The United States has not made the case that the national security interest of the United States requires the use of military force in Syria. Others have made the case for regime change, punishment, and deterrence against future use of non-conventional weapons by Syria, Iran or North Korea; and some of those cases are compelling. But the Administration has articulated no outcome toward which it is willing to commit substantial military resources and political capital.
The Administration has cast its goals primarily in the negative: no regime change, no tip toward the rebels, and no boots on the ground. In the affirmative: a shot across the bow and an exercise in American credibility presumably to influence both Syria and Iran. President Obama asserted that he would decide -- with or without Great Britain (now without), with or in defiance of the UN (now in defiance of), with or without Congress (now with) -- what he thinks is best. In fact, the Administration has been clearer, more definitive and more adamant about its prerogatives as than it has been about what outcome it seeks.
Congress will now debate the need to enforce "red lines" and ensure American credibility, including to Iran, in the face of tremendous domestic opposition to American intervention in the region. Congress will now have to make the case the Administration did not.
The question is, "What outcome does the United States seek through military action?"
American policy toward Syria has had serial phases:
- Preference for a reformed Bashar Assad.
- Determination to remove Assad from power through a political process, retaining the structure of the Syrian state and its secular nature. This involved the first attempt to find common ground with the Russians at the UN.
- Willingness to support insurrection and revolution by Syrian rebels, while publicly trying to keep arms length from any actual military assistance. The administration dissembled on its role in arming and training the rebels in this phase.
- Threats or "red lines" that implied a willingness to respond to unacceptable violence with armed force.
- A return to the political forum of the UN precipitated by Great Britain, this time knowing there would be no common ground with the Russians.
In 2009, the current administration flattered and cajoled Bashar Assad, returning the U.S. Ambassador to Damascus and partially lifting sanctions on the regime (including on aircraft engines, which had major implications later as the war intensified). For the next two years, a stream of American politicos visited and chatted up Assad; this was the period of the famous "Rose in the Desert" paean to Asma Assad in Vogue magazine and dinner with the Kerrys. They called Bashar Assad a "reformer"and hoped for change.
There was no change, and in August 2011 the Administration demanded that Assad resign, shifting America's desired outcome from an "improved Assad" to "no Assad."
Publicly eschewing arming the rebel forces, the U.S. supported Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in their vetting and arming groups of their choosing while we tried to organize the political opposition. In early February 2012, the U.S. and its allies went to the UN Security Council with a laundry list of demands for the Assad government, including that it dissolve itself. Russia vetoed the resolution on behalf of its client, to the expressed fury of Secretary of State Clinton.
Later that month, Secretary Clinton called on the people of Damascus and Aleppo to rise up in protest and "start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime." In March 2012, President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron blustered together about the war in Syria as "appalling" and "unacceptable." This appeared to be a shift in tactics if not strategy -- from demanding a political transition to supporting the overthrow of the Assad government. It turned out, however, that the administration had been hiding the depth of the CIA's involvement in vetting rebel groups and providing them with intelligence and other information, as well as an American role in shipping arms from Libya to Syria.
The understanding by the Russian and Syrian governments that the U.S. had been calling for political transition while helping the armed opposition made future diplomacy unlikely.
The President's famous "red line" on the movement or use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government appeared in August 2012. The implication of a "red line" is that it can be crossed only at some cost. The implication of an American "red line" is that the cost would be imposed by America -- another escalation in the U.S. determination to be rid of Assad without saying as much.
In May 2013, the U.S. and Russia were touting agreement on a new political process, but in June, a series of Syrian government advances and some evidence of chemical use prompted a very reluctant President Obama to announce the overt provision of small arms to the rebels. How reluctant? The deputy national security advisor made the announcement in a phone call while the President decamped to Ireland. More of his statement covered what the U.S. would not do, not supply and not support than what the administration would do. In July, Senators Levin, Menendez and McCain called for direct American military involvement including targeting runways to "degrade Assad's ability to use air power and ballistic missiles."
Now, a year after the casual declaration of the "red line," the Syrian government almost certainly has used chemical weapons against its people. The United States is committed to that line and to military action in a way it previously was not.
The Russians predictably vetoed a Security Council Resolution, and David Cameron became the first British Prime Minister to lose a war vote in Parliament since 1792, leaving President Obama back where he started -- wishing for the immaculate transformation of Syria into a secular and gentle democracy, and wishing to stay out of the fighting. But the nature of the regimes that have ruled the region for nearly a century virtually ensures that all transformation will be hard and violent. To expect people in the Middle East to listen to the United States, to do what the U.S. wants or demands -- without the expenditure of American political and military resources, on behalf of allies and against adversaries -- is the biggest exercise in wishful thinking of all.