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September 2, 2013 8:53 am

Why Obama is Cautious on Syria

avatar by Joseph Raskas

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President Obama on PBS. Photo: Screenshot.

It has been said that policy is a set of pragmatic choices between unpalatable alternatives designed to achieve the most desirable realistic result. What is US President Barack Obama’s desired outcome in Syria?

To be sure, the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad during an attack on a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus has put President Obama somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, there are two compelling arguments for why the US should commit the use of military force against the Assad regime. First, military action is necessary to avoid the setting of a dangerous precedent, whereby megalomaniac tyrants can otherwise ignore clear US red lines with presidential impunity. A military strike sends a strong message – both to Assad and to other world leaders – that no dirty deed shall go unpunished.

Second, military action is necessary to maintain President Obama’s credibility and, consequently, to preserve the US military’s deterrence capabilities. Both are essential elements for the US to be able to effectively confront the harsh geo-political realities of the Middle East in general, and to conduct serious nuclear negotiations with Iran in particular.

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On the other hand, there is also a good reason why President Obama might not want to open up another war front by attacking Syria. That is, the US is war weary and therefore unsupportive of military action.

According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, approximately 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war. In fact, just nine percent thought President Obama should act.
So far, the civil war in Syria has resulted in approximately 100,000 deaths and several alleged minor chemical weapons attacks. Additionally, the country has become a hot-bed of terrorist activity for groups such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah. In turn, this has caused a mass exodus of Syrian refugees who have flooded neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Turkey. Collectively, these atrocities threaten to destabilize the entire region.

If the climbing death toll combined with the growing humanitarian crisis hasn’t already compelled President Obama to commence military action against Assad, it is therefore unlikely another chemical weapons attack in a rebel-controlled suburb will convince the president.

Which means it is possible President Obama is carefully weighing a third option: stalling for time. The president on Wednesday even appeared to back away from the idea of a strike on Syria, saying, “I have not made a decision.”
Biding for time is certainly not a panacea, but it would allow President Obama the opportunity to make a more informed decision, rather than rush hastily into the fog of war.

A delay also gives Assad time to move his arsenal of chemical weapons into underground bunkers or transfer them into storage facilities conveniently located in densely populated areas, as Hezbollah, Syria’s terrorist proxy, is quite fond of doing.
Burying the weapons underground would make them impervious, or at least less vulnerable, to a potential US attack, depending upon the efficacy of US intelligence. Alternatively, storing the weapons in sites located in civilian areas would make a US strike counterproductive, as an attack is then likely to harm the very civilians it was intended to protect.

Either way, Assad has already allegedly committed the heinous atrocity that the setting of red lines was specifically meant to prevent. Stalling for time, then, is a win-win for President Obama.

If Assad takes the above-mentioned countermeasures against a US strike, the president can express feigned disappointment that, though a military campaign would have been the preferred option, US forces are now unable to strike due to tactical, humanitarian concerns. And if Assad doesn’t take sufficient countermeasures, President Obama can strike the regime. Either way, President Obama can save face.

So for now, the drums of war may beat fast and loud. Given the complexity of the circumstances regarding the region and the vast implications of a US attack for President Obama, however, it would not be surprising for the tide of war to slowly fade, and then quietly recede altogether.

Mr. Raskas served in the Israel Defense Forces and is a graduate student at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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