Obama’s Limited Strikes Plan Faces Risks of Escalation

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama said he understands the reasons for “people being worried about a slippery slope and how effective a limited action might be” in Syria. Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

An old military mantra -- “the enemy has a vote” -- describes the situation President Barack Obama is confronting as he tries to muster support for U.S. military strikes against Syria.

Facing a divided Congress and a war-weary public, Obama has promised that any U.S. action will be “limited and proportionate.” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, though, will also help decide how long and how big any American military mission in Syria will be.

The prospect of unintended consequences, along with U.S. wariness after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, hangs over Obama’s efforts to sell his plans for a limited military strike to lawmakers and the American people, including a speech to the nation on the evening of Sept. 10.

“I know that the American people are weary after a decade of war, even as the war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down,” Obama said today in his weekly radio and Internet address. “That’s why we’re not putting our troops in the middle of somebody else’s war.”

One worry is a possible terrorist attack by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran and has killed hundreds of Americans in attacks that began more than 30 years ago with the bombings of the U.S. embassy and the headquarters of a Marine peacekeeping force in Beirut.

Retaliation Concern

“One of the immediate things of concern is the retaliation of groups involved there in Syria, and Hezbollah has the highest capacity for retaliation with terrorist-type attacks,” said retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence.

Other unknowns include whether Syria or ally Iran will retaliate with missile strikes against Israel or Saudi oilfields, wage a terrorism campaign or cyberattacks, or stoke political turmoil in U.S.-ally Jordan, already stressed by sheltering at least 500,000 Syrian refugees.

Obama is pressing for military action in response to a chemical attack near Damascus last month that the U.S. blames on the Syrian regime.

“Deciding to use military force is the most solemn decision we can make as a nation,” Obama said in his address today. “Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons.”

‘Slippery Slope’

He said yesterday he understands the reasons for “people being worried about a slippery slope and how effective a limited action might be.”

At a news conference following the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Obama acknowledged that there would be uncertainties before and after any attack on Syria. One way Assad might show defiance, Obama said in response to a question, would be to continue using his arsenal of sarin gas against rebels and civilians.

“Now, is it possible that Assad doubles down in the face of our action and uses chemical weapons more widely?” said the president, who returned to Washington last night. “I suppose anything’s possible, but it wouldn’t be wise.”

Another unknown for Obama is what role Russia, which has dispatched its own warships to the Mediterranean Sea, decides to play in Syria.

Russian Involvement

The possibilities for Russia, said two U.S. officials familiar with the matter, include more verbal support from President Vladimir Putin, sending one of its ships to dock in the Syrian port of Tartus, and speeding new shipments of anti-aircraft missiles or radars to Assad’s forces. The officials asked not to be identified discussing intelligence matters.

“The involvement by Russia could escalate things and take it beyond Syrian borders,” Kyle Cooper, director of commodities research at IAF Advisors in Houston, said in a telephone interview. “The situation in Syria is fluid, and that has the market concerned.”

West Texas Intermediate crude reached a two-year high as Putin said his nation will assist Syria if it’s attacked, raising concern that escalating tension will disrupt Middle East oil exports. WTI for October delivery gained $2.16 to $110.53 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement since May 3, 2011. Prices rose 2.7 percent this week.

Leaving Beirut

The withdrawal of some American diplomatic personnel from Lebanon, announced yesterday, is one sign that the U.S. is aware that any military action in Syria may have broader consequences.

The State Department ordered non-essential U.S. personnel and family members to leave Beirut for security reasons, and said there’s an optional departure plan for diplomatic personnel at the U.S. consulate in Adana, Turkey.

The department, which has been stepping up security at embassies worldwide in advance of potential strikes against Syria, didn’t say whether it will withdraw staff members or their families from other facilities in the Mideast or beyond.

“Obviously, the tension in the region, including in Syria, plays a role in this,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a briefing yesterday. “I think it would be obvious to most people, and would be silly to think otherwise.”

The U.S. Navy has positioned the amphibious ship USS San Antonio with as many as 300 Marines in the eastern Mediterranean in case they’re needed to evacuate U.S. personnel or other American citizens from the region.

Security Measures

Frederic Hof, who last year served as Obama’s ambassador-at-large on the Syria crisis, said that drawing down embassy personnel, issuing travel warnings and taking other security measures is necessary in light of Hezbollah’s reach.

While Hezbollah may not respond to a “pin-prick” attack on Syria, “I think it is inescapable that we plan for the worst,” Hof said at a Sept. 3 panel discussion.

An unknown for Obama is what might happen if a U.S. attack kills Hezbollah members fighting in Syria. The Lebanon-based group has lost about 2,000 soldiers in Syria and is engaged in the fight to keep Assad in power, said retired Army Major General John Custer, who served as intelligence chief for the U.S. Central Command. Any retaliation need not be immediate and could happen outside the region, Custer said.

“Hezbollah is a global organization that can strike U.S. targets from Tokyo to South America, and they’re all viable retaliation strategies,” Custer said in a phone interview. “You can’t guard them all.”

‘Manageable Risks’

The U.S. plans for limited strikes are “not without any risks, but with manageable risks,” Obama said yesterday.

The president called “inaccurate” reports that he’s asked for an expanded set of potential targets and declined three times to answer directly whether he would act even if Congress refuses to authorize military action.

“I’m not going to engage in parlor games” speculating about whether the use-of-force resolution is going to pass while negotiations with lawmakers are still under way, he said.

Obama left the summit in Russia without a public endorsement for military action, even as he said there is “growing recognition” that the world can’t stand by and let the use of chemical weapons go unanswered.

The administration released a joint statement with the U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Spain calling for a an unspecified “strong international response” to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. U.S. allies Germany, Mexico and the European Union didn’t join in the statement.

National Interest

Obama has said the U.S. has a national interest in reinforcing international norms against using poison gas following the Aug. 21 attack that his administration says killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.

The president plans to address the American public about Syria the night before the U.S. holds memorials for those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and created the environment for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A closely divided U.S. Senate is due to vote on a use-of-force resolution next week, to be followed by the House of Representatives, where the administration faces opposition from anti-Obama Republicans and anti-war Democrats.

In the week since Obama decided to seek congressional authorization, lawmakers in both parties have expressed concerns that the U.S. may be drawn into the Syrian civil war or even a conflict that expands to include other regional actors, such as Iran or Hezbollah.

Benghazi Anniversary

“Is there more risk to the national interest in doing nothing or is there more risk to the national interest in acting?” Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said in a statement. “That’s the question I think we’re all wrestling with.”

Senate debate next week on a use-of-force resolution coincides with the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Republicans, led by Representative Darrell Issa of California, have charged the administration was negligent on security amid terrorist threats following the collapse of Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in an uprising supported by air strikes by the U.S. and allies.

While saying there are risks from action or inaction, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said yesterday that Congress shouldn’t be lulled into thinking it can avoid risks by not acting on Syria.

“The dangers of this world will only deepen if aggressors believe that global norms have no meaning and that gross violations can be carried out with impunity,” she said in a statement. “The belief that the United States can insulate itself from peril by standing aside or by waiting for others to act is an illusion mocked by the lessons of history.”

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