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Obama and Syria: Red Lines Redeemed?

Obama and Syria: Red Lines Redeemed?I’ve contended in previous posts (herehere and here) that President Obama’s failure to enforce his numerous threats against the use of chemical weapons by the Bashir al-Assad regime in Damascus is a significant reason to doubt the credibility of his repeated vows to use military force to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.  So is my argument undermined now that Mr. Obama has decided to provide light weapons to rebel forces in Syria, ostensibly in reaction to the use of sarin, a lethal nerve gas?  Quite the reverse: As I see it, his actions and the ambivalent manner by which they were signaled provide further support for my case.

Consider the stated rationale for the arms decision.  Just two months ago, the White House reluctantly acknowledging the likelihood of chemical weapons use in the country’s increasingly volatile civil war.  Still, Mr. Obama made little effort to conceal his deep reluctance to back up his numerous warnings against the Syrian regime.  Although he did not rule out participating in a collective military response, he imposed important conditions had to be met before he would go forward:

  • A U.N. investigative team had to render a definitive judgment on the physical evidence of the chemical attacks.
  • The “chain of custody” for this evidence had to be verified – a requirement the New York Times characterized as “turning the matter into an international “CSI” case.” Administration officials emphasized (here and here) that the intelligence controversies a decade ago over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs imposed this heavy evidentiary burden.
  • And the evidence had to point to the regime’s conduct of “systematic” chemical attacks, as opposed to “localized” incidents.

None of these requirements have been obtained, though the White House now insists that there is “high confidence” evidence of chemical attacks by the Syrian government. The U.N. investigators continue to be blocked from entering Syria and have spent most of the last three months cooling their heels in Cyprus.  Although the United States, the United Kingdom and France are forwarding the mounting pieces of evidence they have collected via their intelligence services, the U.N. team is unable to give this much probative value since its operating guidelines emphasize evidence directly collected by the investigators themselves.  Because of the secrecy with which the evidence has been collected, some international experts continue to question the verifiability of Western claims and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautions that “the validity of any information cannot be ensured without convincing evidence of the chain of custody.”  Even, U.S. officials admit they cannot be entirely certain about the evidence’s provenance.

Moreover, the White House acknowledges that only small-scale chemical attacks have occurred, resulting in 100-150 fatalities that “make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria.”  While the pattern of use is far from persistent, the administration now declares that it “violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

So what accounts for the policy shift?  According to the administration’s current narrative, its decision to provide small arms and ammunition to opposition forces is aimed at upholding Mr. Obama’s red line in Syria.  But other factors weighed just as heavily, if not more so.  One is that the tide of the civil war appears to be turning in the Assad regime’s favor.  Days before the arms decision was announced, the regime, fortified by a heavy influx of Iranian troops as well as fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that operates as an Iranian proxy, retook Qusayr, a strategically-placed city near the Lebanese border that the rebels had captured last summer.  This triumph allows Assad to shut down a rebel corridor for supplies from Lebanon as well as reassert his grip over territory linking Damascus to the Alawite minority areas in the northern part of the country that form his power base.  Regime forces have since moved on to nearby Homs, where rebels control parts of Syria’s third-largest city.

The regime also is increasingly confident that its foreign supporters will remain steadfast.  Syria’s deputy prime minister told the Financial Times last week that Iran, Russia and China were keeping the country’s war-racked economy afloat.  Tehran, in particular, has extended an unlimited line of credit for food and fuel supplies, while Moscow has kept up a steady flow of weapons.

The recapture of Qusayr prompted the top Syrian rebel commander backed by the West to issue a desperate appeal for weapons to prevent the fall of his forces in Aleppo, the country’s largest city.  As the Wall Street Journal reported, this pushed “the Obama administration to decide quickly whether to agree to arm rebels for the first time or risk the loss of another rebel stronghold just days after the regime’s biggest victory.”  The newspaper stated fears of a rebel loss in Aleppo were increasing support in the White House for providing arms to the rebels.

An article in Politico notes that the Obama administration’s decision was prompted, in large part, “by the realization that Syrian President Bashar Assad was on the cusp of gaining a permanent advantage over rebel groups and the fear of imminent sectarian bloodshed further spilling into neighboring Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.”  And it quotes a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the administration’s deliberations as saying:

The decision was ultimately driven by the discovery Assad used [chemical weapons], but there were a number of other factors in place that were also important.  Would we have made [the determination Assad had breached the red line] even if we didn’t have the evidence?  Probably.  [Emphasis added.]

Still, the ambivalence that has characterized the administration’s policy on Syria for the past two years is evident.  Mr. Obama conspicuously left it to aides to announce the arms decision, while a senior U.S. official acknowledges that “We are looking for the best option with the least involvement.”  The president himself has not said much about the decision in the weeks since it was rolled out, except to deny that it constitutes a major departure from his previous policy.   The lack of detail has caused the U.S. Congress to balk at funding the arms shipments and Bob Casey, a Democratic Senator, contends that the administration is still without a “clearly articulated strategy.”

The absence of determination is further evident in the administration’s dawdling (here and here) in delivering the non-lethal assistance it promised the Syrian opposition earlier this year.  In exchanges a few weeks ago with the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland, French officials reported that

they see no sign that an effective [U.S.] supply chain is being established. And they recall that State Department and Pentagon officials assured London and Paris privately last October that the rebels would get U.S. arms, only to have those assurances abruptly pulled back by President Obama.

Meanwhile, Hoagland’s colleague, David Ignatius, sees Washington’s approach on Syria as part of a “bootless Obama administration policy in the Middle East.”  He writesthat his Syrian rebel contacts tell him that they yet to receive any of the promised light weapons and that Secretary of State John F. Kerry provided tepid leadership at the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Qatar two weeks ago that was meant to coordinate military support from Western and Arab governments to anti-Assad forces.  Indeed, several days after the arms decision was announced, the top pro-Western rebel commander had not even heard from Washington.  And, according to a Wall Street Journal report last week, it will take a few more weeks until U.S. weapons start flowing into Syria and four-five months after that before they start to have an impact on the battlefield.

The Obama administration regularly talks tough on Iran and insists that it is prepared to move militarily against Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.  But its track record in Syria gives plenty of reason for doubting it has the political will to back up that threat.

This commentary is cross-posted on Monsters Abroad.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.