The Obama Administration has been moving very slowly on the Syrian chemical weapons issue. Caution is in order, because the President’s credibility is on the line.
President Obama has repeatedly warned Bashar al-Assad’s regime not to use its huge chemical weapons arsenal. In a December speech he proclaimed, “The use of chemical weapons [by the Assad regime] is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
Since then, as reports mounted that chemical weapons were being used, the President softened his position. The President also set a high bar for gathering evidence, mentioning that the U.S. had to establish a chain of custody for the evidence and that “I’ve got to make sure that I’ve got the facts.”
The Obama Administration may be buying time to show that it gave diplomacy one last chance to succeed with Secretary of State John Kerry’s faltering attempts to convene a Syrian peace conference, which is doomed to failure as long as Assad believes he can win through the ruthless use of force.
The President may also be stalling until he gets his new national security team in place. His new National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, and new ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, are expected to push for a more assertive policy regarding Syria. They were two of the three “Valkyries” who persuaded the President to reverse course and launch a military intervention in Libya in 2011.
Now that the President has painted himself into a corner by announcing his red line on Syrian chemical weapons, it is clear that he must take action to enforce it. Otherwise, he risks undermining the credibility of his pledge to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
But a U.S. military intervention in Syria would be much more costly and risky than the Libyan intervention. Military operations to seize or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons could even make matters worse by leading Assad to conclude that he must use them or lose them.
Regardless of what he ultimately decides to do, President Obama should step up efforts to cultivate allies within the opposition on the ground inside Syria. Non-Islamist opposition forces within the Free Syrian Army would be valuable allies in helping to monitor the disposition of Assad’s chemical weapons, track their movements, and help to destroy or seize them if necessary. Such allies could also help contain and combat al-Qaeda and its allies after the fall of Assad.