels turned into animosity, which then fermented into radicalism, transforming some of an already troubling opposition into a nasty component of Islamic fundamentalism.

At first, it appeared that Assad’s gall in challenging Obama’s “calculus” was spectacularly stupid. However, the White House’s continued indecision on a proportionate and punitive response reflects the boldness of the regime’s gamble. Assad made a wager that the West would continue to do nothing, and, so far, he has correctly called the President’s bluff. And in so doing, he has overcome a series of minor military defeats at the hands of rebel forces with a gas attack that served to cripple the rebellion psychologically. Not only does this make Obama (and the United States) look foolish, but it also feeds the Syrian despot’s ego, basically begging him to go even further in purging elements of the civilian population.

So why is it that the President is fearful of punishing the Syrian government for its despicable crimes of war? Because by attacking the regime, it effectually assists the rebel forces. But weren’t they the good guys? After all, the revolution began during the generally pro-democratic Arab Spring of 2011, and since then, the U.S. has recognized the opposition as legitimate. At the beginning of the conflict, the rebels were largely just that: pro-democratic and anti-tyrannical. However, they were poorly trained and armed, facing a professional and considerably capable Syrian military that possessed air superiority. For months, the rebels pleaded for arms assistance from the U.S. and the European Union, who hemmed and hawed until newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry, British Foreign Minister William Hague and their counterparts met with Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib at a ‘Friends of Syria’ summit, where they pledged $1.5 billion in humanitarian (i.e. food and medical) aid. Al-Khatib, who denounced reports that the rebels were extremists, was not satisfied with the promised assistance. He knew that only military support would help end the conflict and result in a democratic Syria, and continued to request proper assistance. His appeals went unanswered, and he resigned in March after Middle Eastern countries sought to hijack the SNC for external control. By the time President Obama authorized limited military training for the Syrian rebels in June, it was too late for the aid to be effective. In fact, it is unclear if any U.S.-run aid or training has even reached the rebel forces.

Through its inaction, the Obama administration has effectively sidelined the U.S., consistently lacked a coherent foreign policy and angered the very people it should be supporting. The President stood idly by when Russia sent weapons shipments to the Assad regime and when Iran routinely operated in Iraqi airspace to supply Syria with military advisors and arms. Furthermore, Iran’s terrorist ally (or puppet), Hezbollah, has committed thousands of troops to help Assad, and some Palestinian elements have sent troops as well.

Though this is a civil war, it is already a regional conflict in every way but name. Arabian Gulf nations continue to jockey for influence within the SNC. Israel has carried out bombing operations on Hezbollah targets near Damascus and has exchanged fire with Assad’s forces at the Golan Heights. Turkish, Iraqi, Lebanese and Jordanian soldiers have been killed. Two million refugees have spilled into neighboring Turkey and Jordan. In addition to monitoring the Assad regime and the rebels, the Turks remain deeply concerned about Kurdish militia forces in Northern Syria. The list goes on, and yet, the U.S. has done next to nothing to stop Assad’s reign of terror.

At the onset of the revolution, the rebel forces did not contain a strong extremist faction, though a small element did exist. Branches like the “Jabhat al-Nusra Front” and the “Islamic State of Iraq” are wings of al-Qaeda whose leaders fall within its command structure. They are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S., while the latter of the two armies actually fought against American and allied troops in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Make no mistake: these are evil organizations that include the U.S. among its sworn enemies.

However, over the past two and a half years, these armed fundamentalist groups have risen to the fore of rebellion forces, the bulk of which is manned by the generally respected Free Syrian Army (FSA). And though these extremists now represent about a fifth of the rebel forces as a whole, they punch well above their weight. The scary fact is that the fundamentalists are winning battles, too. They are better trained (many from prior battlefield experience against the U.S.) than the average FSA soldier and have been responsible for a string of recent rebel victories, earning them a reputation for fearlessness. In fact, the FSA, fearful of a rise in extremism among its ranks, has reported to the State Department that the fundamentalists frequently man the front line due to their “courage.” What’s more than the importance of their military triumphs, the extremists have slowly begun to win over some of the hearts and minds of the mainstream Syrian opposition. All the while, they have the clout to criticize the U.S. for failing to intervene on the rebels’ behalf, slowly exposing Syrians to their radical Islamic ideology. And that is what is most terrifying about the current prospect for Syria: that the conflict will continue to evolve between a brutal despot and rebels that are influenced by Islamist terrorist groups.

In the days following the August 21st gassing, President Obama revealed his intention to attack Syria, but only after being forced into action by the echo of his words uttered one year before. The President shopped around, speaking with various NATO allies to assemble a coalition, but failed to gain commitments. Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who endorsed a retaliatory strike, was held back by a parliamentary vote on the issue of armed intervention. Obama waited and pondered the issue, giving updates to the media through the Pentagon, State Department and White House on his latest plans and leanings. Weeks passed, and the Assad regime faced no consequences. In the meantime, Assad was reading the papers, just like us.

While U.S. intelligence and military capability is far-reaching and second-to-none, it is obviously constrained when contingency planning drags on publicly: giving the enemy more time to prepare its defense (and conceal, deploy or redeploy valuable assets such as chemical weapons). A potential strike of this nature is best executed quickly, and the President forfeited the element of surprise when he dawdled on the decision to attack Assad’s chemical weapons assets and command and control apparatuses. A strike, which would likely be carried out with Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) from warships operating in the U.S. Sixth Fleet area of responsibility (Mediterranean Sea), becomes increasingly limited in capability with each passing day of indecision. TLAMs are computer-guided and rely on geographic coordinates. Changing the weapon’s target location is not of grave concern (as long as the intelligence is correct), but its impact can be affected by a number of factors, including Syrian air defense platforms, movement of assets to safer environments (including underground) and dispersing assets to minimize losses. Questions have been raised surrounding the effectiveness of a TLAM strike now that weeks have passed, which has given Assad ample time to reorganize.

On Saturday, Obama vacillated again. This time, he sought to escape culpability by punting his power to Congress for a vote on military action. Quite frankly, the President’s excuses are pathetic. Though he believes that he possesses the constitutional right to authorize military strikes, his desire for congressional approval goes exactly against earlier events in his Presidency. A similar intervention was executed in 2011 with Operation Odyssey Dawn (OOD), in which NATO and its allies softened the Ghaddafi regime in Libya with TLAMs, a no-fly zone and air support for rebel forces. OOD, which included critical NATO air support, allowed the rebels to rout loyalist forces and win their own independence without foreign troops on Libyan soil. Obama had no issue authorizing those strikes without Congress, but now, when faced with more pressure, he chooses to tag the Hill. The issue here is not its constitutionality; it is the fact that he is unwilling to make a decision. More scandalous is the fact that he did not make one months or years ago.

Despite support from key figures in Republican and Democratic leadership, the tally will likely be tight, even after some language tweaking by both chambers. And to make matters worse, a House vote on the matter will not even come for several more days, dragging on the prospect of intervention. At the moment, we are reviled on both sides of international and domestic public opinion: that of the pacifists and isolationists, who fear American involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war, and that of the proponents of the U.S.’ responsibility to protect at-risk innocents, who clamor for Assad to be punished.

It is understandable that Americans are weary of involvement in another conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan, but this is not comparable to those invasions and subsequent decade-long operations. In a bolder scenario, intervention to explicitly assist the rebels in toppling the Assad regime would include preliminary TLAM strikes to suppress Syrian air defenses and aircraft, then maintaining a no-fly zone with manned aircraft, which would technically commit American troops to the fight. Such an action, essentially a duplicate of Operation Noble Anvil (NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999) and OOD, would be more financially expensive than just TLAM strikes alone, but nowhere near the dramatic financial and human costs of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The U.S. is in this precarious position because of President Obama’s failure to act. I concede that, because the public does not have access to intelligence reports and diplomatic cables, my verdict on the President’s failures comes at face value. However, I am also confident that the U.S. could have assisted the rebels safely and responsibly with military aid months or years ago, kept a watchful eye on their progress, and assisted in the implementation of democratic government. In short, we could have saved lives. Instead, we are mulling about, trying to decide on intervening in a brutal conflict that has raged for far too long. We could have helped the true democratic rebels when they desperately needed it, simultaneously shutting out the extremists from a shot at power. Instead, we kept away from the mere thought of intervention until a few weeks ago – never mind the 100,000 who have perished before the “red line” was crossed.

The real disgrace is not that we may involve ourselves in a civil war between evil factions; it is that the President, clouded by his fantasy that dialogue and diplomacy will end all war in the Middle East, allowed the Syrian conflict to get this far in the first place. There is no easy solution to the mess that the President has allowed to grow in his ignored Petri dish, and while I yearn to punish the bastards who attack civilians with savage weapons and tactics, I am quickly reminded that the minor, though influential religious extremist element of the opposition used comparable savagery against our men and women in Iraq. The years of inaction on the President’s part have not made us any safer, though it has let the Middle East spiral out of control. And in Syria, our message is neither respected nor feared. Al-Qaeda will remind you that America does not care for your safety or freedom. And Bashar al-Assad can continue his despotic business as usual, absent any concern of American retribution.

Not only is Syria the policy blunder that will define Obama’s legacy in the Middle East; it is, quite literally, a bloody shame. An apologetic foreign policy emboldens adversaries who are hell-bent to destroy the United States. The President simply struggles to understand that, sometimes, bad people must be killed to prevent further slaughter. Too bad he came to that realization so late in the game.

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