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By Octavius Pinkard
On August 31, U.S. President Barack Obama appeared in the White House Rose Garden to explain why Syria should be punished for its alleged role in the chemical weapons attack that occurred some 10 days earlier in a Damascus suburbs. Obama declared he had reached two decisions: that a military response is warranted to show Bashar al-Assad that chemical weapons use will not be tolerated, and that the United States would only use such force if it is approved by Congress.
President Barack Obama now finds himself advocating, at least rhetorically, the same kind of intervention for which he roundly criticized his predecessor. There is no doubt that Obama owes his 2008 election, in part, to that criticism and his corresponding pledge to avoid foreign policy misadventures that risk American and Western interests and lives.
Congress is on recess until September 9 and probably will not authorize intervention when it returns, so this provides a convenient “out” for a president reluctant to lead but whose “red line” rhetoric has compelled him to appear both forceful and ready to do so.
Obama’s narrative seems to imply that action against Assad would be consistent with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. This emerged in 2005 in response to global inaction to many regime-led atrocities for which the international community provided no effective response. These atrocities included genocide, ethnic cleansing and the use of chemical and biological weapons.
There are, however, many uncertainties about invoking the Responsibility to Protect as a justification for military intervention. This is especially true when R2P can be so easily used as a convenient pretext for regime change. Legal considerations aside, a key element of R2P is a broad consensus that there is a need to respond, which implies a corresponding view that some party has indeed crossed an unacceptable line.
According to the White House, Damascus has done so by gassing its population. Unfortunately for Washington, there is neither a consensus on who carried out the attack nor one on the need to respond. And the unilateral use of force is not consistent with R2P, which calls for collective action; this is made clear by the necessity of a United Nations Security Council approval of any such undertaking.
Washington claims it has compelling evidence of regime culpability for the chemical attack in Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry has said that there is proof that Damascus used sarin in that attack. There is reason for pause.
In late May 2013, Turkish security agents found a 2 kg cylinder of sarin nerve gas in the home of militants attached to the rebel opposition. They were arrested under suspicion of planning attacks across the Turkish border in Adana. These individuals were members of the Al Nusra Front, a terrorist organization that is the principal fighting force of the rebel opposition and that has pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Bassam Al-Dada, political adviser to the Free Syrian Army, confirmed in January 2013 that the rebel opposition possessed chemical weapons and the capability to use them. During this same period, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, stated plainly that there was strong evidence that the rebel opposition, not the regime, had used sarin during the course of the country’s civil war.
It has been widely reported in Lebanon that Hezbollah fighters were also gassed on August 21 and are now receiving medical attention in Beirut. Hezbollah is the group primarily responsible for Assad’s ability to survive the insurgency of the armed opposition. Obama’s red line may have been crossed, but the rebels could just as easily be the culprit as the regime; the former seems much more likely.
This may help to explain why the White House is finding it increasingly difficult to garner support for military intervention in Syria. Without a mandate from the Security Council, Obama will be hard-pressed to build a willing coalition among a growing chorus of the unconvinced.
The Arab League would not explicitly endorse any intervention without the definitive approval of the Security Council, but then urged international action against the Syrian government to deter what it called the “ugly crime” of using chemical weapons. In any case, Security Council approval will be difficult for Washington to realize because Russia is sure to veto any measure that calls for the use of force in either explicit or implicit terms. The broader Middle East and North Africa cannot afford to see Libya replayed in Syria. The implications could be disastrous for a country like Lebanon, where the war in Syria is already creating an unsustainable level and depth of insecurity.
It is not clear who carried out this attack, and the U.N. inspectors who recently completed a mission on site will not be able to make such a determination. They can only verify that chemical weapons were employed and which types. The President did not make a convincing case. His tone was stern and his conviction resolute, but tough talk is not synonymous with infallibility. This is often overlooked in Washington.
That Americans are weary of war is an understatement, and they are equally weary of being led into conflicts that are unnecessary and run the risk of heightening insecurity at home and abroad. There is a level of fatigue at seeing irresponsible American foreign policy as both a cause and effect of continued instability in the Middle East.
Ten years ago, French President Jacques Chirac was the voice of reason in opposing a regime change operation in Iraq that was masked as humanitarian intervention. In the Russo-American pas de deux over Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has assumed the role of Chirac, and may prove equally right.
That Obama has now assumed the role of George W. Bush is as surprising as it is disappointing. After his predecessor fomented anti-American sentiment for eight years in nearly every corner of the globe, Obama had a real opportunity to step in and change the course of U.S. foreign policy and markedly for the better.
In Cairo, Berlin, Jerusalem, Washington and elsewhere, Obama has raised expectations with each successive speech then failed to deliver on his platitudes.
Octavius Pinkard is a contributing analyst for The Atlantic Post and is based in Brussels, Belgium.