Obama's Syria dilemma

April 29, 2013 

Barack Obama has a real problem. It’s self-inflicted, really – and it’s a cautionary tale against articulating public positions that may seem correct and convenient at the time, but that can pose serious challenges down the road.

Obama has been confronted with evidence from a variety of credible sources – including from his own intelligence community, with some caveats – that Assad used sarin gas against his own people. Ever since August 2012, Obama has held that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line” for the United States, and that crossing it would be a “grave mistake” for Assad.

The president is now faced with a dilemma: Defending his red line could undermine his carefully crafted strategy of steering clear of direct military involvement in the Syria crisis.

Here are some things worth keeping in mind as the president grapples with his conundrum.

Whatever Obama does on Syria, he should make sure that he doesn’t say anything that he’s not prepared to act on. “As president of the United States, I don’t bluff,” he famously said with regard to U.S. policy toward Tehran. It’s just as good advice when it comes to America’s approach to Damascus.

U.S. street cred is already at all time low in the Middle East. We don’t need what remains of U.S. credibility to be lost in the gap between the president’s words and his deeds.

This has obvious implications for that other famous red line on Iran. First, there’s a huge problem with defining where that line lies: Israel says Iran must be denied a nuclear capacity, and has put percentages on the danger zone for enrichment; Obama says Iran must be denied a nuclear weapon. That gap is already enormous enough even before we consider the issue of how to enforce any red lines, which have a way of turning pink when states reach the moment of truth. The broader point is: Who’s going to take any U.S. red line on Iran seriously if the president isn’t prepared to enforce his red line on Syria?

To Obama’s critics, particularly the inestimable Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Assad’s use of chemical weapons isn’t only a problem – it’s a chance for Washington to up the ante against Assad. Fair enough. But let’s be clear about one thing: Syria was never an opportunity, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. After two years of violence, religion-fueled animosity, and civil war, it’s not a land of milk and honey for the United States.

There are no good options in Syria. Choices run the gamut from unacceptable (do nothing) to ineffective (provide non-lethal assistance) to risky (arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone). Caution is still the order of the day.

From Obama’s perspective, one thing is clear: It won’t and shouldn’t be the United States. Even acting in concert with others, he’s not prepared to own Syria if it means billions in financial and economic aid, let alone American peacekeepers on the ground.

Iraq and Afghanistan are false analogies, but they are apt in one regard. These two wars – the longest in American history – have cost thousands of American lives, billions of dollars, and damaged U.S. credibility for an end result that has not (yet) been worth the price. In short, and quite rightly, Obama doesn’t want the United States to get stuck with the check on this one.

I’ve always believed that the other calculation that’s influencing the president on Syria is the issue of Iran and its nuclear program.

Many believe that bringing down the Assads is the way to weaken Iran, though the fall of the Syrian regime might only intensify the mullahcracy’s need to protect itself and accelerate its nuclear program.

Still, the president knows there’s a pretty good chance the Iranian issue may come to a crisis, and the United States may be forced to respond militarily. He is going to need Russian and Chinese support for whatever he does – and he isn’t going to get it on both Syria and Iran. Staying out of the Syrian crisis will give him more flexibility and options on Iran. Getting involved militarily could well lead the Russians and Iran to increase their own military support for the Assads too.

There’s a lot that’s murky about Syria right now, but one thing is clear. For America, a messy situation is about to get a whole lot messier.

Foreign Policy.

Aaron David Miller is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled “Can America Have Another Great President?” He served for two decades as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

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