Atlantic Council
August 27, 2013
Secretary of State John Kerry’s August 26, 2013 statement on Syria was powerful and direct. In the absence of a diplomatic deus ex machina it clearly indicates that an American military strike is coming. Before it does, however, President Barack Obama will have to address the citizenry. He would do well to bring to bear the passion and conviction demonstrated by Kerry.

Neither the president nor his secretary of state has been looking for an excuse to strike the Assad regime militarily. On the contrary: the president even resisted authorizing lethal assistance to the mainstream Syrian armed opposition for as long as he could, and Kerry took the risk of leading with his chin in seeking Moscow’s cooperation in a Geneva peace conference attractive neither to the regime nor its opponents. Only days ago, the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia would have placed sizeable bets that nothing—absolutely nothing—would induce the United States to consider kinetic action in Syria. It took a brazen, frontal assault by the Assad regime on President Obama and the credibility of the United States to turn this situation upside down. It can safely be said that absent absolute certainty about the regime’s culpability in mass slaughter through the medium of chemical weaponry this administration would not be seriously considering military options.

Indeed, if there is anything with which fault can be found in Kerry’s remarkable statement it is with the following sentence: “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.” Such slaughter is, in fact, morally obscene and criminal irrespective of the weaponry employed. For months on end the Assad regime has been massacring the innocent with artillery, rockets, missiles, and aircraft in populated areas beyond its physical control. It has used rifles, pistols, bayonets, and knives where it has been able physically to set upon the defenseless. A tiny fraction of those murdered by this regime is accounted for by chemicals. This moral obscenity was in full swing when the president turned aside recommendations to arm vetted Syrian rebels in July 2012. It continued month after bloody month while administration spokespeople warned against militarizing the conflict and then, in self-fulfilling irony, pointed with alarm to the relative weakening of mainstream rebels, thoroughly out-gunned by jihadists swimming in private Gulf money.

The moral obscenity that is Syria is, in short, nothing new. What is new is that the head of the Assad-Makhluf clan, trying to preserve all or part of Syria as a family business, tried, for whatever reason, to humiliate the President of the United States and destroy his credibility, both in the region and beyond. That he believed he could get away with it seems, on the basis of Kerry’s statement, to have been a major and perhaps fatal miscalculation. And yet he may still get away with it.

No doubt the administration is examining a wide range of military options. The range likely starts on one end with one or several symbolic cruise missile strikes, perhaps directed at facilities associated with chemical weaponry. If a check-the-box option of this nature is executed, one may expect Assad to announce to the world that he has faced-down the United States: an argument that might be hard for objective observers to dismiss. The other end of the spectrum might involve a sustained campaign of several days aimed at destroying or significantly degrading the ability of the regime to bring massed fires—regardless of their nature—against civilian populations. Such a campaign might also include cruise missile strikes on key regime political and military nodes. Neutralization of regime artillery, rockets, aircraft, and missiles, along with associated support facilities, would bring relief to those suffering directly and indirectly from the ongoing moral obscenity: Syrians being randomly slaughtered, and American allies and friends in the region being swamped with traumatized refugees and various destabilizing forms of political spillover.

No military operation will be pristine or surgical. Surely civilians will be killed and injured: not with the intent and efficiency of a regime deeply into war crimes and crimes against humanity according to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and certainly not in numbers approaching the most routine of regime daily depredations. Neither will such an operation likely be militarily decisive, as General Martin Dempsey constantly warns. The mission (even at the far end of the spectrum) would be limited: destroy or seriously degrade the ability of the regime to bring massed fires to bear against civilian populations. When the mission is accomplished the operation would end. Would it, as Dempsey warned in his August 19, 2013 letter to Representative Eliot Engel, “commit us decisively to the conflict?” On the one hand it is the responsibility of the Syrian opposition, whose mainstream elements are now presumably receiving significant US lethal assistance, to own and win the Syrian revolution. Yet the United States is not a disinterested bystander. Two years ago, the President of the United States said that Bashar al-Assad should step aside. If that is not a decisive commitment by General Dempsey’s boss, it is hard to imagine what one might look like.

Kerry spoke eloquently about regime attempts at cover-up and the certainty of regime responsibility for the most recent chemical atrocity. This should not be regarded as mere rhetoric. No one—not even Vladimir Putin—could reasonably accuse this administration of looking for an excuse to put steel on the target in Syria. Were there any doubt at all with respect to culpability and accountability this administration would likely defer indefinitely any notion of military action. To suggest that the Obama administration is seizing with alacrity on something dubious to do what it has been yearning to do is to misunderstand and misrepresent everything of importance in the administration’s Syria policy.

Indeed, the administration would still likely welcome a diplomatic deus ex machina. At this point only a regime unilateral ceasefire followed by the rapid deescalatory steps called for by Kofi Annan long ago in his six-point plan could conceivably head-off a military operation. Such a step would also pave the way for a productive Geneva conference. The chances of the regime seizing such an opportunity are presumably nil.

Kerry’s statement is a powerful indicator that military action is coming. If, when it comes, it is perceived in the region or beyond as symbolic and weak, it will be worse than doing nothing. Doing nothing would at least have the merit of keeping alive hope (and fear) that something significant is under serious consideration. Merely checking the box will only aggravate the credibility problem Assad is trying to render terminal. Although it is a pity that it took chemical weaponry for the administration to perceive a moral obscenity and an obligation to act, the Syrian people and their neighbors will nevertheless welcome action that gives the perpetrators a strong dose of what they have been dishing out.

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