Despite its best efforts, the Obama administration is sliding down a slippery slope towards intervention in Syria. A humanitarian crisis that has cost between 80, 000 and 120, 000 lives, and produced over 2.5 million refugees requires decisive foreign policy action.
The Obama administration has provided the Syrian opposition over six hundred and fifty million dollars in non-military aid. However there is rising pressure to intervene by either ordering air strikes on government targets, arming the opposition, or establishing a no-fly zone to protect the rebels fighting against President Assad.
Interventionists argue that unless the US acts militarily, it will lose global credibility, the death toll in Syria will rise further, and the region will become destabilized, producing a greater chance of militant Islamists seizing power. Pressure has been mounting on the international and domestic levels. Republicans have been particularly vocal about criticizing the administration’s inaction. In a senate meeting concerning Syria, John McCain asked, “How many more have to die before you recommend military action?”
Rumors that the Assad regime has crossed Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons have greatly increased pressure to act decisively. The administration has been intentionally vague, declaring the systematic use of chemical weapons to be “a game changer,” but stopping short of committing to military force. According to a source from the State Department, “No one wanted to say that Assad had crossed the line, because no one wants to deal with it.”
While the Assad regime is known to possess chemical weaponry, there are conflicting reports of whether or not the weapons have been used. Three major US allies: Britain, France and Israel, have concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on several occasions. The US administration has declined to join the analysis, announcing a lack of conclusive evidence in the findings. The administration undoubtedly wishes to avoid repeating the mistake of intervening in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence.
The United States is currently burdened with over a $1 trillion debt from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to a recovering economy. There is no shortage of domestic issues that need addressing, so the risk that public support will sour towards another several year military commitments is likely.
With the waning hope of the rebels forming a cohesive counter regime, Obama is left with three unattractive military options.
The first is to erect a no fly zone. If successful, this would reduce further human rights abuses and civilian deaths, by preventing chemical and non-chemical attacks, in addition to preventing the conflict from spilling over and destabilizing the region. However, assuming the Assad regime would be unwilling to relinquish its air force, this would require a large-scale military investment to sustain the operation. The Syrian air defense has been designed to repel Israeli attacks and is much more complex and dense than proponents believe, and attacking it would result in large numbers of American and Syrian casualties.
The second option is to arm the rebels. Britain, France, and vocal Republicans are proponents of this strategy. However, Obama has made it clear that he has little confidence in the rebels. He believes them to be ideologically fractured, lacking in a coherent structure, uncontrollable, and in conflict with one another. Obama fears that arming the rebels could result in a rapid collapse of state institutions, and that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. The administration’s worst nightmare is that hostile Islamists could turn Syria into a platform for attacks on Israel with access to chemical weapons, turning the conflict into a region-wide disaster.
The final and least attractive option for the administration is sending troops to seize chemical weaponry facilities. Putting boots on the ground is something the administration wishes to avoid at all costs. This would be enormously expensive, result in loss of life, and would be very unpopular at a domestic level, and quite frankly, by the looks of their track record, largely unsuccessful. The closest the administration would want to come to sending forces, is deploying military personnel with the purpose of training militants, which they have already done in Jordan.
In the Syrian crisis, there are no easy answers. Obama must find a way to deliver a stern and credible threat to the Assad regime to prevent the use of chemical weaponry, without getting sucked into another war. This means he will probably be pressured into choosing the least worst of the three options, arming the rebels. While this is hardly the most effective solution, it will satiate critics for a short while, until things takes a spectacular turn for the worst. One can only hope that this option will work out better for the United States and Syria, than it did in Afghanistan.