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Heather Roff Headshot

A (Sort of) Red Line: Obama's Syrian Dilemma

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With the recent reports of the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own civilian population, the United States faces a particularly difficult decision. President Obama has stated multiple times over the past two years that if Bashar al-Assad were to use chemical weapons against his own people, this act would constitute a "red line" drawing a required response from the U.S. (and perhaps its allies). Yet the Syrian government's reported use of chemical weapons is not isolated to this past Wednesday's horrific attack. Allegations about the use of weapons have surfaced multiple times, and have led the U.S. government to pledge (though so far not deliver) military support to the rebels.

The question on everyone's mind at the moment is: What is going to be done? The answer, I'm afraid to predict, is: nothing new. There may be some finger waving, there will certainly be moral outrage and condemnation, and even assessments by those like the UN Secretary General that the use of such weapons "violate international humanitarian law." So what? Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered his people for years and the world has stood by to watch. He has already reportedly used chemical weapons on his people; this attack is therefore not different than any previous attack. The line was crossed already, and this particular event amounts not to a violation of some particular principle; it is rather a question of degree. In the history of this conflict, Assad has never faced a deterrent, nor has he suffered any consequences for his actions. Given these facts, it can only be assumed that the brutal dictator will continue to escalate his atrocities in the future.

Thinking that international law will come to the rescue is naïve. International "law" has purchase only when (1) states either willingly abide by its dictates or (2) other states, "coalitions of the willing," or international bodies (such as the United Nations) enforce that law. More often than not, such "enforcement" requires the arms and influence of powerful countries. If those countries are reluctant or unwilling to do anything, then nothing gets done (as we have seen many times before).

Yesterday, President Obama stated that "Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, [which] gets us mired in very difficult situations, [and] can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region." Nothing in this statement is untrue. However, in terms of Obama's foreign policy, this is not a principled account of when or if to engage in intervention for humanitarian purposes. In the case of Libya, Obama seized that opportunity early on, committed the requisite assets, and used a rather convenient loophole in U.S. law to use force before requesting congressional approval. Such actions show that he is not, in principle, against foreign intervention. The problem with Syria is that the momentum for actually committing to such a large problem is not there, and U.S. allies are in no rush to send money, arms or people to fight against Assad. The U.S. faces resentment in the "region" no matter what it does. This is a brute fact about American power, ideology, and past behavior in relation to "the region." What is more, inaction threatens to breed just as much resentment from those populations asking for help. Indeed, the U.S. has already missed the boat when it comes to co-opting these individuals to its side.

To be sure, one will argue, "Well, what should we do then?" We face a couple of options, and none of them are particularly savory. The first is the most extreme. We send in the necessary support to stop Assad from committing mass atrocities and war crimes. That would be a very large commitment. We are looking at committing almost every branch of the U.S. military to some sort of long-term operation. We would have to prepare for billions of dollars spent to support such an effort, and then more money... much more money... spent in the post conflict rebuilding efforts. That the U.S. does not trust any "one" side of the conflict means that if it took out Assad, it would have to run the country. We don't like to say such things publicly, but it is true. The U.S. would have to make Syria a client state and rule it by proxy.

The second is still pretty undesirable for many in Washington. The U.S. would have to commit limited assets and lots of money to the rebels. In this instance, we might see something like a more expensive Libyan venture. The U.S. would cover air defense and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. This "no fly zone" approach would attempt to let the rebels advance and face Assad's forces without the fear of shelling. Unfortunately, no fly zones are still very expensive and can extend for years if one does not remove the leader or government in power. Just look to the U.S.'no fly zone(s)' enforced in Northern Iraq during the early 1990s. After the Gulf War, coalition forces established a 'no fly zone' against Saddam Hussein to protect the Iraqi Kurds from retaliation and massacre. This lasted roughly from 1992 until the U.S. invasion in 2003. In the Syrian case, however, it is unclear where such zones would be -- more than likely the entire country -- and any financial or military support to the rebels does not mean that they would then be successful in overthrowing Assad. In fact, the probability is that the U.S. would end up spending more money and losing more people to a cause -- a cause to which, although just, the U.S. is not entirely committed. Indeed, even if the rebels were successful, there is a large question mark above the "post-conflict" question.

Would the U.S. then be committed to rebuilding? How much? To what extent?

Finally, the most likely avenue is that the U.S. will do a combination of low intensity and low commitment measures. In other words, Obama's red line was a public commitment to "do something" but like any good lawyer he parsed his words carefully. The American people and the world at large assume that "something" means guns blazing, while Obama more likely thought "small arms, money and pressure." Publicly, the U.S. must be seen to uphold its commitments. However, despite Senator McCain's statements, this does not entail sending in the entire Air Force or thousands of troops. If we have learned anything about Obama's foreign policy style over the years, he is a cautious hawk. When the stakes are relatively high, the cost to the U.S. must be relatively low and there must be a serious U.S. interest in the mix to justify using force. If the stakes are moderately high, the cost must be pretty low to justify force. If the stakes are low, then there must be virtually no cost to using force. The Syrian situation, while morally abysmal, is a moderate to high stakes endeavor, and it is anything but low cost.

Syria's political ties to Iran, Russia's continued support to Assad, the factionalized rebel opposition, the increasing presence of terrorist elements mean that the U.S. would be walking into a political and tactical nightmare, and that it would be in essence committing itself to rebuilding a country and a people from the ashes.

It is, as always, with a dose of reality that one understands and in some way empathizes with Obama's role as "the decider" (assuming of course he wouldn't have to face approval on any action in Syria from Congress). On the one hand there is the moral outrage at doing nothing. On the other hand is the moral outrage at "what have you got us into!?" It is not an easy position.

Perhaps the answer for Obama is to return to Machiavelli. Look to the advice in The Prince.

"Never let any Government imagine that it can choose perfectly safe courses; rather let it expect to have to take very doubtful ones, because it is found in ordinary affairs that one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil."

This, of course, means that one must distinguish between fighting for the rights and lives of others or abstaining and letting the Syrian people suffer can be parsed in consequentialist terms. The lesser evil is still evil all the same.