CHEMICAL WEAPONS AND SYRIA: A COMMENT
"Do not threaten what you are not prepared to do. That is a cardinal rule of foreign policy. And it is a rule that is causing the White House diplomatic and political trouble now that it has agreed that Syria has likely used chemical weapons “on a small scale” against rebel forces. The administration’s announcement today comes on the heels of similar claims by Britain and France last week and by Israel this week. The chemical weapon in question is believed to be sarin, which kills its victims by disrupting the ability of the nerves to communicate with the rest of the body. The Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo used sarin in a 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed twelve and injured thousands. The administration has gone to some length to hedge its claim about what Syria has done. The letter informing congressional leaders stated that U.S. intelligence agencies had “varying degrees of confidence” about their finding. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who announced the administration’s new assessment during his trip to the Middle East, said “we need to get all the facts” before concluding for certain that the Syrians had used sarin or any other chemical weapon. Definitive evidence that the intelligence agencies of four countries are dead wrong in their suspicions is not likely to come any time soon, if at all. So the pressure at home and abroad on President Obama to make the Assad government pay a price will grow. He has been calling on Assad to step down since August 2011, but he has declined to provide the means to make that happen. Last August, he warned Damascus that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that “would change my calculus” about the possibility of a U.S. intervention. He upped the ante last December when he warned Assad that using chemical weapons is “totally unacceptable,” and that if they are used “there will be consequences.” Obama has never said what precisely he would do if Syria crossed his red line. But most observers have interpreted his statements as a promise to make Damascus regret using chemical weapons. Foreign capitals and Capitol Hill will be watching to see if Obama makes good on that threat. If he doesn’t, he risks undermining his credibility and U.S. power and influence as a result. That will make it harder to deal not just with Syria but with Iran and North Korea. Tough talk and inaction seldom yield good results. The dilemma for Obama is that his reasons for not intervening in Syria remain sound. As Iraq and Afghanistan attest, it is easier to get into war than to get out, and nation building is easier said than done. The American public is weary of foreign interventions, and Washington has no shortage of other foreign policy problems demanding its attention. At the same time, any U.S. effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons faces a host of problems. Syria has a much larger stockpile than Libya had under Muammar Qaddafi, which is why then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last year that the difficulty in securing Syria’s chemical weapons will be “100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya....” In the near term, Obama will likely try to redouble efforts to persuade Moscow and others to help rein in Damascus. That will buy him additional time to weigh his options. But diplomacy alone is unlike to solve his dilemma on chemical weapons, let alone the broader Syrian crisis. And so Obama will have to make tough decisions about whether to match his words with deeds, knowing that by doing so he could unleash events he cannot control."James M. Lindsay, "Obama’s Chemical Weapons Dilemma in Syria." The Council on Foreign Relations. 25 April 2013, in www.cfr.org. The argument made that the Western Powers are obliged to intervene militarily in the Syria imbroglio seems to me of highly questionable logic. First, since when has the usage of chemical weapons lead to a decision to immediately intervene in a conflict? Would say the usage of chemical weapons by say the PRC on say the peoples of Tibet lead to American-lead military intervention? The question answers itself. As per the past, one need only remember the virtual silence of the Western Powers when Iraq used chemical weapons in the 1980's. In the current case, I would argue that per se, the usage of chemical weapons, while quite horrendous and a prima facie evidence of evil as per the current regime, does not necessarily overturn the balance of forces as it relates to the fact that overt Western military intervention is an extremely problematical course. As Professor Joshua Landis outlines for all and sundry on his web site, Syria Comment 1. Secondly, it is not entirely clear to me, that either machtpolitik or moralpolitik conclusively argues in favor of a positive policy of endeavoring to overthrow the regime of Assad Fils. Especially, since at this point in time, there is very clear evidence that the opposition, if victorious will engage in wholesale massacres of its opponents. `A la what occurred in Iraq circa 2003 to 2008. Do the Western Powers wish to be saddled with the moral responsibility for the massacres and forced removals (in particular) of the Christian population of Syria? One hopes that the question answers itself. And, while it is very much the case that the downfall of the Assad regime would be a blow to Persian influence and power in the region, I am not entire convinced that an increase in Western military assistance in the shape of arms supplies to elements of the opposition will not result in the Persians, Russians and Hezbollah also increasing their own assistance to the regime in Damascus. Indeed, it would appear the Hezbollah for one has already sent troops into Syria proper 2. As I have said numerous times, the time is past when overt, Western military intervention would have worked in Syria. And it is the case unfortunately, the the only guarantee, post bellum, that the opposition would behave themselves in Syria would be a full-scale, Western military occupation. Something which, post-Iraq, none of the Western Powers has had a stomach to contemplate. An extremely unfortunate state of affairs, but a very true one indeed. 1. Joshua Landis, "Is Syria like Iraq?" Syria Comment. 2 May 2013, in www.syriacomment.com 2. Abigal Fielding-Smith, "Lebanese group Hizbollah hints at support for Syria’s Assad." The Financial Times. 1 May 2013, in www.ft.com.