Over the past week, President Barack Obama and his senior advisers have told us that the US is poised to go to war against Syria. In the next few days, the US intends to use its air power and guided missiles to attack Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus last week.
The questions that ought to have been answered before any statements were made by the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have barely been raised in the public arena. The most important of those questions are: What US interests are at stake in Syria? How should the US go about advancing them? What does Syria’s use of chemical weapons means for the US’s position in the region? How would the planned US military action in Syria impact US deterrent strength, national interests and credibility regionally and worldwide? Syria is not an easy case. Thirty months into the war there, it is clear that the good guys, such as they are, are not in a position to win.
Syria is controlled by Iran and its war is being directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and by Hezbollah. And arrayed against them are rebel forces dominated by al-Qaida.
As US Sen. Ted Cruz explained this week, “Of nine rebel groups [fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad], seven of them may well have some significant ties to al-Qaida.”
With no good horse to bet on, the US and its allies have three core interests relating to the war. First, they have an interest in preventing Syria’s chemical, biological and ballistic missile arsenals from being used against them either directly by the regime, through its terror proxies or by a successor regime.
Second, the US and its allies have an interest in containing the war as much as possible to Syria itself.
Finally, the US and its allies share an interest in preventing Iran, Moscow or al-Qaida from winning the war or making any strategic gains from their involvement in the war.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Israel has been doing an exemplary job of securing the first interest. According to media reports, the IDF has conducted numerous strikes inside Syria to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry, including missiles from Syria to Hezbollah.
Rather than assist Israel in its efforts that are also vital to US strategic interests, the US has been endangering these Israeli operations. US officials have repeatedly leaked details of Israel’s operations to the media. These leaks have provoked several senior Israeli officials to express acute concern that in providing the media with information regarding these Israeli strikes, the Obama administration is behaving as if it is interested in provoking a war between Israel and Syria. The concerns are rooted in a profound distrust of US intentions, unprecedented in the 50-year history of US-Israeli strategic relations.
The second US interest threatened by the war in Syria is the prospect that the war will not be contained in Syria. Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan specifically are threatened by the carnage. To date, this threat has been checked in Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan, US forces along the border have doubtlessly had a deterrent impact in preventing the infiltration of the kingdom by Syrian forces.
In Lebanon, given the huge potential for spillover, the consequences of the war in Syria have been much smaller than could have been reasonably expected. Hezbollah has taken a significant political hit for its involvement in the war in Syria. On the ground, the spillover violence has mainly involved Shi’ite and Shi’ite jihadists targeting one another.
Iraq is the main regional victim of the war in Syria. The war there reignited the war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq. Violence has reached levels unseen since the US force surge in 2007. The renewed internecine warfare in Iraq redounds directly to President Barack Obama’s decision not to leave a residual US force in the country. In the absence US forces, there is no actor on the ground capable of strengthening the Iraqi government’s ability to withstand Iranian penetration or the resurgence of al-Qaida.
The third interest of the US and its allies that is threatened by the war in Syria is to prevent Iran, Russia or al-Qaida from securing a victory or a tangible benefit from their involvement in the war.
It is important to note that despite the moral depravity of the regime’s use of chemical weapons, none of America’s vital interests is impacted by their use within Syria. Obama’s pledge last year to view the use of chemical weapons as a tripwire that would automatically cause the US to intervene militarily in the war in Syria was made without relation to any specific US interest.
But once Obama made his pledge, other US interests became inextricably linked to US retaliation for such a strike. The interests now on the line are America’s deterrent power and strategic credibility. If Obama responds in a credible way to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, those interests will be advanced. If he does not, US deterrent power will become a laughing stock and US credibility will be destroyed.
Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have many options for responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. If it targets the regime in a serious way, Assad could fall, and al-Qaida would then win the war. Conversely, if the US strike is sufficient to cause strategic harm to the regime’s survivability, Iran could order the Syrians or Hezbollah or Hamas, or all of them, to attack Israel. Such an attack would raise the prospect of regional war significantly.
A reasonable response would be for the US to target Syria’s ballistic missile sites. And that could happen. Although the US doesn’t have to get involved in order to produce such an outcome. Israel could destroy Syria’s ballistic missiles without any US involvement while minimizing the risk of a regional conflagration.
There are regime centers and military command and control bases and other strategic sites that it might make sense for the US to target.
Unfortunately, the number of regime and military targets the US has available for targeting has been significantly reduced in recent days. Administration leaks of the US target bank gave the Syrians ample time to move their personnel and equipment.
This brings us to the purpose the Obama administration has assigned to a potential retaliatory strike against the Syrian regime following its use of chemical weapons.
Obama told PBS on Wednesday that US strikes on Syria would be “a shot across the bow.”
But as Charles Krauthammer noted, such a warning is worthless. In the same interview Obama also promised that the attack would be a nonrecurring event. When there are no consequences to ignoring a warning, then the warning will be ignored.
This is a very big problem. Obama’s obvious reluctance to follow through on his pledge to retaliate if Syria used chemical weapons may stem from a belated recognition that he has tethered the US’s strategic credibility to the quality of its response to an action that in itself has little significance to US interests in Syria.
And this brings us to the third vital US interest threatened by the war in Syria – preventing Iran, al-Qaida or Russia from scoring a victory.
Whereas the war going on in Syria pits jihadists against jihadists, the war that concerns the US and its allies is the war the jihadists wage against everyone else. And Iran is the epicenter of that war.
Like US deterrent power and strategic credibility, the US’s interest in preventing Iran from scoring a victory in Damascus is harmed by the obvious unseriousness of the “signal” Obama said he wishes to send Assad through US air strikes.
Speaking on Sunday of the chemical strike in Syria, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned, “Syria has become Iran’s testing ground…. Iran is watching and it wants to see what would be the reaction on the use of chemical weapons.”
The tepid, symbolic response that the US is poised to adopt in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons represents a clear signal to Iran. Both the planned strikes and the growing possibility that the US will scrap even a symbolic military strike in Syria tell Iran it has nothing to fear from Obama.
Iran achieved a strategic achievement by exposing the US as a paper tiger in Syria. With this accomplishment in hand, the Iranians will feel free to call Obama’s bluff on their nuclear weapons project. Obama’s “shot across the bow” response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in a mass casualty attack signaled the Iranians that the US will not stop them from developing and deploying a nuclear arsenal.
Policy-makers and commentators who have insisted that we can trust Obama to keep his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons have based their view on an argument that now lies in tatters. They insisted that by pledging to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, Obama staked his reputation on acting competently to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. To avoid losing face, they said, Obama will keep his pledge.
Obama’s behavior on Syria has rendered this position indefensible. Obama is perfectly content with shooting a couple of pot shots at empty government installations. As far as he is concerned, the conduct of air strikes in Syria is not about Syria, or Iran. They are not the target audience of the strikes. The target audience for US air strikes in Syria is the disengaged, uninformed American public.
Obama believes he can prove his moral and strategic bonafides to the public by declaring his outrage at Syrian barbarism and then launching a few cruise missiles from an aircraft carrier. The computer graphics on the television news will complete the task for him.
The New York Times claimed on Thursday that the administration’s case for striking Syria would not be the “political theater” that characterized the Bush administration’s case for waging war in Iraq. But at least the Bush administration’s political theater ended with the invasion. In Obama’s case, the case for war and the war itself are all political theater.
While for a few days the bread and circuses of the planned strategically useless raid will increase newspaper circulation and raise viewer ratings of network news, it will cause grievous harm to US national interests. As far as US enemies are concerned, the US is an empty suit.
And as far as America’s allies are concerned, the only way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power is to operate without the knowledge of the United States.