Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Latest on Syria

In late April, U.S. intelligence agencies revealed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, particularly sarin, on a small scale, against Syrian citizens. For argument’s sake, at least for the moment, let’s assume this assessment is correct.

The use of chemical weapons has been long thought to be a game changer. President Obama has declared it a “red line.” Presumably, he meant that the use of chemical weapons by Assad forces would trigger a larger a much larger US commitment to ousting Assad and/or assisting the rebels.

This hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Sure, the U.S. has now sent 200 military advisers to Jordan, but many pundits and analysts expected much more than that. They think that once Assad crossed Obama’s red line, America should have responded with an appropriate punishment via military means. Otherwise, what was the point of issuing the red line? It was just empty words. Indeed, after having tested Washington without any repercussions, American credibility under Obama, at least on this issue, is damaged. And threats from hereon probably won’t be taken seriously. After all, if Team Obama hasn’t done anything about the death of tens of thousands Syrians and the use of chemical weapons, then why would it ever act in the future?

The critics have points, to be sure. But a larger problem actually pre-dates the revelations about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Simply put, Obama announced a red line, but failed to articulate clearly what would happen to Syria if it crossed it. He never articulated the terms of punishment. So what if Syria does violate Obama’s line in the sand? What happens then? Supposedly, it should change things, according to Obama. But what specifically does that mean? And what does it mean for Assad and his cronies? It wasn’t clear then and it’s not clear now.

This is where Team Obama screwed up. Absent a clear and credible threat to punish Syria, deterrence won’t work. In this situation, Assad didn’t think Syria would be punished for any undesirable behavior. As a result, America’s threat wasn’t taken seriously, and that strongly contributed to Syria breaching the red line. In using chemical weapons, Assad was willing to make the gamble that Obama didn’t want to get involved the ongoing, and increasingly messy and bloody, conflict.

Red lines, threats, and deterrence, these are the topics have dominated the recent discussion and debate about U.S. policy toward Syria. And then, yesterday, a major curve ball was thrown, something so serious that all the above talk and analysis about red lines and Obama's failures could be null and void.

Reuters released news that UN human rights investigators have found evidence that the Syrian rebels, not the Assad government, has used sarin in the conflict. According to Carla Del Ponte, a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a current member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria:

"Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated," Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television.
"This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," she added, speaking in Italian.

It will be interesting to see how this latest bit of news plays out here in the States. My guess is that this news will give Obama sufficient breathing space to buy more time to stay of the Syrian civil war. It has been clear for quite some time that Obama wants almost nothing to do with the conflict and would prefer that America stay on the sidelines. Perhaps this is because Team Obama really isn’t sure how to act in this situation; or maybe it’s because there are no easy answers here, a paralysis by analysis dilemma. Regardless, the UN findings will likely dampen some of the war fever. After all, who wants to support a group of people who have flouted and violated international law? And the news will reinforce the idea that more investigation, more fact-checking, is needed before the U.S. ups its commitment to the rebels, which allows the U.S. to continue to kick the can down the road.

Of course, though, not everyone will jump off the intervention bandwagon. Already, Dan Murphy, of the Christian Science Monitor, has cast doubts on the validity of the UN report, and that argument will likely get picked up by the pro-intervention crowd. Plus, letting the UN set America’s foreign policy agenda is a touchy subject in the U.S., especially on the right, and as a result there is going to be a natural resistance to taking De Ponte’s comments seriously. Furthermore, keep in mind that three of America’s longtime allies—France, Britain, and Israel—have already indicated that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, that Obama’s red line has been crossed. Even though the White House has said that these were "low-confidence assessments by foreign governments,” I anticipate many lawmakers to be more persuaded by the claims and findings by the Big Three than the UN.

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