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Obama’s unserious approach to Syria threatens deadly consequences

Has there ever been a military action so telegraphed in advance as the US threats to bomb Syria?

According to un-named  US “senior officials” speaking to the New York Times (and seemingly every other news outlet), we know that the action will be “limited”, “perhaps lasting no more than one or two days”. The attacks will come from “Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea” and will be “aimed at military units, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

And since Mr. Assad does not read The New York Times, his army will be totally unprepared for this.

Of course, this talk could be setting up a decoy of some kind. But everything coming from the White House looks like preparations for a stunt; when you read that President Obama wants to “send a message” to Assad, read token and empty gesture. In an interview with PBS this evening, Obama said in reference to Assad: "We send a shot across the bow saying, 'Stop doing this,' this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term." In 2007, candidate Obama had a different view of the effectiveness of bombing threats, when practiced by George W. Bush:

Iran and Syria would start changing their behavior if they started seeing that they had some incentives to do so, but right now the only incentive that exists is our president suggesting that if you do what we tell you, we may not blow you up. My belief about the regional powers in the Middle East is that they don’t respond well to that kind of bluster. They haven’t in the past, there’s no reason to think they will in the future.

But now Obama is counting on bluster to work for him.

It would be wrong to view Obama as itching for a fight, and using the chemical weapons disclosure as a pretext to implement a cunning military plan. In fact, quite the opposite: all along it has appeared that Obama has not wanted to have anything to do with Syria. His “red line” position about Assad’s use of chemical weapons, announced in August last year, was more about avoiding conflict with Assad, than confronting him. As Tim Black wrote in spiked in May, “It was an attempt to provide a pretext not to invade Syria. By drawing an arbitrary line in the sand, albeit a bright red one, Obama was trying to justify non-intervention… So, providing Assad didn’t use a particular weapon to kill his opponents, Obama could insist that Assad had not actually committed a war crime.”

Indeed, even after that “red line” ultimatum was declared, reports of chemical weapons use emerged (some say as many as 35 incidents), but Obama still was reluctant to get involved. He preferred instead to talk about arming the rebels (the secular rebels, not the al-Qaeda backed al-Nusra ones that now dominate the opposition). It was only following the publicity associated with the latest alleged chemical weapons attack, which killed up to 1,300 according to reports, did Obama feel sufficiently embarrassed that he considered taking action.

So, while the administration’s denunciations of Assad are infused with moralism (Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the recent chemical weapons deployment as a “moral obscenity”), you don’t get the sense that the Obama White House is on a moral mission for a higher purpose. Instead, it appears all about salvaging Obama’s credibility. Team Obama’s reaction is not about taking a principled moral stand, and more about covering their collective asses: “Oh no, they called our bluff, we’ll look like fools if we don’t do something, let’s do the minimum so we can save face and not get sucked into a quagmire in Syria”. But saving face for a President who made a foolish ultimatum is not a good reason for going to war.

And, let’s face it, the talk of a moral obligation to do something about chemical weapons is morally flimsy itself.  According to the bizarre moral logic put forward by  the “humanitarian intervention” ideologues and their followers in Washington, the  1,000 or so killed by chemical weapons is an obscenity and unacceptable, while the 100,000 plus Syrians who have been killed by conventional weapons is effectively no big deal. Furthermore, chemical weapons are morally unacceptable and something must be done – unless the attacks are fewer than 1,000 and nobody is too shocked. And, by the way, we won't question how the one country that has used nuclear weapons in war has the moral authority to lecture others about using chemical weapons.

All in all, the Obama administration is taking an unserious and flippant approach to events in Syria, but that does not mean that it won’t have grave and deadly consequences for the people of Syria. For a start, any “limited”, “one or two day” bombing would be bound to kill civilians. But there are also potential wider repercussions for the Syrians and other people across the region.

Obama claims he wants to “send a message” to Assad, but it may not be the one he intends. Sure, let’s assume that Assad stops using chemical weapons after enduring some bombs… but that will mean he can go right back to killing thousands with conventional weapons. Or, maybe Assad learns another lesson – that Obama and the US are not really adamant about stopping him, and really do not wish to get too involved - and thus a token-gesture bombing could just embolden him.

The opposition forces in Syria may be immediate beneficiaries of a US attack, but if that attack is a minor one (as currently advertised), then it will fall far short of tipping the balance towards them. All such an attack would appear to do is to prolong the civil war.

Beyond Syria, it’s not too difficult to imagine other countries getting more directly involved in Syria following a US aerial bombing. Conflict could easily spread to countries in the immediate vicinity, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Palestine and Turkey. And not that further afield there is Iran, which has threatened to bomb Israel if the US strikes Syria.

Hawkish critics have noted the complete lack of discussion of strategic considerations coming out of the White House. The White House presents the Syria issue as a narrow one of chemical weapons. It is as if the US decision to attack Syria is driven entirely by those weapons, and the context of the fighting in Syria and the Middle East is ignored.

While of course those critics are correct to point out utter lack of geopolitical considerations, there are some, like the Wall Street Journal editorial board, who think that overthrowing Assad would provide such a strategy. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing on Bloomberg.com, is another. After citing various ways in which a missile strike could make things worse in Syria, Goldberg says: “A better idea would be to commit the US fully to the removal of the Assad regime. This doesn’t require direct military action. It requires the formulation of a long-term, complicated and obviously precarious program that would do what should have been done all along: build up the non-jihadi branches of the Syrian opposition while working with our allies to marginalize the jihadis.”

But regime-change is not a strategy either. These critics are backing into an accidental war just as much as the Obama administration. They agree with Obama that something needs to be done about chemical weapons, but seeing how Obama’s proposed bombings won’t have any real effect (or possibly have negative effects), they add on “let’s topple Assad instead”.  But that approach is as equally devoid of real strategy, and similarly avoids thinking about the potential repercussions (such as paving the way for al-Nusra to come into power).

Further Western intervention in Syria of any kind – long-distance bombings or more direct military action – will make matters worse. Only the people of Syria have the potential to create a better future for their country, even if it means they have to go through a bloody struggle to get there. That prospect looks bleak right now, but, in the hands of the Syrian people themselves, potential remains. Their chances of success diminish greatly if the West gets more involved.

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