Henry Kissinger once said that Israel had no real foreign policy, just domestic politics that dictate its international relations. He meant it as a criticism of what he considered Israeli provincialism, the inability to overcome such "petty" considerations of internal politics for the sake of the grand issues of foreign affairs. Well, it is what democracy is all about when governments pretend, at least, if not really meaning it, to take note of their own people before making decisions about peace or war, and in that context, both the decision of the British parliament, as well as President Obama's decision to ask for congressional authorization are well understood and legitimate. Kissinger may have to update himself...
To start with, Obama's seeming zeal to take military action was clearly highly unpopular in the U.S., as isolationists and interventionists alike expressed deep reservations, though from somewhat different perspectives. This was a dominant theme among Republicans, and Democrats usually show no great appetite for foreign adventures. The president was not under real political pressure to act, but he may have felt one only because of his statement about red lines and the use of chemical weapons by Syria. There were 12 documented examples of such use before, which got no American response whatsoever, and there was no domestic pressure on the president to act.
The problem is that American politics, with all its nuances, is not necessarily the cup of tea of Bashar Assad, nor is he a great fan of the democratic process, surely not in his own country. So, Bashar Assad may have had his own interpretation of American inaction until now. He may have come to the conclusion that the current American administration is in love with its own speeches and statements and not beyond, and that, coupled with the desperate military situation of the Syrian regime, led to the barbaric attack ten days ago. This is what a murderous and desperate regime does when it feels that it has the green light, but no effective red lights... I am ready to take the risk of being taunted as naïve, a serious accusation in the Middle East, and maintain that even after Obama's speech tonight, Bashar Assad knows now full well that he does NOT really have any green light for a repeat chemical performance, and it is really irrelevant whether he and his state-mobilized media will hail Obama's decision as a sign of weakness, hence a win for Syria. Bashar needs to be VERY stupid to come to this conclusion, and he ain't stupid, though he is a thug and a murderer as defined correctly by secretary Kerry.
He will do good to himself to remember that Vladimir Putin made it clear that rhetoric and Security Council obstruction aside, he will not send Russian troops to be killed for the Syrian dictator. Twenty four hours prior to Obama's speech, it was announced that General Muhammad Aslan Assad, chief of the chemical warfare unit, a member of the Aslan clan, the head of whom General Ali Aslan was Hafiz Assad's defense chief, suddenly died.
A guess, based on experience on the part of this blog is in place here: The unfortunate general was executed by Bashar envoys, so as to silence any potential witness and also direct the blame away from the dictator. The Syrians have some experience in this kind of stuff, and a few years ago General Ghazy Kana'an, the Assads long-time chief of operations in Lebanon, mysteriously died after the murder of P.M. Rafiq Hariri, which Kana'an was behind.
We can learn from this episode that Bashar may understand that his complicity with the wholesale use of chemical weapons can be a very dangerous situation for him, and I believe that he still understands now, in the aftermath of Obama's speech, that he continues to be on the potential hit list.
But for Bashar to still be afraid, the Obama administration cannot be seen as if it has relaxed the pressure on him. There are many actions which can be taken by the Americans, which do not require congressional decision, and which will put immense pressure on Assad.
One of them is to greatly and quickly increase logistical support and arms supplies to the rebels. It seems, judging by reports from Syria, that not enough was done on that score, and much more could and should be done.
Surely, the administration with Saudi and Turkish help should double the efforts to help the rebels form, at long last, a credible and united political leadership. This is primarily for the rebels themselves to do, but some help from friends will not be counterproductive. Without such effective rebel leadership, the U.S. and its allies are not ready for the big fix in Syria, which is the fall of the regime and the quick institution of an alternative government.
The Syrian civil war has not fundamentally changed as a result of today's speech. The president still has time to put together a coherent domestic and foreign agenda, one which will preclude any possibility for misunderstandings on the part of Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies. This is exactly where images play such a decisive role. Tonight's speech should not be allowed to project an image of confusion and weakness. I, personally, believe that it will not.