Floating a trial balloon of his logic behind striking Syria for using Sarin nerve gas, President Barack Obama told PBS’ “NewsHour” with Judy Woodward and Gwen Ifill Aug. 28 that he wanted to send Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a “shot-across-the-bow.” Al-Assad has already reacted quickly relocating various military assets in the mountains around Damascus, making any Cruise Missile strike less effective. Shooting off Cruise missiles at questionable locations with dicey strategic benefit does nothing other than open up a potential can of worms for the U.S. Pushing a stick into the hornets’ nest won’t stop the hornets from lashing out, it will only assure more agitation. Sending the threat of an attack is enough of a shot-across-the-bow to put al-Assad on notice that using poison gas in his two-and-a-half-year-old civil war is unacceptable. Despite specifying “red lines,” Obama has been reluctant to intervene militarily.
Barack has been pushed by conservatives on Capitol Hill to respond militarily to a presumed Sarin nerve gas attack Aug. 21 on East Damascus suburbs that killed 355 and poisoned more that 3,600. Whatever intelligence the U.S. has about Syria’s civil war, it cautions against intervention because of the multiple Saudi-backed factions, including al-Qaeda, seeking to topple al-Assad. “If any action would be take against Syria, it would be an international collaboration,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, showing the complicated politics involved in responding to any poison gas attack. Syria officially denies that it had anything to do with the Aug. 21 poison gas attack, blaming it on rebel groups backed by Israel. U.N. weapons’ inspectors are busy completing a report for Secretary-Gen. Ban Ki-moon, identifying whether a poison gas attack occurred and who’s responsible.
U.S. officials have fingered the al-Assad regime as the only one with access to poison gas in the region. U.N. officials, due to report to the U.N. tomorrow, won’t pinpoint who authorized the attack, other that confirming that Sarin nerve gas was found. “And if that’s so,” Obama told Woodward and Ifill, “then there needs to be international consequences,” remaining ambiguous as to the exact “consequences,” though many interpret it as surgical air strikes. Obama faces stiff headwinds getting authorization for using force from the U.S. Congress and the U.N. While the 1968 War Powers Act gives the president the authority to use force without the consent of Congress, he complained about it as a presidential candidate. Getting an authorization to use force from the U.N. Security Council is next to impossible with Russia and China opposing any military action in Syria.
When Obama warned al-Assad in 2011 about the “red line” of using chemical weapons, it’s not necessarily in the interest of U.S. national security to use force. Once Cruise missiles light up Damascus, all bets are off, including the very real possibility of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza firing missiles into Israel. Also allied with Syria, Iran could also start firing missiles at Israel, or, worse yet, target U.S. navy ships in the Mediterranean, though not likely. While there’s great debate in the international community, including Europe and the Middle East, for the U.S. to respond, Hagel is right saying the U.S. won’t respond without international consensus. Based on what’s already happened with resistance in the U.K., Obama should stop the madness of the U.S. intervening unilaterally. Whether al-Assad used chemical weapons or not, the U.S. shouldn’t do the heavy lifting.
Since Syria’s civil war began March 11, 2013, the U.S. has properly stayed removed from anything other than U.N.-sponsored economic sanctions. No matter how repugnant Syria’s the loss of civilian life, it’s a Syrian civil war, funded by Saudi Arabia and fought by multiple combatants. Obama has made it clear he has not intent of hastening the end of the bloodshed other that “firing a shot-across-the-bow” to deter al-Assad from using chemical weapons. Attacking Syria militarily opens up numerous national security problems for the U.S., including opposing Russia’s forceful backing of the al-Assad regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced today he was dispatching Soviet warships to the Mediterranean, without specifying what he would do if the U.S. and NATO attacked. Russia and China have urged the U.S. to stay out of Syria’s civil war
Instead of intervening in half-measures, Obama would be well advised to stop talking of “firing-a-shot-across-the-bow” and decide, one way or another, whether to get involved militarily in Syria. It makes no sense to take any military action based on actionable intelligence on al-Assad’s chemical weapons unless the U.S. is prepared to de-fang Damascus and secure the chemical weapons’ stockpile. Hitting Damascus with Cruise missiles makes no sense simply as a “punishment” or “deterrent” about future chemical weapons use. When Obama attempts to brief Congress about possible U.S. actions, Congress should give some guidance before making a potentially irreversible mistake. Once Cruise missiles fly, all bets are off, including attacks on Israel and the U.S. Mediterranean fleet. If the president really believes al-Assad threatens U.S. national security, he should act accordingly.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.