I’ve wanted to watch Syria’s Bashar al-Assad get his clock cleaned for eight years, so it feels rather strange that I’m a bit ambivalent all of a sudden now that it looks like the United States might actually take action against him. Before we get into that, though, let’s look at how we got to this point and what we might expect in the near future.
The Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus and killed at least hundreds of civilians and possibly more than a thousand.
“We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks,” President Barack Obama said to NewsHour. “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out.”
I can’t verify that, but I’ll accept it as most likely for now. The administration has access to hard intelligence data the rest of us can’t see. And anyway it’s not hard to believe that a war criminal who owns chemical weapons would commit a war crime with chemical weapons. No one’s fingering the King of Belgium for the deed.
It’s possible that Al Qaeda or the Free Syria Army got a hold of these weapons and did this themselves, but the thousands of survivors are certain the government did it.
They could be wrong. Everyone could be wrong. It happens. But it’s spectacularly unlikely that everybody is lying. Conspiracy theories and convoluted explanations are almost never correct. Straightforward explanations are the right ones 99 percent of the time.
I don’t believe everything the government says, but lies about this sort of thing are much less common than lies about, say, the opposing candidate’s tax plan during campaign season. And anyway, why would the White House lie about this? The idea that Barack Obama is ginning up a fake excuse to bomb Syria makes no kind of sense. He has clearly been against getting involved if he can help it. He ran as the opposite sort of president from George W. Bush and he wants to govern that way. It must drive him crazy that he’s weighing an intervention against an Arab Baathist dictatorship over weapons of mass destruction, but that's what's happening.
So now there’s talk of cruise missile attacks that will last a couple of days at the most. We’ll have to wait and see if that pans out, but that’s the word from “senior US officials” as of late Wednesday. Assad’s forces are evacuating what they suspect are the target sites, so this might not even turn out to be a big deal.
This isn’t about regime-change. Not at this time, anyway. “I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change.” That was Jay Carney, the White House spokesman. Americans can rest assured that they’re safe from another long war—at least for now—and Assad can rest assured that he's safe as well.
This is about enforcing Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons. He told Assad there’d be hell to pay if he used them, and if he doesn’t enforce it, he’ll lose credibility. It’s really not okay if a state sponsor of international terrorism thinks he has a green light to use weapons of mass destruction against civilians. It’s not okay if anyone does. Even if you don’t care a fig about Syrians, well, they aren’t the only ones within range.
If Obama doesn’t enforce this, he’ll also lose credibility on the other red line he’s drawn in the Middle East—the one against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
He desperately wants to convince Iran to abandon that program without going to war. The only way that’s even remotely possible, however unlikely, is if the Iranian government believes he’ll declare war if it doesn’t stop at some point. So if Assad gets to step over his red line, Tehran’s rulers will have every reason to believe they can step over theirs.
That’s the theory, anyway. That’s what this is about. I am not going to get in the way (not that it would make any difference), and I am not going to protest.
But a much better case could be made that the very existence of these chemical weapons stocks pose a threat not only to Syrians, but also to Syria’s immediate neighbors and even to people in more distant parts of the world. Because if Assad is overthrown by the rebels, that country will disintegrate into absolute chaos. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are already running around, and without the government in place to secure its stockpiles of weapons, anybody could go in there and get them and use them against whoever they feel like using them against.
The US, however, isn’t making that case and apparently plans to do nothing about it. So nothing on the ground is likely to change. Military action should be used to advance some kind of strategic objective, but unless the White House is keeping its plan a secret from everyone, it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen.