On 21 August, Syria experienced one of the most heinous episodes of the two-and-a-half year struggle between the regime and the Syrian people. In four sites on the outskirts of Damascus (al-Mouadamiya in al-Ghouta al-Gharbiya, and three other locations in al-Ghouta al-Sharqiya), hundreds of Syrian citizens started dying without having been shot, displaying symptoms of chemical poisoning by sarin gas. As in earlier such cases, the Syrian regime denied using chemical weapons. However, preliminary indicators, including testimonies from survivors and evidence available to western powers, confirm that the regime was responsible for the massacre that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,600 people, many of whom were children. Within a few days, France and the United Kingdom, subsequently joined by the United States, called on the international community to intervene in order to punish the Syrian regime. In spite of decisive announcements regarding Washington’s plans for a punitive strike on the Syrian regime by top American officials, it was not long before Obama stated his intention to seek congressional approval before moving ahead with such a strike.
Since the outset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the American president, Barack Obama, had designated the use of chemical weapons a ‘red line’, possibly because he had not expected Assad’s regime to embark on such a measure. Obama had, in fact, been attempting to avoid intervening in the Syrian crisis. Washington therefore ignored previous cases of the use of chemical weapons, which, in any event, had not been as horrific as the 21 August massacre. What then spurred the Obama administration to change its approach to the Syrian crisis? Will the American president actually be able to gain congressional approval? And if he does obtain approval from Congress, what kind of effect would a strike have on the regime?
An intervention Obama never wanted
From one day to the next in the extended Syrian revolution, the regime’s brutality has escalated and the death toll has increased. Syrians have therefore expected some form of international intervention to put an end to the brazen destruction of their lives, livelihood, and country, but to no avail. From the start, it was clear that international intervention in Syria would be dependent on the United Sates, which neither wanted nor planned to intervene in Syria. This was predominantly for reasons related to the balance of world power, as well as on the failures of George W Bush’s administration and his wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Four years ago, the Obama administration decided to rethink America’s global strategy, with the Asia-Pacific region becoming America’s new strategic priority. With the intention of encircling China on land and at sea, the United States reinforced its fleet in the Pacific. It also concluded a number of agreements with states in the region to construct military bases or obtain access to facilities for its air or naval forces. The most recent of these agreements, which was concluded in the first week of September with the Philippines, in which there has long been an American base, allows for a broader military presence and increased activity in the islands. The Obama administration simultaneously pursued an exit policy vis-à-vis the Arab-Islamic East: a total military evacuation of Iraq, a substantial evacuation of Afghanistan, and non-involvement in any new adventures in the region.
The United Sates did not completely withdraw from the Middle East – and no world power could endeavour to withdraw from the world’s most geopolitically important region – but Washington’s capacity to devote its attention, time, resources and effort to the region considerably declined. The American intervention in Libya was an exception, and it came about only after European states had decided to intervene, and were thereafter unable to execute their decision. Although the operation in Libya precipitated regime change, the Obama administration did not consider it a significant case, and it was not an important part of Obama’s re-election campaign.
From the outset, Obama’s unwillingness to intervene in Syria was not attributed to a fear of Iran or Hezbollah, or weakness or hesitancy on his part; rather, his administration’s strategic priorities differed from those of his predecessor. It was impossible, however, for Washington to ignore Syria altogether. It had not decided to completely withdraw from the Middle East, and what had begun as a popular revolution in Syria had galvanised into a regional and international conflagration. At the outset, similarly to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdo?an, Obama thought that the Syrian regime would have the common sense to listen to the protests and heed the warnings, but Assad’s regime had no plans to back down.
The American administration therefore did not object to efforts by countries that were supportive of the Syrian people and that backed the Syrian rebels with funds or arms, albeit conditionally.
Americans are alarmed by the growing influence of radical Islamist groups among Syrian rebels, including those allegedly affiliated with Al-Qaeda. This was the main reason for the reluctance of the United States to back the rebels. It also motivated America to exert pressure on its regional allies to withhold sophisticated arms that could fall into the hands of radical groups and thus pose a future threat. Even this position, however, seems to have changed.
Washington attempted more seriously to reach a political solution. Russia is the international force supporting the Syrian regime, and is a permanent member of the Security Council that has opposed every attempt to condemn the Syrian regime, or to develop an international consensus against its mistreatment of its own people. The United States nevertheless produced the first Geneva communiqué with Russia last summer, which was intended to pave the way for negotiations between representatives of the regime and the opposition, aimed at finding a solution for the crisis. The ambiguity of the communiqué and Russia’s intractable position, however, resulted in an impasse in negotiation efforts. The second attempt to launch negotiations took place at a meeting in Moscow between the U.S. secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister, but any hopes raised by the meeting were rapidly dissipated by successive developments inside Syria.
Why did the Obama administration change its position?
A number of reasons are cited for the Obama administration wanting to launch a punitive strike on the Syrian regime. The first is that the regime resorted to the use of chemical weapons against its own people in more than one site on the outskirts of Damascus. This was at least the third time that it had done so, and to horrific effect. There is unquestionable intelligence and laboratory evidence indicating that the regime committed the crime, evidence that was possibly unavailable in previous cases. It is also clear that the regime has faced particular difficulty in dealing with rebel groups of the al-Ghouta al-Sharqiya area in the east of Damascus. These groups constitute a serious threat to the quarters of western Damascus, with many key state institutions, and neighbourhoods of state and regime leaders. As such, there is a clear motive for the crime. Furthermore, the use of chemical weapons in war and colonial war, initially by western countries, has, since the end of the Second World War, become associated with serious violations of international values and norms. This prompted the American president’s early announcement that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a red line that in recent months has become cause for ridicule. This brazen and horrific use of chemical weapons was a decisive test of credibility in the eyes of the world’s superpower.
The second reason for the change in the Obama administration’s approach to Syria and the Near East clearly has to do with the stances of Iran and Russia. In the past few months, owing to the successive failures suffered on all fronts by regime forces, a broader participation has developed of Hezbollah and affiliated Shi’a militias in the fighting. Iran also began to play a more active role in backing the military efforts and capacities of regime forces. Moreover, Syria is only a third-world country, and cannot wage an extended war on this scale without the type of continuous and substantial military reinforcements that Iran and Russia have provided. There is also no doubt that Moscow, regardless of its endeavour to reach a political solution or its assertion that such a solution is necessary, stands firmly against any fundamental political transformation in Syria. In short, the Obama administration found itself confronted with a gross insult in Syria in spite of – and possibly because of – its early eagerness to avoid involvement.
The third reason can be traced to the influence of liberals in the Obama administration calling for humanitarian military intervention, led by Susan Rice; the national security advisor. Despite being liberal, they do not essentially differ from neoconservatives insomuch as they believe that, as the world’s great power, the United States has responsibilities that differ from other countries. As they see it, the most important responsibility is intervening militarily to protect the values that the United States stands for. And like neoconservatives, liberal interventionists hold that the United States must, on occasion, take up its global responsibilities even without the approval of the United Nations. At the same time, they prefer an American military intervention to have the support and participation of a large number of allies.
Will Obama get congressional approval?
Obama’s sudden move to seek congressional approval was interpreted by some as an indication of weakness and hesitation. The American president does not need the backing of Congress for resolutions on military action, except if it is to declare a state of war or a military operation that would last for more than ninety days. Obama repeatedly stated that he had been elected to end American wars and not to start them, and that the Middle East was no longer a vital region for American global policy.
Nevertheless, it is likely that his initiative to seek Congressional approval carries other significance, including a fear that the planned punitive strike could lead to a more wide scale intervention in Syria owing to unpredictable factors, and his desire to ensure that Congress shares the burden of unanticipated developments. On 4 September, Obama’s proposal received support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Despite the committee’s influence and its weight in the Senate and the House with regard to US foreign policy, the chances of the House backing the president’s proposal seem slim, while the odds seem slightly higher that the Senate will back it. The problem is that Obama’s administration was unable to convince the American public that Syria posed a threat to American national security, and after a decade of costly wars, the ethical pretext seems to have lost its attraction. Furthermore, many in the House and the Senate believe that, like many presidents before him, Obama could have launched a strike without consulting Congress. Accordingly, his request for their support is merely an attempt to mire them in a war that is unsupported by the American public.
Since the second week of September, the Obama administration has made a significant effort to sway members of the House and the Senate that were still sitting on the fence. Obama held a series of televised interviews on Monday evening, 9 September, and the following day he addressed Americans in an attempt to sway public opinion. It is certain that no one can predict the way in which the vote will pan out in either house. It is also difficult to predict the position of the Obama administration should it fail to gain the backing of both or only one of the houses, or if the support will only come through a slight margin of votes.
The strike and its consequences
If Obama obtains congressional approval, America will most likely launch a strike on the Syrian regime that, Washington insists, will be ‘limited’. Exactly what ‘limited’ means in this context cannot be clarified. American officials have discussed a potential strike lasting for only a few days with the proposed purpose not to bring about regime change, but rather to act as a deterrent against the regime’s re-using chemical weapons again. It would be executed through guided missiles and aircraft, and would not require ‘boots on the ground’. The truth is that air strikes, no matter how protracted or brief, have never brought down a regime on their own. The question now is: how will the American strike, however large or extensive, damage regime bases, storehouses and airfields, and impact the command and control capacities of the regime forces?
It is also unclear whether a significant number of officers and soldiers will leave their positions and choose to defect or side with the revolution. This would be a major victory for the Syrian rebels on the main battlefronts on the ground, particularly in the remaining regime-controlled areas in Idlib; Aleppo; in the south, Dar’aa; as well as on the front lines in Homs; Hama; and the eastern and northern suburbs of Damascus.
The reaction of the Syrian regime and its allies must also be closely monitored. If the regime resorts to missile strikes on Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Turkey, or if Hezbollah attacks Israeli targets, it is likely that the type and duration of the strike will change. Furthermore, Turkey’s expected involvement may evolve from a limited aerial military effort to a more profound military intervention.
It is crucial to note that Syria has become a vital part of Iran’s regional strategy. Following the Iran-Iraq war, Iran adopted a strategy of war by proxy in order to meet its objectives and bolster its regional influence, avoiding traditional warfare and direct military confrontation. If the U.S. strike significantly undermines the capacity of the regime in Damascus, Iran will react promptly, and it is probable that it will respond with the same strategy of war by proxy. It will also be vital to note a potential Iranian retaliation via Lebanon or Iraq, against the Jewish state or Arab Gulf States. This would have direct relevance on the unfolding crisis in Syria.
A U.S. strike on Syria is not inevitable. One of the most decisive factors will undoubtedly be the position of Congress, especially after the British government backed away from military involvement in Syria after losing the vote in the House of Commons. Moreover, Russia’s relentless pressure on Syria; specifically its 9 September plea for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international supervision, may initiate a political process that deals with more than just the issues pertaining to chemical weapons.
At this stage, the American policy objective in the Syrian crisis and its aim for a potential strike is to exert pressure on the regime and its allies in Tehran and Moscow, as well as on the opposition and the regime to agree on a solution. Ultimately, this should compel the Syrian president to step down and the remains of the Syrian state institutions to be preserved. If the Russians put forward a proposal that involves the stepping down of Assad as opposed to one that only addresses the fate of chemical weapons, a military strike would not be necessary.
If the deteriorating situation prompts America to launch a military strike on the regime with backing from its regional and international allies, American officials may not achieve the ‘limited punishment’ they seek. The sharp polarisation and climate of instability in the Arab-Islamic world and the growing importance of Syria to an array of regional actors guarantee that this crisis will continue to deteriorate. This is after a two and a half year crisis that has already caused unbearable suffering and grave loss of life for the Syrian people.
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