Intelligence sources have indicated Syria may be mobilizing its chemical weapons to use against rebels in its ongoing civil war. President Obama has publicly stated that the use by Assad of chemical weapons against his own people will not be tolerated. The implication is clear. There will be a military response by the US if Assad does gas civilians. This may be just a bluff on Obama’s part, but I don’t think so. This is the sort of threat that must be carried out once its made, or all credibility is lost. And there are historical precedents.
After losing the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used poison gas to quell rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq, in an area beyond the no-fly zone established by President Bush I. Mr Bush did nothing, it exceeded his self-imposed mandate and at the time I agreed with his decision, and I still do. He was severely criticized by both the right and left: for both failing to act, but also for refusing to exceed his original mission of liberating Kuwait by toppling the Hussein regime. GHWB was wise enough to understand the difference between defeating an army and occupying and pacifying a country.
In my opinion, it was exceedingly unwise, politically and militarily, to suddenly impose new conditions on Saddam after the latter had unconditionally surrendered and the Allies were standing down and demobilizing. Mr Bush was a prudent man with capable advisors, and he was determined to conduct the war under strict legal guidelines, as they had been set down ahead of time by himself and our allies. The American people did not want an expansion of the war, and no one else did, either. Our mission, to get Hussein out of Kuwait had been accomplished successfully, and the use of chemical weapons had caught everyone by surprise, no one expected that. The downside, of course, was that the world had to watch helplessly while Saddam gassed civilian populations en masse. It was a horror, and the Monday morning quarterbacks went to town with it. In my opinion, GHWB did the right thing, and his critics were mistaken.
But that was then, this is now. We now know that a chemical attack is possible, if not imminent. A threat to use military action against Syria is a convincing deterrent, but it must be carried out if challenged or no threats made by the USA will ever be taken seriously in the future. Unlike Libya, where the US could make a bombing campaign happen without committing troops, the military realities suggest Syria will be an American show. We can’t even count on refueling and overfly privileges from Turkey, or naval assistance from Greece. Help from Israel would be politically impossible.
Obama is not the type to make threats without the determination to carry them out, especially threats of yet another unpopular and expensive Middle East war, one that could easily go wrong for a number of reasons. A full-fledged attack on Syria is not militarily feasible (look at a map), but selected air and missile strikes on Syria’s already-stressed war machine, particularly its air force bases and major supply and command depots, is exacly what the rebels have been begging us to do. A small effort on our part would yield big benefits for the rebels, and potential disaster to the regime. Attacks on Syria’s chemical capabilities and facilities should obviously be ruled out, collateral damage might be enormous, although there is no reason to tell the Syrians, or anyone else, that.
Such an action would have other benefits: It would tell Iran that American bluster is to be taken seriously, and tell the Russians and the Chinese that their bluster is not. Iran will howl at losing Assad as an ally, but they will do nothing. They know if they intervene, they can kiss their nuclear sites goodbye. Israel and the US are just dying for an excuse to take them out.
At any rate, the President has opened with his queen pawn, he has stuck his neck out and, to a certain extent, limited his options by telegraphing his intentions. He means business, and he wants the world to know it. It is no accident his statement was not made through diplomatic channels, but was delivered publicly.
These are uncertain times, but one thing is certain. Regardless of what Obama does or doesn’t do, the Republicans will be against it. In fact, I suppose the only reason they haven’t responded to his remarks already is that they haven’t been able to get their shit together enough to make the political calculations yet and come up with a coordinated response. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve been thrashing about incoherently quite a bit lately.