Red Lines

Will We Go To War In Syria?

News of chemical weapons might set off a U.S. intervention in Syria, but doesn't explain how a war would end, writes Ali Gharib.

Yesterday's news that the U.S. had evidence of chemical weapons "exposure"—not necessarily "use," as Max Fisher astutely noted—means that America might be at war in Syria sooner rather than later. That's because Barack Obama previously warned Bashar Al Assad's embattled regime "that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer." Some seventy-thousand Syrians have already reportedly perished in Syria's brutal civil war, many at the hands of the tyrant Assad. So the question becomes: why do chemical weapons change the game? Not without irony, the answer "has nothing to do with the future of Syria," points out Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk. "We have a stake in strengthening the norm against chemical weapons use. If Assad is using chemical weapons to hold on to power, we have an interest in ensuring that his government falls and that the responsible regime figures take their turn at the Hague." That doesn't mean you rush in. "Once we go in, the gloves are off," Lewis warns. Experts from the Arms Control Association echoed that sentiment: "Such an intervention would not necessarily prevent further use of chemical weapons. In fact, it could increase the chances that Assad will follow through on his threat to use chemical weapons more broadly or cause the military conflict to spread into neighboring countries."

The most striking thing about intervening to uphold an international norm is that slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians seems just as good a reason for Assad to be out of power and in the clutches of international justice. This, then, might be less about the lofty goals of removing a murderous dictator and sparing civilian lives, and more about Obama adhering to a "red line" that he's drawn in the sand. Just hear out Obama's former Democratic Senate colleague Dick Durbin: “From what I’ve heard our intelligence indicated with some degree of certainty that [Obama's red line] has been crossed,” Durbin told Politico. “That’s up to the commander in chief, but something has to be done.” One of the most important Democratic national security voices, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, pressed just as hard: “It is clear that ‘red lines’ have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger scale use,” she said. "The world must come together to prevent this by unified action which results in the secure containment of Syria’s significant stockpile of chemical weapons.” Others, like the former Clinton National Security Council official Jim Lindsey, have noted that for Obama to not follow through on his "red line" could "make it harder to deal not just with Syria but with Iran and North Korea. Tough talk and inaction seldom yield good results." It's notable—and new—that all this pressure is coming from Democrats and their associates; many of the Republicans who've been clamoring for direct U.S. involvement in Syria for the better part of the civil war have been even more forceful.

This revelation of the American assessment came after France and the United Kingdom raised the possibility of the weapons' use in private letters to the U.N., and a public announcement by Israel this weekend that it too had evidence of chemical weapons use. Piggy-backing on the international moves, the Obama administration began pushing for a thorough U.N. investigation, perhaps laying the groundwork for a U.N. Security Council resolution. Feinstein explicitly called for one in her remarks, specifically demanding Russia's accession. But the Russians, Assad's top international backers, look unlikely to budge. That could mean a unilateral intervention, or maybe a so-called coalition of the willing: "[I]f the U.S.A. implements a no-fly zone it would almost certainly do so without the support of the Security Council as Russia would almost certainly veto such a measure," U.N. Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg wrote. "We saw what happened the last time the U.S.A. fought a war in the Middle East without solid international backing." The Iraq reminder is a useful one, particularly because the U.S. must be damned sure what went on in Syria before directly entering the conflict. Though, as Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman reported, the evidence of a sarin gas attempt would be difficult to fake, the U.S. seems unsure of exactly where and when the evidence comes from, as well as it's chain of custody. Lewis suggested that, before taking action, the U.S. ought to know definitively that there was a chemical attack and that it was carried out by Assad's forces.

While being sure is only the first Iraq lesson that applies, it's the only one that can be concretely accomplished. The other Iraq reminder is more abstract: that going into wars is much easier than getting out. And this may well be why the Obama administration is using cagey language to hedge on its commitments. A no-fly zone might prevent chemical and other attacks from the air in Syria, but how long will it take to decisively tip the scales in pitched battes raging in places like Aleppo? Can small numbers of Western troops, let alone missile attacks, secure chemical stockpiles for that long? And those questions only touch on the unknown period of time between U.S.-led intervention and Assad's fall: remember that Saddam Hussein fell in early April 2003, just weeks after the U.S. invasion. In that case, the regime's collapse set off the chaotic and deadly civil war—the rising violence there today a reminder that matters remain far from settled a decade later—but there's no reason to expect that Assad's demise will bring an end to chaos there. What American and other international forces pushing for intervention have failed to lay out in any clear and compelling terms is what this immediate post-Assad period would mean for involved forces. As Tony Karon put it on Twitter yesterday, what still dogs the Syria question is the "end-game problem."

Republican House Speaker John Boehner, in a relatively cautious statement yesterday, said, "The United States has vital national interests in Syria becoming a peaceful country with a stable, representative government." That's far too eerily similar to the clarion calls we heard a decade ago by people unprepared to commit thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and perhaps decades to building up a stable, representative Iraq. Even those Iraq war proponents lamented the dearth of planning and conduct of the war; for Syria, there's been precious little talk of the same, beyond "securing" chemical weapons sites (which may well mean boots on the ground) and setting up a no-fly zone. The external political opposition remains in disarray and only loosely connected to the ad hoc rebel councils—themselves only loosely organized—that hold sway in growing swaths of the country. Many advocates of intervention hold the noble aim of ending the slaughter of Syrian civilians, but for the most powerful nation on earth to enter a civil war will necessarily bear on the politics of what comes next. What we again haven't been offered is a realistic vision of how it all ends. Calling "red lines" a "tripwire" to war seems appropriate: the U.S. may soon begin wondering what it's doing in the middle of a minefield.