STALEMATE

09.02.13

The U.S. Wrings Its Hands Over Syria

Syrian rebels are pressing ahead with their fight against the government in the wake of a chemical attack left hundreds dead. Mike Giglio on how America’s hesitance to get involved is rattling rebels and U.S. allies alike.

Some Syrian rebels were frank in their frustration with the Obama administration as news came that a U.S. strike against the government—which had been expected over the weekend—would be put to a congressional vote. The surprise move delayed the strike until at least next week, and also raised the possibility that it might not come at all.

“The Americans right now have actually made a big mess,” said a commander with the Jund Allah Brigades in Damascus who goes by the nickname Abu Tammam. “They made everything so confusing.”

Abu Tammam, in an interview over Skype, said rebels in Damascus were pressing ahead with their operations “regardless of what the United States is going to do.” But in a city where a chemical weapons attack last month sparked America’s push for retaliation—with Washington accusing the Syrian government of killing more than 1,400 on Aug. 21 with sarin gas—Abu Tammam added that rebels were newly hesitant about how to proceed.

Attempts by rebels to advance deeper into the center of the capital, he worried, might bring another chemical weapons attack. “If the [international community] doesn’t take action, then the regime is going to use chemical weapons again and again,” he said. “We have to recalculate. We have to think twice about pushing into the center of the city.”

Omar Hidar, the deputy commander of Liwa Tahrir al-Sham, said the Syrian government likely would use chemical weapons again whether America went through with its strike plans or not. Before deferring to lawmakers, Obama had promised that the strikes would be limited in scope and wouldn’t tip the balance in Syria’s grinding civil war. But Hidar still criticized the delay. As the United States deliberated, he said, the Syrian government was busy moving troops and equipment out of harm’s way. “By the time they strike, everything will be emptied out and everything will be changed,” he said.

America’s hand-wringing, Hidar added, also gave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad some much-needed political capital at home and abroad. “It’s like America is giving him cover,” Hidar said.

In America, critics of President Barack Obama’s push to punish the Syrian government for flagrantly crossing his famous “red line” on chemical weapons were relieved at the announcement that Congress would have its say. But Assad’s opponents abroad, analysts say, have been jarred by Obama’s about-face.

“A lot of foreign capitals thought he was going to strike Saturday night. I think many of them were probably scratching their heads when the decision [to wait for a vote] was made,” says Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center. “There has been, at least among key friends and allies, a certain view that Obama’s word [on Syria] cannot be entirely trusted. And this feeds into that lack of trust.”

Syria’s most influential neighbors—Israel and Turkey—had both pushed vocally for an American response in the wake of the Aug. 21 attack. America’s ally in Ankara, in particular, has a lot on the line, notes Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a forceful proponent of international intervention in Syria as Turkey strains under the burden of refugees from the conflict and the threat of a spill-over in violence and instability. “I think this adds yet one more point of contention in what was the spring of U.S.-Turkey relations before the Arab Spring started,” Cagaptay says. “I think this is going to be really frustrating for [Turkey], which has been asking the U.S. to deliver military action against the Assad regime. Assad surviving is not something that Turkey can live with. He has to go.”

Cagaptay adds that the congressional vote in Washington may put pressure on Erdogan to put his own plans to take part in a possible strike to a vote. And if the Turkish parliament does weigh in on the matter, Cagaptay says, it’s not at all certain to pass—potentially robbing America of a key partner if it does move ahead with military action in Syria. “This makes things very difficult for Turkey,” Cagaptay says.

In France, which had been expected to be America’s main partner in a strike, President Francois Hollande is likewise facing pressure from lawmakers to call a vote.

In the Gulf States, which have been key allies to the Syrian rebellion, governments have long been frustrated with America’s hesitant Syria policy, says Michael Stephens, a Doha-based regional security researcher with Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. The recent delay may exacerbate those concerns. “At the end of the day, the position of all six Gulf Countries is that Bashar al-Assad has to be removed, and they tend to favor a military option,” Stephens says. “The fact that we’re only talking about a limited strike pisses them off. And the fact that Obama has the ability to authorize a strike and didn’t do it—they don’t necessarily understand the domestic constraints he works within.”

Shaikh, of the Brookings Doha Center, notes that Obama could end up using the vote to put together a more comprehensive plan than the one calling for limited strikes that he seemed ready to execute on Saturday night—something that would make those pushing for more forceful intervention in Syria thankful for the delay. “He’s also got to convince his own people. He hasn’t made the case to [the American] people yet. He’s only starting to make it now,” Shaikh says.

Executing the plan as it stood, Shaikh adds, may have only fueled criticism that the strikes were meant more to provide Obama with “political cover” at home than to have a real impact on Syria’s war. “Something that’s convincing when it comes to a credible military stratey would have one of two elements: to degrade Assad’s capabilities, or to upgrade the capability and the supply of the oppositon. And that’s not where we’re at today,” Shaikh says.

Col. Hassan Jaweesh, a rebel commander operating out of the Syrian province of Idlib, where alleged chemical attacks took place earlier this year, said it mattered little whether or not Obama carried out the planned strikes. “Actually it doesn’t make any difference, because we knew the strikes wouldn’t be something that would finish off the regime,” he said, describing them instead as a way for the international community to “let their anger out.”