“We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” – Barack Obama, 20 August 2012
OK, I’ll grant you, the definition of “a whole bunch” is fuzzy. Still, the intent of the president’s statement appears to be that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war is a “red line” for the Obama administration – a line that, if crossed, will spur significant reprisals and intervention.
Back in March of 2013 Syria apparently crossed this red line (and may have crossed in in December of 2012). As is always the case, when you bluff, you have to be prepared for somebody to call your bluff. Obama wanted to inhibit the use of chemical weapons, and put potential US intervention on the table as a means of keeping things in check. Syria then used chemical weapons (perhaps both sides did!). What next?
Well, as of June 4 of this year, we weren’t quite sure that Syria had crossed the “red line”. But, apparently, the 10 days between then and now have allowed sufficient investigation to conclude that Syria has indeed used chemical weapons and the US can now intervene. Exactly what said “intervention” will be is unclear. It seems that we are going to “provide weapons” and other support. (“Why now?” one might wonder … it’s not like the administration needs to change the headlines.)
It’s not a given at all that such intervention will turn the battle in favor of the rebels and topple the Assad regime. One would like to think that the president doesn’t get involved unless he knows he can win … but we learned that wasn’t true with the whole “Chicago Olympics” pitch. It is quite tepid by US standards of interventionism though (most presidents go big).
Syria presents a conundrum on a number of levels. Most obvious is the “Iran or Al Qaeda” conflict. If Assad falls, Iran will be isolated, which most westerners would consider a good thing. However, the Syrian rebels apparently have some pretty firm Al Qaeda allegiances. It would look awfully bad if US surface-to-air missiles fell in to the hands of Islamic radicals and ended up shooting down an airliner. Sometimes realpolitick leaves us with tough choices.
The natural inclination of conspiracy theorists like myself is to push the “Obama-needs-a-distraction-from-all-the-scandals” narrative. Syria intervention is hardly big enough to get the job done though. For that we’d need a much bigger world event. Perhaps actual US military involvement, or a midnight hit on Iranian nuclear facilities … now that would be a scandal-distracting move.
Should we get involved? I’m not hard over either way here. I tend to prefer less US militarism overseas. But I am willing to accept rather broad-sweeping arguments of “this or that country is a distant threat to the US, so we need to deal with them now”. It’s possible that Syria crosses that threshold. I personally suspect it’s “too little too late” though. I doubt a new supply of weapons turns the tide … unless they’re really cool weapons.