President Barack Obama presented his case regarding US policy in Syria the evening of September 10, 2013. In it, he outlined his awareness of American war weariness in looking back on a decade of wartime engagement in the region, but warned against the strategic and moral dangers of doing nothing in the face of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to use chemical weapons. Ultimately, the president asked Congress to postpone the vote on the use of force in Syria until diplomatic options proposed by Russia have been fully explored. The Atlantic Council’s experts have weighed in with their views on this complex and historically significant moment in the Syrian conflict. Harir Center experts Ambassador Frederic Hof and Faysal Itani’s views are presented below. For additional views expressed by Atlantic Council experts, click here.
senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as ambassador in connection with his duties as special advisor for transition in Syria for the US State Department. , Fred Hof In his Syria speech to the nation, President Obama may have artfully recovered some of the freedom of action he gratuitously and even impetuously yielded to Congress. By so doing, he may have finessed the demand of Russia’s Putin that the United States explicitly refrain from holding the threat of military action over Syria’s head while also canceling (in the name of postponement) the possibility of a disastrously negative vote by the Congress.
The president asked Congress to postpone its vote on authorizing a military operation, so that he can check the bona fides of the “diplomatic path” offered by Russia. He reiterated that he possesses the authority, as commander-in-chief, to order military strikes, but that he “believed [note: past tense] that it was right in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security to take this debate [note: not “decision”] to Congress.” Moreover, he has “ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” It is perhaps noteworthy that the foregoing sentence did not end with the words “and if Congress grants me the authorization I have sought.”
The sentences linked together in the preceding paragraph come from different sections of the speech. Their effect, however, might be to hold over the head of Bashar Al Assad a sizable hammer that hypothetically might be dropped by the president without reference to Congress in the event that diplomacy fails. And yet the absence of a Congressional vote formally endowing the president with the authority to conduct military operations makes it somewhat more difficult for Russia’s Putin and Syria’s Assad to claim they are being asked to deliver something under military duress. Congress will, after all, postpone the authorization matter indefinitely while the president runs to ground the putative “diplomatic path.” Who could possibly object to that?
Meanwhile, the president would indeed have time to determine whether or not the Russian proposal holds water; time during which he could build on his solid speech performance in the court of public opinion and keep open the option of returning to Congress if he believes he can gain “yes” votes in both houses. Assuming, however, that the passages cited above were drafted consciously and purposefully, the president may have restored some running room for himself to act autonomously if he deems it necessary, while simultaneously deflating the ability of Putin and Assad to scream about unfair military pressure.
fellow with the Hariri Center, has commented throughout this crisis on the regional reactions. He weighs in from that perspective on President Obama’s message. , Faysal Itani
As American audiences ponder and analyze the nuances and subtleties of President Obama’s latest speech on Syria, the parties to the civil war are drawing their own conclusions.
Unlike its crude, unsophisticated handling of domestic issues, the Syrian regime has mastered a foreign policy based on reading rivals’ strengths, weaknesses, and political sensitivities – all of which were laid bare in tonight’s speech, and the clearest of which was US ambivalence towards a rebel victory against Assad. It is unlikely that the recent Russian initiative will deprive Assad of his chemical arsenal, due partly to the difficulty of the task but mostly to the duplicity of the Syrian regime, which is patient enough to outlast a feeble US commitment to punish it for using chemical weapons. But the Syrian opposition neither sought nor expected a disarmament of the regime’s chemical weapons.
What it has called for – and desperately needs – is a firm, consistent US commitment to defeating the regime, in the form of military and financial support for rebel groups. Instead, it was treated to a clear insult from a claimed ally that the US had no interest or intention to decide the war’s outcome in the opposition’s favor. The opposition must have been doubly confused by the president’s appeal to morality in support of US action – a morality he presumably does not feel justifies decisive US support for their cause of overthrowing Assad.
Tonight, both President Obama and the Syrian regime dodged a bullet, but the Syrian opposition took a point-blank hit. Seasoned observers of US politics can read any number of messages between the lines of the president’s speech. To the Syrian opposition, however, the message is clear: You’re on your own.
Image: The President spoke about the United States' response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 civilians — including more than 400 children. (Photo: White House)