On Thursday the White House announced that it has concluded that Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against rebels, which the U.S. has repeatedly said would cross a "red line" and would be the deciding point to scale up American operations in the Syrian Civil War. Consequently, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes said that Obama has decided to provided "direct support" to rebel forces and that this "includes military support." To date the U.S. has been reluctant to step up its support for the rebels beyond humanitarian aid and non-lethal assistance. Although Rhodes did not specify what form the military support will take, the Washington Post reports that "it is expected initially to consist of light arms and ammunition" but could expand further.
Other countries, including France, Britain, Israel, and Turkey, were already convinced that Assad has used chemical weapons, most likely sarin gas, against his own people. Given this, and its previous reluctance to say whether chemical weapons had been used, the timing of the U.S. announcement, and its implications, raises questions about the its motives in light of the widespread outrage currently directed at the government due to the NSA surveillance scandal.
Has the White House timed the announcement, and the possibility of an escalation in America's involvement in the Syrian war that it bring with it, in an attempt to distract people from the NSA scandal?
According to diversionary war theory, starting a war, or significantly escalating involvement in one, can function as a way to distract the public's attention from domestic issues. The idea is essentially to try and get everyone, the public, the media, etc, to forget about the bad things that are going on in their own country, and the criticism of the government that this brings, and instead to unite in their focus on some other "bad guys" out there in the world.
Although it ultimately did not unite the country, Martin Luther King Jr labelled the Vietnam war "America's tragic distraction," arguing that it served to distract attention, and government resources, from important domestic issues. In particular he argued that the buildup to the war destroyed the poverty program which had held "a real promise of hope for the poor." America, he said, would "never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as" the Vietnam war continued.
More recently, Barack Obama himself strongly criticized the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War. In a 2002 speech, then-Senator Obama argued that "Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors" and that talk of war was an attempt to distract from domestic issues:
"What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income — to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That's what I'm opposed to."
Although Rhodes did not say what form U.S. military support for the Syrian rebels will take, he did, however, say that it will be "substantively different [in] both scope and scale than what we have provided before." While he also said that no decision has been made about the potential imposition of a no fly zone over Syria, Reuters reported on Friday that according to two Western diplomats, the U.S. is considering imposing a no-fly zone in southern Syria.
At present it remains unclear exactly how much Thursday's announcement will actually change America's existing Syria strategy, and the potential imposition of a no fly zone would certainly not be as straightforward as in Libya. The new development, however, certainly puts the Syrian war back amongst the headline news at a time when the White House is facing widespread and sustained criticism over its surveillance practices. While the timing of the U.S. intelligence community regarding the use of chemical weapons, and the potential escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria that it entails, may not necessarily be deliberate, it will undoubtedly help shift some of the attention away from the NSA surveillance scandal, away from the actions of the American government to the actions of an easily hate-able foreign regime.