The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors came under fire today in Syria as they attempted to visit the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks didn’t do much to enhance the credibility of a mission that never had a chance of success. This episode will only make it even likelier that, at long last, the Obama administration will respond forcefully to the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. If the noises emanating from Western European capitals are to be believed, what follows may well be a mission with the imprimatur of NATO. If the optimists about President Obama finally having made up his mind to act on Syria after years of dithering are right, then the response may be some sort of concerted air campaign rather than a symbolic yet meaningless strike consisting of lobbing a few missiles that change nothing on the ground.
If true, better late than never will probably be the response of many observers to such a decision. But even if he does shed the restraint he has showed and does something, the question we should be asking right now is not so much whether the president finally makes good on his year-old threat about “red lines” about chemical weapons, but whether the United States is prepared to finish what it starts in Syria. If, as may be likely, a strike on Syria comes under the NATO flag, the credibility of the West won’t be vindicated by symbolism. Having chosen to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war when Assad might have been toppled without that much trouble, the president must understand that the stakes are far higher today than one or two years ago. With Iran and Hezbollah now heavily invested in the conflict and Russia still committed to keeping Assad afloat, the West probably won’t be able to get away with a repeat of its Libyan intervention or even a more large scale Kosovo-style air offensive and think it will change the tide of war there.
A lot has changed since President Obama first starting predicting that Assad’s fall was inevitable. Rather than giving up, he has dug in, and with the help provided by Russia as well as the Iranian “volunteers” from Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah reinforcements, he has seized the initiative in the war. While air strikes could cripple his chemical supplies, heavy weapons, and air power, it’s a trifle optimistic to believe a series of bombing raids or cruise missile strikes will defeat Assad.
That means that if President Obama is serious about Syria, he’s going to have to risk a long-term commitment to the conflict. Though he is probably not contemplating putting any boots on the ground, the cost of a prolonged air offensive will not be cheap. Coming at a time when the American people are already weary of war after Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting another one even with airpower alone is quite a political risk.
Count me among those who believe that the U.S. cannot afford to make threats such as those made by Obama and let them slide. But if the U.S. attacks and Assad survives, America’s credibility—and that of the president—will be hurt, not enhanced. At this stage, mere gestures won’t be enough. To the contrary, once the West enters the war, nothing short of Assad’s defeat will be a satisfactory outcome. Indeed, with the administration preparing to engage in another round of diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear project, both the ayatollahs and their sometime allies in Moscow will be measuring the Western response in Syria and judging whether they should worry about continuing to stonewall Washington. A failure to finish what begins this week will leave Iran, Russia and Assad as big winners. Getting into Syria won’t be difficult; getting out with a result that will not make things in the region even worse won’t be so easy.