I agree with our Michael Rubin who writes today that the fuss about a United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is largely meaningless. There’s little doubt which side in the Syrian civil war committed the atrocity, and the Obama administration is right to be signaling that it is unimpressed by Assad’s belated decision to let U.N. inspectors into the area to make a determination. However, the president’s characteristically slow decision-making process as he decides if and how to react to the incident may turn out to be equally irrelevant to the question of whether the tyrant of Damascus is called to account in a meaningful way for the latest evidence of his depravity.
Given the willingness of the administration to speak openly of their certainty about Assad crossing the “red line” that the president established last year about the use of chemical weapons, it’s obvious the White House is calculating some sort of response. What exactly that response will be is still a matter of speculation. If, as many think, the president orders some sort of a strike on Assad’s forces or that of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies that are currently winning the war in Syria by a clear margin, perhaps he thinks he will have vindicated his reputation as a man of his word since he has taken so much heat for letting Assad cross his “red line” earlier this year with impunity. But short of a shower of cruise missiles that would decapitate the Syrian regime and completely change the course of the war there, it’s likely that any American action now would be more about Obama’s self-regard than anything else. Having passed on the chance to deal with the situation in Syria when minimal action might have ended Assad’s reign of terror without opening the gates to the al-Qaeda-related forces that currently play a huge role in the opposition, it’s just too late for a single show of force to make a difference.
President Obama’s pitiful performance on Syria over the past three years doesn’t need to be rehashed in depth. Suffice it to say that there isn’t much debate about the fact that had the United States chosen to act when the rebellion first began, Assad might well have been soon toppled without it opening the gates for radical Islamists to replace him. But instead he waited and did nothing except for incessantly predicting that Assad’s fall was imminent. Even a “lead from behind” strategy that was used in Libya might have been better than that because as the chaos in Syria spread, other forces entered the fray, complicating the conflict and reducing America’s options. On the one hand, groups related to al-Qaeda infiltrated the opposition to Assad, making regime change a less attractive option. On the other, Iran and Hezbollah’s entrance into the war raised the stakes in a regional conflict in which possession of Damascus becomes key to Tehran’s hopes for regional dominance that should scare the West more than anything else.
In the coming days we may be treated to the spectacle of a demonstration of American power in Syria. Expect the usual photos out of the situation room in the White House as the president and his team are depicted waiting for news of the strike and the subsequent celebration in the manner which we saw when the president took credit for the heroism of the Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden. But nobody should mistake such theatrics for a coherent policy.
President Obama didn’t create this mess by himself, but he worsened it with rhetoric that he chose not to back up with action. So now that the world turns to the United States and ponders what it will do about Assad’s atrocities three years on, all Washington can offer is a gesture that is unlikely to make a whit of difference in Syria. At this point, even a full-fledged American decision to get involved in the military effort to oust Assad may be too little, too late.