What was President Obama thinking in August 2012 when he declared that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria would alter his calculus and cross a red line, triggering U.S. intervention?

Did the president’s advisors comprehend that such a statement would put U.S. credibility on the line regarding a particular threat — chemical weapons — that would be extraordinarily difficult to address absent the insertion of ground forces?

NYT Quotation
of the Day

May 5, 2013

“I’m worried about the broader damage to U.S. credibility if we make a statement and then come back with lawyerly language to get around it.”

– Barry Pavel quote from Off-the-Cuff Obama Line Put U.S. in Bind on Syria

Apparently not. It was only after U.S. allies began claiming that the Syrians had used chemical weapons against their own people that the White House realized it had gotten itself into quite a pickle. The wording of the letter the White House sent last week to Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, announcing that the intelligence community had determined with “varying degrees of confidence” that Syria had used chemical weapons, was but one indication of this. A clearer sign was the statement on Friday that the United States would not permit the “systematic” use of chemical weapons, suggesting that sporadic use of such weapons might not trigger U.S. military action.

The Obama administration has backed itself into a corner: There appear to be no clear, actionable options for the United States to respond directly to Syria’s use of weapons of mass destruction, but there are three main issues it needs to confront.

First, the United States has real interests at stake in the Syrian conflict itself. As Gen. James Mattis, the head of Central Command, testified earlier this year, the removal of Assad and his replacement with a government less friendly to Iran would be the greatest setback that Tehran has faced in over two decades. The Iranian regime knows this and is doing all it can to support Assad with weapons, advisors, and funds. Moreover, with over 70,000 dead and mounting numbers of refugees — both internally displaced and crossing Syria’s borders to neighbors like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon — the United States has a serious and growing interest in preventing further mass slaughter and in helping its allies and partners shelter those fleeing the conflict.

Another, perhaps more important, issue at play is the credibility of the United States as an ally and security partner. The president of the United States declared a threshold for U.S. action in Syria that has now been crossed. To the extent that the U.S. response is perceived as lawyerly, or as a means for delaying or avoiding U.S. action in Syria, America’s reputation and its interests will suffer. Not only are potential adversaries such as Iran and North Korea watching, but competitors such as China and Russia and long-standing allies such as South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Turkey are watching too. If these nations perceive a lack of resolve on the part of the United States for dealing with security challenges, they might then be tempted to strengthen their own security in ways that are detrimental to U.S. interests. For example, Iran might be less restrained in challenging U.S. naval patrols in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese navy might be emboldened to further challenge other nations’ claims in the South China Sea. South Korea might decide to acquire its own nuclear weapons to deal with the persistent North Korean threat. The list goes on. During the Cold War, it was just such a lack of perceived U.S. credibility that contributed to the Soviet Union’s decisions to invade Hungary and Czechoslovakia and that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the United States has withdrawn from Iraq, it is in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, and many allies and partners in Europe and the Middle East believe it has reduced its traditional leadership role. The U.S. reputation for action is on the line.

Finally, the use of chemical weapons in Syria is one of many increasingly likely contingencies involving weapons of mass destruction in a failed or failing state. With nuclear weapons in the hands of an untested leader in North Korea and the possibility that instability in Pakistan could allow jihadists to gain control of the country’s growing nuclear arsenal, one would think that the United States would have developed the necessary strategy, capabilities, forces, military posture, technologies, and alliance relationships to handle such eventualities.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The Pentagon’s strong bureaucratic inclination for focusing on symmetric adversaries with large, advanced air forces and navies (e.g., China) is crowding out needed investment in these more uncomfortable, yet more likely, scenarios. Just as terrorism was discounted before the 9/11 attacks, counter-WMD contingencies now do not get the attention that they merit, especially in an age when the technologies for developing such threatening capabilities are proliferating rapidly. The political sensitivity of the Pakistan scenario also ensures that such efforts are addressed in small rooms that garner few resources. This is a case of bureaucracy and organizational culture overwhelming imagination and appropriate hedging of the defense portfolio. Secretary of Defense Hagel should make dealing with WMD in failing states a central, driving factor in the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the development of WMD-related diplomatic strategies, interagency planning, and resources should be greatly accelerated and heightened.

In Syria, the U.S. position up until now has been to provide non-lethal aid to vetted rebel groups and, essentially, to look the other way as other nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Qatar) provide more lethal forms of assistance, such as infantry arms and other military equipment. Calls for U.S. leadership to establish a no-fly zone to remove Assad’s use of air forces against rebel groups and civilians have gone unheeded.

Now, with growing evidence that Assad has crossed the U.S.-declared red line by using chemical weapons, what options does the United States have? Unfortunately, not many. First, ensuring that we know the precise locations of Syria’s massive chemical weapons inventories amidst an ongoing and dynamic civil war is an uncertain enterprise. While we likely know the locations of the larger stocks of chemical weapons in Syria, it is unlikely that we can know where all such stocks are. Second, trying to destroy the weapons from the air could cause many more casualties because the chemical agents could spread after air-delivered munitions are dropped. Finally, there is the ground option — i.e., inserting U.S. and coalition ground forces into Syria to secure the chemical weapons sites. No serious analyst would recommend such an option, because once ground forces are deployed, the United States would “own” the Syrian conflict and find itself mired in an extraordinarily complex sectarian war of uncertain duration and outcome. Any suggestion that specialized force teams can rapidly and pristinely secure all chemical weapons sites should be discounted, as the on-the-ground realities in Syria are messy, shifting, foggy, and uncertain.

So what should the United States do? Since dealing specifically with the chemical weapons threat is so difficult absent a change in the conditions on the ground, the United States should significantly expand efforts to topple Assad and encourage and enable the mainstream opposition to establish a government more beholden to Syrian civil society. The United States should lead a coalition that uses limited airpower in combination with local and regional military forces to help turn the tide in favor of the rebels. Establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone would take away Assad’s use of the air and essentially eliminate the functional capabilities of the Syrian Air Force. In combination with the provision of military equipment to vetted rebel groups, such measures could tip the balance in favor of the rebels. A quid pro quo for such assistance could be rebel assurances regarding the security of chemical weapons sites as well as, potentially, rapid turnover of such sites to military forces from other states in the region. The reasons for the Obama administration’s caution about Syria have long since gone by the wayside; it is now time to lead and to act.

Barry Pavel is director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy.

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