Obama Faces Toughest Foreign Policy Challenge in Syria

Photographer: Abo Shuja/AFP via Getty Images

A Syrian rebel fires as a regime fighter jet flies overhead in Syria's eastern town of Deir Ezzor, August 17, 2013. Close

A Syrian rebel fires as a regime fighter jet flies overhead in Syria's eastern town of... Read More

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Photographer: Abo Shuja/AFP via Getty Images

A Syrian rebel fires as a regime fighter jet flies overhead in Syria's eastern town of Deir Ezzor, August 17, 2013.

President Barack Obama faces the toughest foreign policy dilemma of his administration as he decides how to respond after concluding that Syria’s regime used chemical weapons against innocent civilians.

Obama “believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Secretary of State John Kerry said today. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Obama “has not made” a decision on what action to take.

The issue is coming to a head after the U.S. and other nations, including the U.K. and France, concluded that Syrian forces launched a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb last week that opposition groups say killed 1,300 people. Obama previously warned that such action would cross his “red line.”

“Barack Obama’s administration is in a grave predicament, much of its own making,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a blog posting on the council’s website. “A president of the U.S. cannot say something crosses a red line and then go on conducting business as usual.”

Failing to take strong action after calling the use of chemical weapons a “red line” risks opening the U.S. to condemnation as toothless and numb to an atrocity while encouraging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allies to continue committing atrocities.

Cruise Missiles

Ordering cruise-missile strikes or other military action may embroil the U.S. in another Mideast war with little public support. Military action also may inadvertently aid the Islamic extremists allied with al-Qaeda who are battling Assad, trigger retaliatory terrorist attacks by Assad’s Hezbollah and Iranian allies and create a backlash elsewhere in an unsettled Muslim world.

“The reality is he’s going to act,” Aaron David Miller, a vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and a former Mideast adviser to several administrations, said of Obama in an interview yesterday.

“It’s just a question of when and what” the president’s response will be, Miller said, and that depends on what he wants to achieve -- a limited deterrent or an intervention in support of the opposition.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said today on MSNBC that discussions with White House officials lead him to expect an “imminent” U.S military response. He predicted a “surgical, proportional strike against the Assad regime.”

‘Well Beyond’

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. needs to impose a significant cost on the Assad regime for its actions.

The U.S. should select targets that “that go well beyond chemical weapons sites, and that hit at key political and military” locations, such as Assad’s palace in Damascus, the headquarters of Syrian intelligence and the secret police, training centers for Assad’s militias, and the mix of air bases and ground support facilities that do the most to support Syrian military operations, he wrote in a report posted today on the CSIS website. Further, the U.S. should speed arms to the moderate rebel factions and set clear “red lines” to constrain Assad’s future actions, Cordesman wrote.

Standoff Weapons

There’s support for that view among U.S. military and intelligence officials. The use of standoff weapons alone could backfire unless it’s accompanied by action taken in concert with some Muslim nations to strengthen the mainstream Sunni rebels against both the regime and the radical Islamic allies of al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

“We should, using standoff weaponry -- without a single American boot on the ground -- take out the airfields,” fuel facilities and maintenance facilities and also “provide the right kind of weapons” to elements of the rebels, U.S. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said today during a visit to South Korea.

The U.S. Navy has four destroyers on station in the eastern Mediterranean and probably at least two submarines, all armed with Tomahawk land-attack missiles, said Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

Those vessels have a combined inventory of about 200 Tomahawks that could take out buildings, aircraft hangars and control towers or damage a fleet of airplanes or trucks, he said. The strikes, if desired, could last “for several weeks” with the naval forces already positioned in the region, he said.

While no one questions the ability of the U.S. to conduct such a strike, perhaps with military support from NATO allies Britain and France, predicting the effect is difficult.

‘Symbolic Rebuke’

“It’s hard for me to imagine that limited strikes would matter all that much,” said Brian Katulis, an analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington who’s worked in the Middle East. While such attacks could serve as a symbolic rebuke to Assad for his use of chemical weapons, they’re unlikely to “tip the balance on the ground” in a multisided civil war, Katulis said in an interview.

An ineffectual strike, said one U.S. official involved in the administration’s deliberations, would be reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton’s 1998 cruise-missile attacks on the late al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden after his group bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Escalation Risk

A danger, the official said, is that a strike could prompt Assad to escalate his use of chemical or biological weapons if he concludes he no longer has anything to lose. In that case, the official said, Obama could have no choice but to escalate the U.S. role in the Syrian conflict at a time when the American military is under growing budget pressure, frayed by more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trying to turn more attention to the Asia-Pacific region.

Military action also risks expanding the conflict, Ian Bremmer, president of the New York-based Eurasia Group, said today on Bloomberg Surveillance.

“There may well be blowback and I don’t just mean from the Syrian government calling for attacks against the U.S.,” he said. “The Iranians have already said this will lead to a direct explosion across the Middle East.”

Obama, who first won the White House on a pledge to end U.S. involvement in an unpopular war in Iraq and is now seeking to withdraw American combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, made clear last week his reluctance to attack Syria.

Difficult Interventions

“Sometimes what we’ve seen is folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn in to very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region,” Obama said in an interview with CNN.

The president, who has virtually ruled out putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria and has indicated he’s leery of creating a no-fly zone over the country, emphasized the need to build an international coalition for any military action. While administration officials said Russia remains likely to veto any United Nations resolution calling for military action, a smaller coalition came a step closer to reality yesterday as leaders from the U.S., U.K., France and Germany conferred privately on options.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons, while pledging to cooperate with a UN review.

Royal Navy

The U.K. government plans to decide tomorrow whether to recall Parliament and seek approval for taking action, according to the prime minister’s office. Royal Navy ships were being prepared to participate in possible cruise-missile strikes that could start within days, the Telegraph in the U.K. reported yesterday, citing unidentified government officials.

“Is it possible to respond without complete agreement on the Security Council? I would argue yes it is,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said on BBC Radio 4.

Another U.S. official said that despite the White House statement accusing the regime of using chemical weapons, questions remain about what chemicals were used and whether Assad or some lower-ranking official ordered the attack.

Critics such as Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said military intervention in Syria would be a mistake.

“Destroying what remains of the Syria government will create a failed state and end up empowering groups that are deeply hostile to the United States,” Walt said in an interview.

‘Indefinite Draw’

Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said any push for a victory by rebel forces could be as dangerous to U.S. interests as it would be to the Assad regime.

“Extremist groups, some identified with al-Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria,” Luttwak wrote in an opinion column for the New York Times. “If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States.”

Luttwak said the only suitable course for the U.S. among bad options is to support “an indefinite draw” between Assad and the rebels in which neither side can gain power.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Lerman in Washington at dlerman1@bloomberg.net; Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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