The recent chemical weapons attack in Syria this past week that left over 1,000 dead has increased the already high level of pressure on the United States to intervene in the conflict. Proponents of intervention claim the attack constitutes a clear crossing of the red line President Obama articulated in an interview nearly a year ago and criticize the White House's hesitation to act as a sign of weakness. In their eyes, the president must act not only to ensure the credibility of his words, but to also uphold the moral authority of the U.S. They point to the successful NATO operation against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya as proof that a limited Western intervention can work to topple a murderous dictator. Failure to act, they argue, would place the U.S. once again on the wrong side of history in a region where it has committed blunder after blunder.
Yet while the proponents of intervention are right to worry about the president's credibility, and the actions occurring in Syria are truly horrific, Obama's hesitation to get involved remains the correct policy for the U.S. Any involvement in the conflict carries significant risks, and it is therefore key that Washington move carefully and deliberately when planning its response to the recent chemical attack.
The reasons for this are simple and sobering.
The first is that taking sides in Syria is not as easy at it seems. The Syrian opposition is fragmented and increasingly dominated by terrorists with ties to Al Qaeda. It controls no major swath of territory like the rebels in Libya did and it has been accused of many of the same human rights violations leveled against the government in Damascus. It’s a legitimate question, then, to wonder if replacing Assad with a government that is either run by or friendly with Islamist extremists is an improvement for U.S. national security. Say what you want about Assad, but at least he doesn’t threaten the U.S. homeland like a state run by Al Qaeda sympathizers would. To back the rebels, assuming the “good” ones will inherit control of Syria, would be to risk a whole lot on a very uncertain hope.
The second reason the U.S. should act cautiously is because of the high cost and uncertainty involved with any type of commitment to the conflict. Each military option carries significant risks and few would actually be able to stop the violence. Moreover, even the most limited action carries with it the risk of escalation that could suck the U.S. deeper into the conflict. Of particular concern to the administration is the security of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. Obama is worried that if the Assad regime falls, its chemical weapons will fall into the hands of various terrorist organizations. As such, he is stuck between wanting Assad to go but also needing to ensure his chemical weapons stay out of the hands of groups that would use them to attack the U.S. and its allies. This balancing act severely constrains Obama’s ability to take action. The Pentagon estimates up to 75,000 troops would be needed to secure all the chemical weapons in Syria, which is the last order Obama wants to give after working to extricate the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The third reason for Obama to move deliberately, and perhaps the most important, is that it's unclear the U.S. can achieve a better outcome in Syria. Even if the U.S. were to topple Assad, secure his chemical weapons stocks, and put the "good" rebels in charge, infighting amongst the rebels suggests that sectarian conflict, supported by outside powers seeking leverage in Syria, would continue to ravage the country. As such, the U.S. could find itself having unleashed a new civil war in the Middle East and in the position of having to try and tame the forces it has set loose. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey has warned, “It is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.” While we don’t like to admit it, there are limits to American power and the inability to create a stable Syria post Assad is one of them.
This is why, at best, I see Obama launching a few cruise missiles so he can say Assad's actions have not gone unpunished. But he will not do anything that actually threatens the survival of the regime, and will work hard to limit American exposure to escalation. There are simply too many uncontrollable variables at play for him to risk toppling Assad. And while at first blush this may seem like a morally weak decision, it's actually the decision that occupies the moral high ground. It’s a lot easier to go in to Syria and oust Assad in the name of human rights than it would be to get out and leave a stable country behind. Any commitment risks further escalation and the conditions on the ground show that no easy exit strategy exists. Launching a few cruise missiles to uphold American credibility may not seem like much, but it’s the least terrible of many bad options. It would be far more irresponsible for Obama to launch the nation into it's fourth war in the Middle East in a decade with no easy way to achieve U.S. objectives and no clear exit strategy.