President Obama appears ready to reluctantly order military strikes in Syria over the strong objections of Russia and the dire threat from Iran that “There will definitely be perilous consequences for the region. These complications and consequences will not be restricted to Syria. It will engulf the whole region.” The President has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons was a red line that would require a strong response by the US.
Vice President Joe Biden has “no doubt” that the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against their own citizens in a Damascus suburb not controlled by the Assad regime’s military. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC that there was little doubt among most U.S. allies that “the most base … international humanitarian standard was violated.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice reportedly told UN Ambassador Samantha Power that the chemical weapon evidence was “conclusive.” “Undeniable,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.
And so our military is ready to act. While I abhor the fact that chemical weapons were unleashed against Syrian citizens I am unconvinced that military action against the Assad regime is the correct response. There are three reasons for my concern.
First are my visions of Colin Powell presenting conclusive evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to the UN. While he represented an administration hell bent on war with Iraq he put his honor on the line by making that presentation. The intelligence that was provided to Powell convinced him of the truth about the case he was presenting. So statements that the CIA has verified intelligence confirming the chemical weapon attack was the work of the Syrian government provided by Israel is not at all reassuring.
Next is the question, why would Assad order such an attack? He knew that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would bring condemnation from the international community and certain military reprisal. What did Assad have to gain? And if he had nothing to gain by such an act, who did? With over 100,000 casualties in the Syrian civil war to date is it unrealistic to think one of the rebel groups might decide that another one or two thousand new deaths would be an acceptable sacrifice if it would assure outside intervention against the Syrian government ?
Finally, what happens after a US (or a US, UK and French) attack? Our rocky relations with Russia will certainly worsen. China will also strongly object. But of greater concern will be the response of Iran and other countries in the region who support Assad. In a volatile region the consequences of such action are unknown and could be far reaching. Even assuming that the intervention succeeds in removing President Assad from power, who replaces him? Is there a rebel group that is strong enough to step in and stabilize the country or will it be plunged into an even longer civil war with multiple interests struggling for power?
A chemical attack on a civilian population certainly demands a response. But the wrong response may be much worse than no response. Is it any wonder that most Americans do not support military action? Will the Obama administration’s evidence change people’s opinion? Only time will tell. I find it hard to be optimistic about the outcome of the action the US is likely to take.