Procrastinating Obama Is Rudderless on Syria

09/03/2013 11:02 am ET | Updated Nov 03, 2013

President Barack Obama's arrested drum beat to war in Syria weakens his position as a global leader. In stalling his attack plan in retaliation for what the administration says is conclusive proof of President Assad's use of chemical weapons in favor of a yea-nay verdict later this month from the American people's representatives, Obama does a grave disservice to the some 1,400 who were gassed.

If the American president does get the go-ahead from members of Congress, an outcome not entirely assured, the apparent strategy is to lob Tomahawk missiles into the country from battleships stationed in the Mediterranean, presumably aimed at Syrian military installations and runways. President Obama's message, that the world will not stand idly by as a regime uses internationally banned weapons against his people, will have been delivered -- but then what? The civil war now raging in its third year will roar on and the death toll will climb ever higher than the present 110,000; and streams more Syrians will flee across borders, adding to the current 7 million who are displaced.

Assad might not dare ever again to use chemical weapons against his people -- if, in fact, he ever has, a claim Damascus staunchly denies -- but he would succeed in ending the lives of untold numbers of his people as he seeks to stay in power. And meanwhile, the varying rebel groups vying to knock him off his despotic perch leave many in the Western world wondering: What, then, if they get into power? Given hues of Islamic militancy intertwined with some of the insurgents' ideology, a more virulent version of Egypt's now-hounded Muslim Brotherhood?

Obama is, of course, acting out of an abundance of caution. It is true that Americans are war-weary after Afghanistan and the disastrous invasion of Iraq 10 years ago by a president, George W. Bush, who based his leadership-deposing attack on a lie: there were no promised mass-destruction weapons aimed at Western nations. It is largely because of this gargantuan fib, which costs the lives of at least 174,000 people and reduced Iraq to sectarian conflict that rumbles on, that the British parliament had no appetite for Prime Minister David Cameron's march to attack Syria, leaving America without its main wartime ally and with Francois Hollande of France taking up the overseas lead, and even there there are strains on the president to have a debate or vote on the issue.

No one wants another Iraq, but, then, Obama and any allies he may be able to muster in the coming week or so, is not aiming to unseat the dictator Assad. All this commotion will have been for nothing if it amounts to a day or two of missile strikes and then everyone goes home, leaving Assad's troops and the rebels to butcher each other, taking innocents' lives along with them.

Meanwhile, as Obama is ultimately rudderless on Syria (earlier promises to arm the rebels have not yet, it appears, come to fruition, according to statements from the fighters), the United Nations is clueless. All Ban Ki-moon's weapons inspectors will tell us is that, yes, chemical weapons were used; they won't tell us by which side, as they have no way of knowing. (An apparent phone call intercepted by American intelligence of a Syrian military official alarmed at a chemical attack that seemed to have gone awry appears thus far to be the best evidence of Assad's culpability.)

And if the UN leader is clueless, the Security Council is hapless. Don't expect agreement on any resolution authorizing force against Assad because permanent members and Syria-supporters Russia and China would simply veto the proposal. Former secretary-general Kofi Annan's grand plan to end the conflict evaporated soon after it was announced; a peace conference touted by US Secretary of State John Kerry has floundered and now co-organizer Russia says it will not happen if America goes ahead with its strikes.

There are many strands to this unceasingly deadly conflict, and they naturally extend to nearby Iran and Israel. Lebanon's Hezbollah is playing a role for Assad. There is enormous potential for the entire situation to erupt into a regional war that would drag the US and other Western nations deep into it.

The civilized world cannot stand by while civilians are gassed; that's a given. But beyond any immediate, temporary retaliation, we all must be concerned with a settlement to a war that threatens to drag on for years more and further decimate Syria and its people. Western countries invading to depose out-of-favor leaders is not the answer. Supporting rebel elements, so they at least can do the job, is certainly far more palatable.

What would be even better would be a negotiated settlement, one in which an interim government is formed of various agreed elements while the country prepares itself to hand the vote to the people. That, of course, would require Assad's departure, but as he keeps telling us, he's not going anywhere. For the sake of his country, and his increasingly imperilled people, he should.