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Blurred Lines: Obama and Syria

President Obama denounced use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for military action.

President Obama denounced the use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for military action.

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.

Posted on September 2, 2013

3 Responses to Blurred Lines: Obama and Syria

  1. AmericaninEurope Reply

    September 3, 2013 at 5:36 am

    Comparing Barack Obama to George W. Bush is an easy but historically inaccurate comparison. There are major differences in the two situations, the first of which is that the Syrian people took to the streets two years ago, in the context of the Arab Spring, to call for Assad’s ouster. Assad’s brutal crackdown of his citizens and THEN their attempts to defend themselves cannot be compared to the situation of GW Bush and Tony Blair initiating an attack on Iraq because of fictitious WMD’s. The latter was meddling and the interests (oil) were obvious, especially since the Al Qaeda threat at the time was clearly elsewhere. The USA has very little to gain by attacking Syria, which has led to President Obama’s prudent hesitance.
    Obama does not want to unilaterally punish Assad but has sought a broader coalition to do what no one else wants to do because of G W Bush and Tony Blair’s bad and illegal choices. If Obama had behaved like his predecessor, Syria would have been bombed long ago, with no consideration of a coalition or the US Congress. Bush behaved like a cowboy and Obama is behaving like the law professor that he once was, considering the legality and legitimacy in a situation that appears to have no good options, mainly because the West (yes, including Europe here) ignored Syria until it reached this point. This did not start off as a civil war, it started with Assad brutalizing his people, the same way his father once did. At least respect the Syrians by acknowledging that they tried peaceful protest. And please stop comparing Obama to Bush because it dilutes the complexity of this situation and throws all ME conflicts into one unfitting pot.

  2. Octavius Pinkard Reply

    September 3, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Thank you very much for the comments, and also for having read the piece; I appreciate both. I don’t think that we disagree on much at all here. In fact, in general terms, I concur with all that you have said about the approach taken by Bush and, heretofore, the one embraced by Obama.

    Syria, as you’ve noted, is riddled with complex dynamics; it’s not merely a civil war. The regional uprisings which began in December 2010 unleashed far more than calls for democracy, development, and human rights. They also provided an opening for opportunistic non-state actors to pursue in the midst of instability what they could not pursue otherwise. In this context, Syria has become much like Lebanon prior to and through its civil war: a geopolitical space in which external actors fomented a civil war and then used the ensuing instability as a means of trying to both weaken and depose the existing order so that they could impose one more consistent with their own respective worldviews.

    Enter Washington. The US has been complicit in this, of course, by training and assisting insurgents in Jordan and Turkey and sending them across the border into Syria to aid the moderate elements of the rebel opposition. Congressional approval was not needed for that. Obama is no Bush, it is true. But in terms of foreign policy, we can view that as neither a virtue nor a criticism until we see how he manages the continued US role in this conflict.

    So from one American in Europe to another, thanks again for the feedback and for sharing such an insightful perspective.

  3. Sarah Bennis Reply

    September 6, 2013 at 7:50 am

    It is very sad to see what going on in Syria and watch without doing anything about it. In the main time the US should focus on it’s own problem here at home. The Syrian people struggle cannot be solve only by Syrian. Any attempt to change the course of the war within, will only hurt more innocent as it is right now.
    Countries has to stop supplying weapons and the UN should put watch on the border so no more Al Qaeda or crazy fanatic walk to Syria to kill it’s people. Syria is surrounded with a lot of countries that wants to interfere and create more trouble for the country. I believe that both presidents Bush and Obama are driven by special interest, corporates that supported their campaign are pushing them to go to war so they can profit on the blood of innocent. Having the congress approval shows how Americans wants to control the world and play cards with anybody that help open door for more profit even Al Qaeda. It is very sad to say we are going there to stop chemical attacks and defend our friends “Israel Interest” and no one is thinking about the taxpayers opinion. We Do Not wants to bomb Syria!!!

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