By all accounts, President Obama is about to launch one of the most reluctant military strikes in U.S. history.
He has been cornered into acting in Syria by his own rhetoric and the criminality of the Assad regime, which in deploying chemical weapons joins a select, fiendish club of governments willing to flout one of the most firmly entrenched international norms. When it became clear earlier in the year that Bashar Assad’s forces were preparing to use chemical weapons, President Obama issued a number of warnings about red lines that he did all he could to dance around and evade once Assad indeed launched a chemical attack in April. Emboldened, Assad has perpetrated a more brazen assault that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs.
The outrage of our allies and the logic of the president’s own statements make it nearly impossible for him to escape acting this time. If he did somehow find a way out, it would dangerously erode the credibility of the United States. The president can’t repeatedly make threats that prove utterly empty without inviting every bad actor in the world to laugh off whatever we say in the future, in potentially much more dire and important circumstances.
The administration seems inclined to a minimal, Bill Clinton–style attack from the air. This would be better than nothing, although not without its own risks. If it is too obviously symbolic, it invites the regime to conclude that there is no real price to pay for using WMD and continue to do it in defiance of us. On the other hand, every military intervention — no matter how limited – is unpredictable, and Damascus or its allies may lash out in ways that demand our retaliation in an unexpected escalation.
Some of our friends urge going all the way and hitting Assad so as to shake the very foundations of his regime, tilt the balance of the civil war decisively toward the rebels, and hasten his fall from power. In isolation, this is a manifestly desirable goal. Assad is not just a monster but a cat’s paw of our enemy in Iran. If he were to lose, it would be a strategic setback to Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, who have done so much to support him as he wages a scorched-earth campaign against his countrymen, and potentially change the balance in the region. Iran would no longer have a bridge connecting it with its terrorist proxies on Israel’s borders.
The reason to stop short of working to topple Assad is the nature of his opposition, dominated by Sunni extremists who are also hostile to our interests, if in different ways. This is why the crucial question in Syria is not what we’ll do from the air but what we can do on the ground to shape an opposition in which we can have some confidence. After Assad’s last chemical attack, President Obama said he would arm more moderate elements among the rebels, but didn’t follow through. We should have covert forces on the ground arming, training, and advising the rebels with whom we can work, so we aren’t leaving the field to Arab governments with their own interests in influencing the nature of the rebellion.
Both justice and cold-blooded calculation say that Assad should fall, provided he’s not replaced by something equally bad. To that end, we should be creating proxy forces on the ground. Syria is a hellish problem, to be sure, but its difficulties needn’t freeze us in perpetual indecision. President Obama’s foreign policy of impotence is a choice, not an inevitability.