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Posts For: September 1, 2013

Thinking Through Our Syrian Options

On the lead-up to a likely strike against Syria by the United States, there are some things most of us can agree on.

One is that Bashar al-Assad is a malevolent figure. Two, a de minimis strike–one that 
is mostly symbolic and does nothing to alter the course of the war–is worse than doing nothing. And three, President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.

The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 


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On the lead-up to a likely strike against Syria by the United States, there are some things most of us can agree on.

One is that Bashar al-Assad is a malevolent figure. Two, a de minimis strike–one that 
is mostly symbolic and does nothing to alter the course of the war–is worse than doing nothing. And three, President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.

The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 


That said, where there is a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, is whether an effective show of force that would alter the balance of power in Syria would be worthwhile.

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

So what is the best outcome we can reasonable hope for? What is the worst outcome we should be most prepared for? What are the odds of each one happening? How likely, and in what ways, will Syria retaliate? How reliable is the FSA? Is Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) “generally acknowledged to be the most effective force fighting al-Assad,” in the words of CNN’s Peter Bergen? If the (relatively) moderate rebels did receive the aid they need, what are their chances of success? And what would success look like? Taking control of Syria (which is hardly likely)? Taking control of parts of Syria? Participating in a coalition government? Comprised of whom? 

These are just some of the difficult, and largely unknowable, questions one has to ask prior to endorsing a military strike.

There would be a significant cost to doing nothing in Syria. There could be significant benefits if we act militarily (including delivering a damaging blow to Syria’s sponsor states, Iran and Russia, as well as to Hezbollah). And it’s also possible that things could be worse–from the standpoint of America, Israel and the region–if Assad is attacked and/or overthrown and jihadists emerge in a dominant position. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”

In all of this I’m reminded of what Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoir White House Years:

Statesmanship requires above all a sense of nuance and proportion, the ability to perceive the essential among a mass of apparent facts, and an intuition as to which of many equally plausible hypotheses about the future is likely to prove true.

Barack Obama has no such perception and intuition; he has proved to be singularly inept at such presidential decision-making. But we cannot unwind what has happened. We are where we are. Syria is a nation that has been ripped apart. The window for a useful American intervention may have closed. And even if it hasn’t, it would require a strategic thinker and statesman of remarkable skill to deal with a dozen moving parts, all which need to be carefully calibrated, in order to help Syria heal; in order for a stable, non-sectarian and non-virulent regime to emerge.

It’s much clearer to me what we shouldn’t do than what we now should do. I suppose that’s sometimes where we find ourselves living in this most untidy world. And when it comes to predicting the course of events and anticipating various contingencies, especially in the Middle East, modesty is probably more appropriate than certitude.

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Obama’s Path Forward on Syria

It is hard to quarrel with the decision of any president to ask Congress for authorization to use military force. Even if such authorization is not, strictly speaking, necessary, it is always a good thing to have the legislative branch on board, if possible. In the case of President Obama, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his decision to wait to strike Syria until such time as Congress approves a strike–if it ever does–is a sign not of his commitment to the division of powers but, rather, of his crippling ambivalence about whether it is worth getting involved in Syria at all.

This is, after all, the president who called more than two years ago, all the way back in August 2011, for Bashar Assad to step down but then turned down the recommendation of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrian opposition. He also ignored the recommendations of outside analysts, including me, that he impose a “no-fly” zone, a “no-drive” zone, and “buffer zones” to help force Assad from power, back in the days when the Syrian civil war was still relatively young and it was much easier to imagine a post-Assad transition that did not involve the country fracturing apart.

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It is hard to quarrel with the decision of any president to ask Congress for authorization to use military force. Even if such authorization is not, strictly speaking, necessary, it is always a good thing to have the legislative branch on board, if possible. In the case of President Obama, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his decision to wait to strike Syria until such time as Congress approves a strike–if it ever does–is a sign not of his commitment to the division of powers but, rather, of his crippling ambivalence about whether it is worth getting involved in Syria at all.

This is, after all, the president who called more than two years ago, all the way back in August 2011, for Bashar Assad to step down but then turned down the recommendation of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrian opposition. He also ignored the recommendations of outside analysts, including me, that he impose a “no-fly” zone, a “no-drive” zone, and “buffer zones” to help force Assad from power, back in the days when the Syrian civil war was still relatively young and it was much easier to imagine a post-Assad transition that did not involve the country fracturing apart.

Instead of doing any of those things, Obama warned, ominously, that his calculations would change if and when Assad used chemical weapons. So Obama stood aside as the civil war killed more than 100,000 people–almost all of them killed with bullets and bombs and shells, not with poison gas. But finally the evidence became inescapable that Assad was using sarin gas as well, and after much hemming and hawing Obama publicly admitted as much in June. His response? Not air strikes. Instead, a pledge to arm the Syrian opposition–a pledge that has still gone unfulfilled.

This is the background to the latest flare-up, with U.S. intelligence estimating that Assad killed some 1,400 people with chemical weapons at the end of August–a claim that is not speculative, as with earlier claims about Iraqi WMD, but rests on solid evidence–to wit, corpses that bear no mark of any bullet or puncture wound. This provoked Secretary of State John Kerry, the chief advocate within the administration of strong action in Syria, into high dudgeon to denounce the “moral obscenity” that Assad had committed. Obama followed with similar, only moderately more temperate language, vowing retribution for this violation of international norms against using WMD.

But at the same time the White House leaked like crazy to make clear to the whole world that any military action would not be designed to topple Assad–it would only be a “shot across the bow” to signal American displeasure. The leaks went so far as to specify that only a few cruise missiles would be employed and that the strikes would last only a few days.

Still, there was an expectation that strikes would occur momentarily–it doesn’t take long to spin up cruise missiles from warships in the Mediterranean. Then the British House of Commons voted against authorizing action and second thoughts seemed to set in within the administration. Now President Obama has announced that he will await congressional action which, in the case of the House, won’t come until the week of Sept. 9, if at all.

Funny, he didn’t think it was necessary to ask congressional authorization before bombing Libya–but that was a cause he was committed to. Not so in the case of Syria, where Obama’s driving desire, it is plain, is to stay as far away from the conflict as humanly possible. The New York Times reporter John Harwood recently tweeted: “Ex-Obama foreign pol aide, asked if any doubt we’ll hit Syria: ‘No.’ Is administration already having 2nd thoughts? ‘Yes. Not a great combo’.”

Not a good combination, for sure–an ambivalent commander in chief thinking of launching a few missiles without any obvious strategic intent beyond signaling anger with Assad and now perhaps secretly hoping that Congress will get him off the hook by blocking action. As numerous commentators, including me, have noted, firing a few cruise missiles risks giving Assad a victory by allowing him to emerge from his bunker after the air strikes to proclaim that he stood up to the American bully. The chances of achieving any results with cruise missile strikes–already slim–decline further with the delay of weeks that congressional action will entail. This will give Assad plenty of time to disperse and harden his missile launchers and other key assets.

None of this is to say that Congress should reject Obama’s request for authorization to use force. On the contrary, a rejection of the resolution would have disastrous consequences–it would signal American retreat to the world and give predators from North Korea to Iran a green light to commit greater atrocities in the future. The best we can hope for now is that an overwhelming vote of support in Congress–however unlikely it appears in the case of the increasingly isolationist House–will stiffen Obama’s spine and lead him to launch smarter strikes that will actually cripple Assad’s air force and other military forces that he is using to commit atrocities, mostly without recourse to chemical weapons.

This should be the first step in a concerted campaign, waged with cooperation from non-jihadist elements of the Syrian rebellion (which, as analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy makes clear, are more numerous than commonly supposed) to finally make good on Obama’s publicly enunciated desire to topple Assad. Anything less, at this point, will not restore the credibility that the United States desperately needs to defend its interests around the world–and most especially to stop the spread of WMD.

And however repellent to elements of his own party a strategy of regime change might be (even if it does not involve sending U.S. ground forces, which no one advocates), Obama may find that by signaling seriousness he may pick up more support from GOP “Jacksonians” who believe that, if force is to be used, it should be decisive–not symbolic.

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