As President Obama tries to rally support for a strike against Syria, he finds himself in a high stakes diplomatic chess match with no good outcome in sight. Mr. Obama's stand on principle for the prohibition of chemical weapons use and the maintenance of international norms puts at risk the future of his presidency and his legacy.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless dictator determined to destroy his opposition using every weapon in his arsenal. On Wednesday, the New York Times said of Assad, "behind the veneer of normality, Mr. Assad has grown increasingly aggressive, declaring his determination to wipe out the opposition, insisting that he is standing against an imperialist enemy."
Syria's civil war has left more than 100 thousand civilians dead in that country. Two million war refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and about five million Syrians have had to flee their homes. Meanwhile, Assad has been able to turn the tide of momentum in the conflict to his favor. His opposition is made up of a myriad of groups with differing ideologies and competing goals, which has made it difficult for America to provide military support. So rebel fighters are inadequately trained and poorly armed.
Perhaps emboldened by his improving position, Assad has reportedly resorted to chemical weapons to kill and demoralize his opponents. The United States has overwhelming and convincing evidence that he is behind the attack two weeks ago, which killed more than a thousand civilians, including several hundred children.
One year ago President Obama told a news conference, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." He concluded, "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation." He did not specify any consequences at that news conference.
This past Saturday, the president announced he had decided on the consequences. "After careful deliberation I have decided the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," Mr. Obama said. But he added that he would seek Congress's approval, even though he did not need to do so.
The president and key members of his administration have "flooded the zone" in search of congressional support, as well as the support of key allies. In a series of hearings, Secretary of Sate John Kerry has stressed that military action would not be directed toward a regime change, it would not be an open-ended intervention, nor would America put "boots on the ground" in Syria.
But the administration has to overcome great skepticism for its case from a Congress that was burned 10 years earlier by false evidence of weapons of mass destruction from President George W. Bush's administration as justification for invading Iraq. Meanwhile, according to recent polls, a war-weary American public is opposed to any military action against Syria.
There are no good options for the president. Failure to attack Syria will only further embolden Assad who will continue to massacre his own civilians, and it will spur Iran to accelerate its development of nuclear weapons. Worse, it will weaken America's standing in the world, at a time when Russia and China are expanding their ambitions.
On the other hand, a "limited" attack, which the president proposes, is unlikely to be effective in significantly degrading and deterring Syria's chemical weapon's stockpile, much of which is hidden among civilians, or deter Assad from using them again and again if he becomes desperate. An American attack is certain to result in civilian casualties, set off a wave of terrorist strikes against Western nations and Syria's neighbors, and further demonize the U.S. among some people in the region.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved, by a 10-to-7 bipartisan vote, a resolution that would limit military strikes against the Syrian government to a 60-day window, with the possibility of a 30-day extension, and it would specifically block the use of ground troops. The full Senate is expected to take up the measure early next week. The prospects for success in the House of Representatives are uncertain. If Congress fails to pass the measure, it would be seen as a huge international embarrassment for the president.
But momentum appears to be slowly building on Capitol Hill for support of military action against Assad's government, in part because it is the best choice from several bad options. If an attack is approved and carried out by American forces, many nations may not like it. But they will recognize that America, led by President Obama, has stood on a fundamental principle against the use of chemical weapons for the good of all humanity.