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It's Time for Obama to Act Forcefully on Syria

It's Time for Obama to Act Forcefully on Syria

By Mark Salter - August 28, 2013

Bashar al-Assad’s latest use of chemical weapons against his own civilians seems to have finally provoked President Obama into taking action against the Syrian regime. Until now, the administration’s response had been confined to stern denunciations, entreating Vladimir Putin to behave as if he gives a damn about “our common humanity,” as Secretary of State John Kerry put it, and promising small arms to Syrian rebels that never quite materialized.

Obama is moving with unusual (for him) alacrity to assert the regime’s culpability in the attack and to organize some kind of military response to it.

But if yesterday’s news reports are accurate, the retaliation will be of short duration and “designed more to send a message than to cripple Assad’s military and change the balance of forces on the ground,” as the Washington Post put it. In other words, the president still appears unwilling to take action that might convince Assad that his self-interest is not served by committing as many atrocities as necessary to preserve his hold on power.

It’s not surprising that Obama would prefer to steer clear of this mess. But that passivity has already come at a cost. So far the civil war in that country has resulted in 100,000 deaths, dozens of several smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks, Syria’s transformation into a theater of operations for a resurgent al-Qaeda, a regional power grab by Hezbollah (along with Russia’s and Iran’s efforts to impose their will on the region while exposing the impotency of U.S. leadership), a military stalemate that promises the conflict will continue indefinitely, spillover fighting into Lebanon and Iraq, and the threat of instability in Jordan and Turkey as a flood of Syrian refugees overwhelm those countries.

If that series of calamities couldn’t convince Obama that his policy of non-intervention in Syria has been a strategic and moral failure, mass killings with chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb probably won’t either.

The magnitude of the atrocity this time has forced his hand, however. The United States can’t simply refuse to defend an international principle as crucial to humanity as the non-use of weapons of mass destruction. Nor can Obama afford to let other nations, particularly aspiring nuclear power Iran, conclude that his aversion to intervening in Middle East conflicts renders his red lines into transparent bluffs instead of trip wires signaling an inevitable U.S. military response. And so, he has become the reluctant warrior, compelled to arms lest he squander all credibility and influence in the Middle East, telegraphing before the first cruise missile is fired that he does not intend to weaken Assad’s ability or resolve to remain in power or convince Assad’s allies that they might have overplayed their hand.

Military intervention in Syria was never an easy call. But it seems indisputable now that by recoiling from the requisite risks, Obama let the situation become much worse and his own options narrower. They won’t get any easier if Assad and his allies conclude that Obama has chosen to minimize his response in order to preserve their current advantage in the conflict. The Syrian mass murderer won’t be the only person to suspect that the president believes American interests are best served by a stalemate that perpetuates the conflict and makes future atrocities almost certain.

If Assad believes the U.S. is more worried about who succeeds him than the escalating death and destruction his continuation in power requires, he will ignore the message the president intends to send him. If Assad concludes that his survival depends on it, he will use chemical weapons again, knowing he can afford to pay the limited price the U.S. is prepared to exact from him for his inhumanity. There is one encouraging aspect of Obama’s decision. He has decided to act without the permission of the U.N. Security Council, which is and will remain blocked from effective action by a veto-wielding Russia. So, he has, for the moment at least, suspended his years-long effort to appeal to the better angels of Vladimir Putin’s nature. Thank God for that.

Putin doesn’t have any better angels attending his conscience. His nature is the bully’s, controlled by his resentments and insecurities, his reckless blustering, his hostility to American interests and utter indifference to our values. He is our adversary and will remain so for as long as he is in power. It’s long past time to treat him as such, and to stop waiting for him to transform into a responsible, prudent world leader.

The only possible path out of the spreading conflagration that is the Syrian civil war is a negotiated settlement that includes Assad’s exit but personal survival, a cessation of hostilities and an international peacekeeping force sufficient to prevent post-Assad Syria from continuing its descent into a sectarian bloodbath and to compel the departure of foreign fighters.

All that might not be possible to achieve at this point, but there is no other course that doesn’t threaten our vital interests and defining values. It would require aggressive U.S. diplomacy that seeks to circumvent, not placate, bad actors such as Russia and Iran. And it will require military intervention that does indeed change the current balance of power in Syria and convinces Assad and other regime leaders that their lives depend on leaving the country they have turned into hell on earth. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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