There are at least three questions to ask about Syria: First, what exactly is happening there; second, what is the United States doing about it; and third, what, if anything, should the United States be doing about it? It is hard to sort out the details of what is happening in Syria; but the outline is pretty clear; and it’s also fairly clear that the U.S. should be doing something consequential if, as reported, the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its people. But it remains unclear what the U.S. is actually doing or planning to do. Let’s take the questions one by one.
1) What is happening in Syria? Syria’s civil war began in the spring of 2011 with popular demonstrations like those that had toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. But instead of standing aside, the Syrian military shot and killed demonstrators, tortured dissidents and burnt down homes and businesses. When that didn’t stop the opposition, the regime conducted scorched earth sieges and launched air strikes against villages and cities. So far, about 70,000 Syrians have perished—about half have been civilians—and as many as 1.3 million have been driven from their homes. And that’s of a population of only 23 million.
One major reason Syria didn’t follow the path of Egypt or Tunisia is the relationship of the regime to the military. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak enjoyed the military’s backing, but when he lost his popular support, the military abandoned him, and he was deposed. In Egypt, the military was, and, to a great extent, remains, the ruling class. It enjoys a monopoly of violence, and also controls a good part of the economy. In Syria, by contrast, Basher al-Assad controls the military. The top military leaders are family relations; The upper echelon of the military is drawn primarily from Assad’s Alawite religious minority, which makes up only 12 percent of Syria’s inhabitants. Assad and the Alawites see the civil war as a struggle for their survival as a ruling minority, and appear determined to hold on to power, even at the cost of destroying the country.
After the military began killing non-violent demonstrators, the opposition itself, aided by Sunni defections from the military, took up arms against the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have aided the Syrian Free Army, which was established in the summer of 2011. As the conflict has dragged on without resolution, foreign Jihadis, organized primarily in the pro-al Qaeda Jabhat al-Nusra, have joined the fray, conducting suicide bombings and taking control of some towns and military installations. And the Assad military, aided by Russia and Iran, has stepped up its violence. Earlier this month, British, French, and Israeli intelligence reported that the government had used chemical weapons. There have been several attempts at resolving the conflict through diplomacy—first by the Arab League and then by the United Nations—but they have fallen flat.
2) What is the United States doing? In August 2011, the Obama Administration called for Assad to step down. The administration also announced sanctions against the Syrian government, but couldn’t get the Russians and Chinese to go along with a Security Council resolution on sanctions. In 2012, the administration began sending humanitarian and later “non-lethal” aid to the opposition, including trucks and communications equipment. This year, the administration began training opposition forces, and there have been reports that the Central Intelligence Agency is working to provide arms, but American aid, along with that from Arab countries and Turkey, has not been enough to tilt the contest in the opposition’s favor. At best, it has contributed to a bloody stalemate.
In August 2012, President Obama warned Assad that if he used chemical weapons in the civil war, he would be crossing a “red line.” In December, he reiterated that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would be “totally unacceptable” and would lead to “consequences.” When first the British and French and then five days later the Israelis warned that Syria was using chemical weapons, administration spokesmen initially downplayed their reports. On April 23, the same day the Israelis announced their findings, White House Press spokesman Jay Carney said that the administration had “not come to the conclusion” that chemical weapons had been used. But two days later, the White House released a letter saying that “our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian regime had used the deadly toxin Sarin.
That is what the administration has done. But it remains unclear what it is up to. At first glance, the administration appears to be doing what it can to avoid taking any further action in Syria. First, there is the timing of intelligence announcement. Had the intelligence community really been uncertain on April 23 of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but changed its mind only two days later? Or was the administration sitting on the intelligence findings in the hope that it would not be pressured to act? Then there is administration’s take on the findings. Was there continuing uncertainty among intelligence officials? California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that intelligence officials had expressed more confidence in their findings than the White House had suggested they had in its letter.
The White House letter itself was a model of equivocation. That included its grammar. The letter declared that “only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty can guide our decision-making.” “Corroborated facts” are like “visual photographs” or “dental toothpastes.” The letter said that what would finally prove that Assad had crossed the line was a “comprehensive United Nations investigation.” But the U.N. has had a team of investigators in Cyprus ready to leave for Syria on a moment’s notice to conduct on-site inspections. Assad has predictably refused to allow them in, and is unlikely to do so in the future. If it’ll take a UN inspection to justify American intervention, America will not have to act.
The Obama administration could be carrying out a clever feint. It might be pretending to dither and equivocate in order to lull the Assad regime into letting down its air defenses. Or it may be quietly conducting further intelligence investigations to make extra-sure that the United States doesn’t repeat the mistakes on weapons of mass destruction that it made in Iraq. But from all appearances, it looks very much like the administration is dithering, that it is doing whatever it can not to carry out the threat that it had made last year.
3) What should the administration do? Some people have been calling for over a year on the Obama administration to intervene in Syria to prevent civilian carnage and to topple the Assad regime. Certainly, the regime’s selective use of poison gas pales before some of the massacres it is perpetrated. But that’s a proposal to take sides militarily in a civil war and to become responsible invariably for the outcome. That’s something the United States needs to be very careful about doing.
The question that now faces the administration is a different one. It is whether, if it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that Syria has used chemical weapons, the Obama administration should make good on its threat of “consequences.” My answer would be that it should. First, there is good reason to discourage—by force, if necessary—the use of chemical weapons. After 100,000 were killed in World War I from poison gas, the League of Nations in 1925 adopted a ban on their use, which even the adversaries in World War II observed. The United Nations adopted a ban of its own in 1992.
Secondly, there is good reason for the United States, once it declares a “red line,” to observe it. Diplomacy is preferable to war, but where deep-seated conflicts loom, diplomacy rarely works unless backed up by the threat of force—and that means declaring “red lines.” NATO’s declaration of a “red line” in Europe helped prevent an armed conflict there with the Soviet Union. American promises to defend Taiwan or Japan may have prevented a conflict in Asia. Conversely, the failure to draw red lines in the Korean peninsula in 1950 or on the Iraqi border of Kuwait in July 1990 (“We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts,” the U.S. Ambassador famously told Saddam Hussein) helped lay the basis for war. If the Obama administration were to ignore its own “red line” in Syria, that would send a message not only to the Assad regime, but also to North Korea and Iran that it could ignore American threats.
In enforcing the “red line” it has declared in Syria, the United States could muster considerable support in Europe and the Middle East. It could also avoid the pitfalls that might accompany active intervention on the side of the opposition. The U.S. and other countries would be acting to deter the further use of chemical weapons not to bring down the regime, even though the kinds of actions taken—such as crippling the Syrian air force—would help the opposition in the civil war.
Finally, some people have argued that the United States should not do anything that might help the opposition win the war because that would help the Jihadis. The U.S., they argue, is better off with a bloody stalemate. But the Jihadis have benefited from the stalemate in Syria and from the perception that the United States is indifferent to Syria’s fate. By keeping its word to prevent the regime from using poison gas, the U.S. will help the opposition and will be in a better position to influence the eventual outcome without being responsible for it. It will, if anything, have halted the shift in power from the Free Syrian Army to the Jihadis. To conclude: If, as appears, the administration does have good grounds for believing that Syria has crossed the red line, it should make good on its threat, and do so expeditiously.