Obama Navigating Syria Trap

The current situation in Syria may be best described as a dangerous series of historical traps, from which it may be difficult for any political interest to extricate itself. There is a foundational preference for avoiding “entangling relationships” in the division of powers of the American constitutional system, but the US is being asked, by history and by the world, to render a verdict on the moral tolerability of Assad’s behavior.

How Pres. Barack Obama navigates the many traps and pitfalls thrown together by history in the Syrian conflict will have serious consequences for millions of people from many different countries. Domestically, Obama finds himself in a shocking and terrible political bind: the same forces that pushed for war in Iraq, to look for phantom WMD, now oppose action in Syria, where WMD are actively being deployed against civilians.

To make matters worse, Obama finds himself isolated by both domestic and international politics, in what can easily be described as unfair conditions. World powers that abhor the use of chemical weapons in any conflict, now stand ready to refuse cooperation; regimes that attack their own citizens, openly oppose action; and many in the US Congress, from both parties, are accusing the president of “abdicating responsibility” for seeking Constitutionally mandated Congressional authorization for staging a war effort.

One might argue some of those elected officials would have preferred not to be asked to weigh in on this stickiest of complicated issues.

Obama has moved forward and has not declined to bring the issue to any forum, despite the tremendous risk of embarrassment or loss of political capital. It appears there is credible evidence that the Syrian regime used deadly nerve agents, supported by military hardware, against innocent civilians. At least 400 children and 1,400 civilians total, were killed in the attack.

But the opposition to Assad’s regime is diverse and loose-knit. There are rivalries among armed opposition groups that might be as intense as their opposition to Assad. Numerous governments have confirmed to major press outlets that al Qaeda-linked groups are aiding certain radical segments of the opposition. No government wants to be linked to them.

Unbelievably, in the US Congress, there are members of both parties who seem willing to characterize the use of US war ships, at a distance, drones or air power, against Assad’s regime as an almost direct offer of assistance to al Qaeda. What, one must ask, of the rights of the innocent civilians gased or bombed by Assad? Should we assume that because some radical militants set foot on their soil, they have no right to recourse against such tyrannical abuse?

The truth is: it is not possible to know what will happen in Syria, but that is not what the British Parliament or the US Congress have been asked to consider. The US Congress is being asked to weigh the merits of a legal argument: did Assad violate one of the most fundamental underpinnings of international law—the prohibition against any and all use of chemical or biological weapons—and if so, is Pres. Obama empowered, as commander-in-chief, to respond?

Few lawmakers have been willing to make the most uncomfortable statements in public: that failure to act against Assad will as a matter of fact, subject US military personnel, and possibly civilians, to increased risk of chemical weapons attack in the future. Where in 2003, the proof to substantiate the case for the Iraq invasion was sparse and highly questionable, in 2013, the very nations that got it wrong in 2003 now propose to ignore concrete evidence of war crimes.

For political expediency? From lack of comprehension of the role they play in the sweep of history? Because they are afraid of the risks?

It has been well established that Syria could disintegrate, if there is no credible moderate mainstream opposition to replace Assad. Some hawks in Israel, who normally oppose Assad and decry his many abuses and sometimes naked threats, now worry that he might be the only one strong enough to keep the troubled nation together.

There is serious disagreement in London, in Paris, in Washington, in Tel Aviv, and in the Arabic-speaking world, about what must be done. Assad’s crimes cannot be allowed to stand, but if the worst-case scenario comes to pass, there is concern his weapons might fall into even more dangerous hands.

Without taking sides, it is necessary to say that Pres. Obama’s position is unenviable. If he acts, he might be doing so without UN or NATO approval; if he does not act, he might be seen as weak and unable to follow through on his pledge of serious consequences… in that case, he will be decried at home as “soft on security”. It is possible that just as he succeeds in rescuing the US military, and the federal budget, from the twin debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, he will be committing the US to a costly, unpopular, strategically dangerous war in Syria.

In the interests of humanity, of democracy, of fairness, and of peace, people everywhere need to urge their governments to 1) demand and focus on truth in Syria; 2) demand that all nations join together in a unified response to unacceptable crimes; 3) that Syria be provided with a credible, defensible, viable path to stability, so that the many risks inherent in the current crisis not put down roots or expand outward.

UPDATE: Late this afternoon, leaders in both parties, in both houses of the Congress, publicly expressed support for Pres. Obama’s initiative to respond militarily to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in Damascus. A resolution is to be introduced in the Senate, through the Foreign Relations Committee, for a vote, possibly by Wednesday.

UPDATE: Wed., Sept. 4, 2013: Today, a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the resolution for a limited use of force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in Syria. The approval means the resolution will now go to the full Senate for a vote. There is no indication at this point that there will be a filibuster, but members of both parties have expressed objections, based on questions of available intelligence and cost.

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