After Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech about Syria’s chemical warfare yesterday, it’s clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are “ready to go.” Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces “could attack Syria within days,” per Reuters.
But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, “The meaning of [Assad’s chemical weapon] attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself.” The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria’s civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America’s top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.
Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his “red line.” But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It’s only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large — and calls from the United States’ allies too loud — for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it’s clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama’s one explicit red line — however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.
As I explained a few months back, the United States had two options that weren’t quite as bad as the status quo of slowly slipping into the conflict: it could go big — establish a no-fly zone and do what is necessary to stem the violence — or go home: firmly stay on the sidelines. The Obama administration opted for the latter — that’s why it dragged its feet responding to chemical weapons charges the first time around. The White House believes the best way to stay the course is to apply the minimum amount of force that will satisfy the mounting pressure for action without becoming further entangled: “The options we are considering are not about regime change,” the White House said on Tuesday. Afterwards, it can return to its backseat role.
But it has only become more difficult to pull that off. If there were limited military actions that had no risk of dragging the U.S. deeper into the Syrian conflict, Obama would have opted for them in response to the first wave of chemical attacks. The irony is that the bar for what the international community will deem an acceptable response to Assad’s chemical weapon use has risen substantially since that first instance a few months back. If this had been an Israeli red line that was breached, we would have seen an immediate, limited and surgical strike in response. The U.S. dithered, a much bigger atrocity occurred, and now the U.S. will need to engage in a broader response to maintain its credibility and satisfy its allies — just the sort of response that carries a higher risk of pulling the U.S. further into the quagmire.