Syria and President Obama’s proverbial ‘red line’

Last week, the likelihood of United States missile strikes in Syria appeared imminent after Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Washington was in possession of evidence that the Syrian government had, on August 21, used chemical weapons against its civilian population and that more than 1,000 people had been killed. Syria, Kerry was saying, had crossed President Barack Obama’s proverbial “red line.” His pronouncement became the precursor to an inevitable announcement by Mr Obama that the US would take direct military action against Syria.

The decision, one that now seems set to provide a defining moment in the Obama presidency, is being promulgated as a response to an unacceptable human rights atrocity that warrants external action against the Assad government.  That apart, the US would also want to demonstrate its preparedness to actualize the President’s ‘red line’ commitment which, last Saturday’s New York Times editorial headline suggests, now holds him prisoner.

Syria has become the toughest of calls for Barack Obama. He would have wanted the remaining period of his presidency to pass without foreign policy challenges of such magnitude and indeed his announcement last week, that the US would take military action against  Syria came across as a burdensome chore , undertaken with far less than his accustomed assertiveness. That is not surprising. President Obama has every right to be chastened by America’s experiences in Afganistan and Iraq.  That is why he sought to provide assurances that there would be no “open-ended intervention” or, for that matter, “boots on the ground,” in Syria and that US military action “would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.” Whether he can deliver on those assurances is an entirely different matter.

More than that, the US President opted to wait for a Congress vote that will delay any US military action for at least another week. He has opted to take as much breathing space as he can reasonably afford himself on going to war with Syria.

One question that arises out of the decision to strike against Syria is whether (with the precedent of Iraq now looming large) President Obama’s assurances about a limited conflict will necessarily hold good or whether US military involvement in Syria might not drag on, eventually re-igniting historical anti-US (and anti-Israeli) sentiments in the wider Middle East once civilian casualties from US missiles begin to mount. In this regard a terse statement from the Head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Mohammad Ali Jafari that US involvement in the Syrian conflict might extend hostilities outside the country’s borders is insightful, what with the underpinning threat that such an attack will provoke reactions outside of Syria, whatever that means.

If the US Congress gives Mr Obama the green light to attack Syria (he has not, incidentally, said what happens if Congress says no) and despite Washington’s assertion that it possesses the moral authority to go it alone, that would leave the President in the unenviable position of, first, having sorry little international endorsement or actual support for its action against Syria. Washington, it seems, has decided that it will act both without a pronouncement from the United Nations on the chemical weapons brouhaha in Syria and without the blessings of the UN Security Council, the latter having been withheld by Moscow and Beijing; so much, these days, for the role of the UN as an arbiter in international conflict.

More than that, however much one might argue that the US possesses more than sufficient military muscle to engage Syria on its own, last week’s vote in the British House of Commons robs the United States of an important ally. That leaves France, vocal in its support of military action against Syria but still with the hurdle of domestic public opinion to cross.

Having decided to await a vote by Congress before launching missile strikes against Syria President Obama has attracted some measure of accusation – primarily from Damascus of weakness and equivocation though Mr Obama’s action suggests that he being constrained by the precedent (Afganistan and Iraq) at his disposal. If his hope would be that military action in Syria turns out to be as brief and as (relatively) painless as the March 2011 US missile strikes that played a crucial role in toppling the Gaddafi regime in Libya, he would by now be aware of two fundamental differences in the case of Syria; first, that there exists a far greater determination on the part of Moscow to stand by the Assad regime and, secondly, the support which the Syrian government continues to receive from Iran and from Hezbollah fighters based in Lebanon point to the very real possibility that the conflict could quickly escalate into a wider regional quagmire. If America were to be sucked into such a conflict, that would pose formidable challenges for US Middle East policy and for the remaining period of the Obama presidency.

Still, Mr Obama may well have decided that leaving Syria to its own devices and to its own fate is a much too unpalatable option for his legacy.

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