The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
It has been one year since U.S. President Barack Obama commented that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute the crossing of a red line, one that would “change my calculus; that would change my equation.” His resolve was first tested this spring, when, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly unleashed chemical weapons on his opponents, the White House announced that it would provide small arms to the rebels. A reluctant Congress held up the weapons’ delivery, which seemed to put an end to the matter. But now, the Obama administration is being tested once more. As evidence mounts that the Assad regime launched a massive chemical weapons attack last week, Obama can either make a full commitment to get involved in the bloody conflict or decide to stay out of it once and for all. By all appearances, the second option is off the table. Just how far the United States might venture, though, is still up in the air.
Over the last few days, the president’s national security team has huddled to consider possible military responses to the chemical attack. On Friday, the Pentagon confirmed that U.S. Navy forces are already moving nearer to Syria’s shores should the White House decide to strike at the Assad regime with Tomahawk cruise missiles. And on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry called the “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” a “moral obscenity” and cautioned that “Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” Moments later, White House spokesman Jay Carney noted that the administration is “considering responses” to the chemical attack, which is a “distinct problem that requires a response.”
At this point, of course, the pros and cons of military intervention are already well known: On the one hand, as the State Department and others have argued, U.S. involvement could prevent the rebels’ defeat, support moderate allies, avert the collapse of the state, and help stem a refugee crisis. On the other, as U.S. military leaders have hinted in letters to Congress, intervention would be costly, potentially bloody, and likely futile -- a replay, some might say, of Iraq and Afghanistan, which to date have yielded neither victory for the United States nor stability for the region.
Up until now, of course, the Pentagon’s view -- that getting too involved in the conflict would spell trouble for the United States -- has won out. But the balance started to shift for Obama when chemical weapons came in to play. In March, allegations surfaced that the Syrian government had used such weapons in an attack near the Syrian city of Aleppo. In April, the White House wrote a letter to Congress stating that “our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.” The White House waited a bit longer, citing a need for greater proof, but eventually approved sending weapons to the rebels. This piece of policy triangulation satisfied neither side. For those supporting greater intervention, or at least a more muscular U.S. response, it was another sign that America was taking a leisurely dip in the policy water against an Assad regime and its Iranian allies that are in at all costs.
This time around, the scale of the alleged attack and the reported attacks on the UN inspections team in Syria seem to have prompted Obama to act quicker and more decisively. It is telling that White House calls for an investigation into the attacks have been followed within days by a publicly acknowledged discussion of military options and the movement of Navy ships.
The other factor that comes into play is Iran, which is no doubt tilting the scales toward action even further. As several former U.S. diplomats have argued to me for months, Iran is listening very closely to the deliberations in Washington. If Assad seems to cross a red line with impunity, the Iranian regime will decide that such lines are irrelevant -- even when it comes to nuclear weapons. If alleged attacks are permitted to go unchecked on an ever-greater scale, U.S. credibility will suffer. And given that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is still settling in in Tehran, all sides are watching even more closely to see what the other is made of.
All in all, for the first time in more than two years, it seems like urgency is felt not just in Syria but on the ground in Washington, London, and Paris. Climbing death tolls and growing concerns about Syria’s unchecked use of chemical weapons mean that the world’s attention, limited though it may be, is unlikely to shift to Egypt or anyplace else as quickly as it did last time. Congress remains as divided as ever on Syria -- at least on all points except that ground troops will and should not go into Syria -- but chemical weapons and Iran are likely game-changers there as well, particularly if the White House can argue that surgical strikes, which risk few American lives and entanglements, are possible.
Even if Obama decides to intervene, the next question is whether there is anything the United States or the international community can do to change the dynamics on the ground in Syria. All along, U.S. efforts -- including its announcement of arms assistance to the rebels this spring -- have paled in comparison to Iran’s. Indeed, it is hard to see how U.S. efforts could change the balance of power in Syria or alter the bloody trajectory of this conflict unless they are of sufficient strength to flatten the regime and are accompanied by a robust diplomatic push toward a transition of power to an inclusive authority as outlined in the June 2012 Geneva discussion. American wariness of another military intervention in the Middle East, means that the likeliest option is the deployment, instead, of American missiles. Whether those will be sufficient to change the balance of power remains to be seen.
On the brighter side, one byproduct of the alleged chemical weapons attack may be a renewal of diplomatic efforts to end the war. Syria’s backers in Russia, devoted as they are to their ally, do not want to see chemical weapons volleyed about, nor are they keen for power to fall to extremists. They also are more convinced than ever that a U.S. military intervention is on the table -- one that could spell the end of the Assad regime or at least cause it great pain. If Russia believes a power vacuum can be avoided, it will thus show more interest in peace talks. Earlier this summer, the Russians agreed with the United States to make a renewed push for long-delayed Geneva 2 talks.
In addition, this week, the United States had already planned to speak with the famously fractured Syrian rebel leadership to try to get it to the table as early as October. The specter of American military intervention should make those conversations far more focused. Similarly, the United States has long pushed for the Assad regime to take part in peace talks. A political transition to an inclusive transitional government as outlined in Geneva last June remains the country’s best hope as the number of refugees climbs toward two million -- with a million of those under the age of 18. Some argue that even the threat of strikes may be enough to bring the Syrian regime and its Russian supporters to the table. This is indeed possible, although it is difficult to see how an Assad, who as recently as Saturday argued that his side is ascendant will bend under the possibility of surgical strikes. He, too, knows America’s appetite for a long and large-scale intervention is limited.
Now, with military action looming, the question is not whether Obama’s calculations have changed but whether Assad’s have and whether the warring parties can be brought to the table. For the Assad regime, this war has long been seen as an existential battle to the finish, a last stand for which it has been preparing since 1982. It is hard to see how U.S. military strikes would change that reality. But it is nearly impossible to imagine the status quo in Syria changing without them. As the White House repeated this Monday, the conflict in Syria will only end with a political solution. In other words, the United States should use the leverage it has, in the form of continued pressure and looming military strikes, to help get all sides to the table. That could involve striking key Assad regime assets related to its chemical weapons program even while dangling offers of negotiations, in the hopes that a bargain can be struck between all the players and the war will end with a transfer of power -- no matter how unlikely that may look at the moment.