Now that Obama’s “redline” has been crossed for the second time, the world is holding its breath for a likely military strike against Syria.
Alleged government use of chemical weapons in the early morning hours of August 21st in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus, could be a game changer in the protracted Syrian civil war.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Obama has maintained that use of chemical weapons would change the U.S. “calculus” for intervention in Syria.
On August 30, Obama announced that he will be seeking congressional approval for any military strike on Syria. Obama is shifting responsibility to Congress and the American people after he boxed himself into an arbitrary redline. In the absence of an international coalition, a UNSC resolution, and the UK parliament’s rejection of any British involvement in military action, Obama is trying to save face and his credibility by pursuing the constitutional path on war making, not because he has so much regard for the document for the Constitution didn't stop US intervening in Libya, but because geo-strategic variables are different this time, the president had to adapt and played this so cunningly.
While the United States is unlikely to commit any ground troops amidst general domestic wariness for another war, surgical missile attacks and air strikes against Syrian military facilities may yet be possible.
These incursions may further the heretofore unachieved dream of Syrian rebels to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and draw Syria closer toward a “Libyan moment.”
However, as things currently stand, Obama is far from committed to a sustained course of action in Syria, making it likely that Assad will still be in fighting shape when it is all said and done.
Understandably, the use of chemical weapons is a major fault line in the conflict, since the transport and security of these products is of paramount importance to the international community. Syria reportedly has hundreds of tons of sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agents. If these were to fall into the hands of radical non-state actors, the region could head toward a catastrophic scenario.
Syria continues to be a hotbed for various extremist Islamist groups, which in the event of state collapse may find themselves in control of a huge stockpile of conventional and non-conventional weapons.
Beyond the security concerns, there are humanitarian imperatives at stake, as well. The use of chemical weapons is the ultimate crime against humanity, as is the continued massacre of thousands of Syrians.
More than 100,000 Syrians have perished in the conflict and the international community has provided nothing but perfunctory condemnation. Western reluctance to intervene in Syria has done little but prolong the burgeoning civil war.
Assad’s latest alleged use of chemical weapons could be an indication of his increasing despair in the face of the mounting strength of rebel factions all around Damascus.
Alternatively, it could indicate a new found confidence as his forces, with the help of Hezbollah and the international backing of Russia and China, further consolidate their hold against rebel advances.
By gassing his own people, Assad could also be testing Obama’s “redline”, hoping that the international community will split on the appropriate means to respond to chemical weapons use.
This standoff within the international community could drag on for weeks while Assad’s forces break the will and resolve of the rebels.
But Assad may have misread Obama’s will to enforce his “redline,” which could well prove to be a grave miscalculation on the part of the Syrian president.
As currently imagined, the U.S. military response will be far from sufficient to end the conflict in Syria, amounting to little more than knee-jerk measures against Assad’s transgression of a fault line set by Obama many months ago.
Aimed against select pro-Assad targets, the strikes may help degrade the air and ground capabilities of Syrian government forces. These, however, will be nothing more than a slap on the Syrian president’s wrist.
In the past, this brand of delimited strikes has not served U.S. interests well.
The one exception was the Libya intervention, where a more viable opposition in the form of the Libyan National Transitional Council and wider support among the international community gave the strikes a durability that ultimately led to the toppling of Muammar Ghaddafi.
But, Russia and China felt they were duped in the Libyan case, as the United States went beyond the UN mandate to enforce a no fly zone and actively engaged in supporting opposition efforts at regime change.
Since then, Russia has dug in its heels about possible intervention in Syria. At the same time, the United States has increasingly felt the need to reassert its power in the region, even if this must come through limited, non-committal military action.
Short of sustained and decisive international military support, Syria’s rebels appear unable to topple Assad. Without international intervention, the country may split into two parallel de facto regions of influence – one controlled by the rebels, and one controlled by the Assad regime.
While strikes would degrade the Syrian government’s military, they will only significantly alter the dynamics of the protracted civil war if sustained and coupled with other decisive military action against Assad's conventional and non-conventional military capabilities.
Only in this case could Syria experience a Libyan moment for its dictator.
In the absence of an international framework, President Obama must clearly articulate what the objectives of a military strike against Syria would be.
The Assad regime has shown utter contempt and disregard for the Syrian people, shelling and now gassing at will in an attempt to punish those who dare defy the president’s dictatorial rule.
Obama has pigeonholed the United States into a military strike, as the country’s credibility and geostrategic prestige risk further deterioration in the region. But reluctant military action is not the solution. The United States should instead work to engage all parties, with the help of Russia and China, to force a negotiated settlement and invest in humanitarian aid to rebuild a devastated Syria.