Bombs Away

08.26.13

Is Bombing Syria Obama’s Best Bad Option?

Obama has good reasons not to let the Syrian regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons stand, but getting drawn into war with Iran would be even worse. Michael Tomasky on the torturous choice.

Ay yi yi. Suddenly we’re about to bomb Syria? How did this happen? Just last week, Barack Obama was sounding very circumspect about the whole business. Then we started moving naval forces closer to Syria. Then, on Saturday, President Obama met for three hours with his national-security principals to discuss the situation. Sunday morning, the Syrian regime, evidently taking note of developments, said it would allow U.N. weapons inspectors in to the site of a suspected chemical-weapons attack. Shortly thereafter, a “senior administration official” was deputized to say the offer was “too late to be credible.” It’s a horrible situation with nothing but bad options, and it right now it looks as if the United States is going to choose the bad option of bombing strikes. There are good reasons to do it, but also good reasons to be terrified of what it might unleash.

Why would Obama act now, after two years of letting Bashar al-Assad massacre 10,000 of his people? Slate’s Fred Kaplan laid out the rationale insightfully over the weekend. If—we’ll return to this “if”—Assad used chemical weapons, he crossed Obama’s famous/infamous “red line.” In addition, Obama, Kaplan noted, is big on international norms, and one of the biggest international norms going is taking action to prevent the spread of chemical weapons, which has been in place since right after World War I. A failure to act “would erode, perhaps obliterate” the taboo against such weapons. That’s something Obama is absolutely right to take very seriously.

But now, that “if.” We don’t know for sure that it was the regime that used these weapons. We assume it was the regime. But the opposition isn’t exactly a concert of Boy Scout troops. It’s split into many factions, some very anti-American. Maybe the administration has private intelligence fingering the regime. But publicly, it looks pretty strange on its face for the United States to turn down Syria’s offer on inspectors. How could we be moving toward military action without at least going through this motion? The rest of the senior official’s Sunday statement gives a specific reason why it’s too late: because “the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other international actions over the last five days.”

Americans, as usual, are either paying no attention to this crisis, or if they are, they’re concluding that we should just let them kill one another. The first poll out on the matter since things really heated up, released over the weekend by Reuters/Ipsos, finds that 60 percent oppose any U.S. military action, and just 9 percent would support it. Even sending arms to some opposition groups is opposed 47 percent to 27 percent. If Obama is going to take action, he’s going to have to shift those numbers. Proof would be a start.

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Bodies of alleged victims of a chemical attack on Ghouta, Syria lie on the ground on August 21. Opposition forces said the regime had killed more than 100 people in a chemical-weapons attack; the government has denied the claims. (Shaam News Network/AP)
The question is, can the action be strictly limited to a narrow set of goals? And next, what if the campaign doesn’t achieve them?

Kaplan outlines a possible Kosovo-style action, similarly sanctioned by NATO. It was an air campaign that was on the whole quite successful. We removed a murdering dictator, Slobodan Milosevic; Kosovars gained autonomy; no Americans died in battle. We did kill 1,200 civilians (by the way, at least 1,000 more than have been killed by all drone strikes). And we made some pretty bad targeting errors (remember the Chinese embassy fiasco?). But on balance, it was a limited campaign that achieved its aims. If that’s possible in Syria—and that’s another big question: what exactly the aims of a limited campaign would be—it could well be the right thing to do.

Assad has now pretty clearly established himself as a monstrous butcher (although his death toll is only about half his father’s, who—I remind neocons now hectoring Obama—was butchering his people while the great Ronald Reagan did precisely nothing). Putting all other questions and complications temporarily to the side, his actions totally justify an international force seeing to his ouster. There is also the question of U.S. credibility. I shuddered the instant I heard Obama use the phrase “red line” however many months ago, because I knew instantly, as many did, what the potential implications were. But my shuddering is beside the point. He used it, and the ineluctable logic of these situations holds that, at some point, he’s going to have to show he meant it.

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A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon as he takes a defensive position during what activists say were clashes between the Free Syrian Army and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad near Aleppo’s historical citadel in the old city of Aleppo on August 23. (Muzaffar Salman/Reuters)

So there are reasons to act. But there’s one massive difference between Kosovo and Syria: Milosevic didn’t have a major regional power watching his back. Syria does. Iran complicates this immeasurably. Also over the weekend, the Iranian armed forces’ deputy chief of staff said the following: “If the United States crosses this red line [of intervention], there will be harsh consequences for the White House.” And this: “The terrorist war underway in Syria was planned by the United States and reactionary countries in the region against the resistance front (against Israel). Despite this, the government and people of Syria have achieved huge successes. Those who add fire to the oil will not escape the vengeance of the people.” Getting sucked into a situation that could lead to war with Iran is unthinkable. Of all the bad options, that is without question the most bad.

We may have reached a point in history where it’s no longer possible for any president to serve eight years and not be drawn into some kind of conflagration. The emergence of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has probably mooted Reagan-style inaction. So then the question becomes, can the action be strictly limited to a narrow set of goals? And then the next question is, what if the campaign doesn’t achieve them? Can the United States walk away from a dire humanitarian crisis and say, “Hey, we tried, but we’re just not going any further?” Looks like we may be getting our answers.