The Syrian Pause Leads to a More Dangerous World

President Obama has now turned the world’s attention to diplomatic efforts focused on requiring Assad and the Syrian military to hand over all of its chemical weapons to international control for “ultimate destruction,” as the President stated.  As these activities continue to play out over the next days and weeks, a few strategic outcomes already appear likely.

First, if they don’t overplay their hand, the Russians and Syrians have outsmarted the United States.  Assad, who previously feared for his very survival on the receiving end of a punishing U.S. military campaign, now gets another lease on life and, in all likelihood, to remain in power.

Second, just a few days ago, Assad feared that U.S. strikes to deter further chemical weapons use also would significantly degrade his military capacity, thereby threatening to change the balance of power in the Syrian civil war.  For that reason, Assad used the gift of time provided by Obama’s decision to seek Congressional authorization to move military units into civilian neighborhoods, and to move civilians to military sites.  Now, Assad can rest easy knowing that his military will remain intact, free to continue killing roughly 5,000 Syrians per month.  The moderate Syrian rebel groups, who previously were counting on U.S. strikes as a prelude to renewed military offensives against the Assad regime, now once again must fend for themselves, their morale undoubtedly battered by another letdown from their would-be patron.

Third, there is no doubt that as you read this, the Syrian military is busy planning to move and hide some portion of its chemical weapons stocks to keep them out of any UN-imposed regimes that would secure the weapons and hand them over to international control.  Thus, Assad will retain a chemical weapons arsenal to use another day, once the international community has turned its attention elsewhere.

Finally, and most importantly, close U.S. allies and partners in dangerous regions around the world—South Korea and Japan in the Asia-Pacific, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in the Persian Gulf—and the WMD-armed adversaries who threaten them, all have drawn lessons from the U.S. backing down from militarily enforcing the publicly drawn red-line announced by the President of the United States last year.  Close U.S. allies, already alarmed by unprecedented U.S. defense budget cuts and the general drumbeat of U.S. military withdrawal that is a hallmark of President Obama’s policy, were reminded that they, too, may have to fend for themselves, despite defense treaty commitments with the United States.  If these trends continue, would South Korea develop nuclear weapons, uncertain that the United States would come to their aid in the event of an attack by the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom in North Korea?

And what about Iran?  What is the most likely lesson that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, will draw from this episode?  That Obama means what he says when he declared an Iranian nuclear weapons capability “unacceptable”?  Or, much more likely, that this President, and this Congress, would never have the resolve to use force against Iran to compel it to terminate its nuclear weapons development program?  Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-rival, already concerned about the absence of U.S. leadership in its dangerous region, now may feel compelled to make preparations to acquire its own nuclear weapons arsenal once it is clear that Iran has one.

In short, the outcome that parties on all sides of the Syrian chemical weapons issue may claim as a tactical victory, likely will lead to a much more dangerous world.

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