Obama’s local, international obstacles on Syria

Walid Jawad

Published: Updated:

All indications point to an imminent U.S. tomahawk volley attack on Syria lasting for a couple of days. Such a strike doesn’t have a declared military objective. Rather, it is designed to punish the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons. It appears that Damascus was getting bolder in widening the scope of its use of chemical weapons every time a reported attack went unchallenged by the international community during the course of this year. International tolerance has finally run out with Assad’s presumed latest chemical attack causing the death of over 350 people and the victimization of over 1,500 just outside of Damascus on August 21.

The Syrian regime’s blatant use of chemical weapons against its own people and the ensuing global outrage has put the American administration in a bind; giving Obama no option but to stand up to the Syrian regime in an effort to preserve the U.S.’s global role and prestige despite Americans’ disinterest in engaging Assad militarily. Americans ask, “Why should the U.S. partake in Syria?” Most can’t understand why is it necessary for the U.S. to jump into the muddy waters of the Syrian civil war and potentially get mired along the way.

With the losses in Iraq fresh in their minds, average Americans are weary of the U.S. government’s plans to commit national resources to a military intervention in Syria, all the while taxpayers are dealing with the effects of budget sequestration. As far as most Americans are concerned this is not a moral question; it is a choice between the personal well being of American citizens vs. an expensive overseas show of force lacking a clear objective. The American public has a long history of going along with and even supporting the various administrations as different U.S. presidents took the country to war only to be disappointed and enraged by the loss of American lives all while resulting in little outcome. Iraq and Afghanistan are merely the latest examples.

Americans on Syria

Americans ask, “Why should the U.S. partake in Syria?” Most can’t understand why is it necessary for the U.S. to jump into the muddy waters of the Syrian civil war and potentially get mired along the way.

Walid Jawad

All things being equal, Americans expect, at a minimum, to be enlightened about a number of things before committing the nation to any military intervention and rightly so. What is the desired and expected outcome, the strategy for achieving the stated objectives, what is the time commitment needed in order to achieve its goals, how much will it cost, what kind of exit strategy is in place, and whether the gains will justify the means. The stated outcome from the imminent strike against Syria is a punitive one targeting the Assad regime, when and if Obama makes the decision to use force against Syrian targets. You will be hard pressed to find clear answers to the rest of the questions.

Obama implied on Wednesday that the military options he is looking at are limited in scope and designed to prevent the country from engaging in a drawn out war like the Iraq war. Obama described it as “a shot across the bow,” which leads us to believe that it’s going to be a swift engagement. We can safely assume that this “shot across the bow” will target Syria’s military installations in hopes “the Assad regime would have received a very strong signal to better not do it again” according to Obama, making it a short lived military strike with limited risks that will end the same way it starts; suddenly and without much of a diplomatic effort.

In essence, Obama wants to teach Assad a lesson, which he explained as such: “we want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you are also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected and that needs to stop.” Although about half of all Americans would support limited missile strike against government forces so long that it doesn’t endanger American lives, less than 3 out of every 10 Americans support a wider intervention in Syria.

Congressional OK

A number of Republicans and Democrats have signed a letter stating that the White House is obligated to get Congressional authorization before deploying a military strike. Although Congress is enjoying a summer recess, Obama can convene both chambers to ask for the green light. The American President does not have the constitutional authority to launch a military campaign without congressional approval unless it was necessary to protect the nation from an imminent threat.

Getting congressional authority is not an easy hurdle to overcome despite calls by many of its members for a firm stance on Syria’s use of deadly chemical weapons. House speaker, John Boehner, pressed the Obama administration for answers on the wisdom of the military attack and possible fallout signaling a tough road ahead for the Obama administration to secure the authority to commit the U.S. to a military action.

Global support

Washington has a number of options to circumvent public discomfort for the use of the military option in Syria and the same goes for congress; which will eventually free Obama’s hand to make the decision to strike against the Assad regime. The situation is much more challenging as the Obama administration seeks Global support for its anticipated attack. The U.N. option is out of reach due to Russian and Chinese opposition to any resolution that would effectively weaken the Assad regime; veto power most probably will be exercised. So, the U.N. Security Council will not provide the sought after international cover.

A coalition of the willing would be a viable alternative to U.N. support, but such a coalition doesn’t exist. The British Parliament has defeated Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposed resolution to approve military action, the U.S. has only France left for support, which doesn’t bode well for the efforts to put together an International coalition. Further, the Arab League conveniently sidestepped the situation all together by avoiding calling for or publically supporting a military intervention. The Arab League is the most significant body outside of the U.N. that would give legitimacy for the use of force against the Syrian regime.

The Arab League cannot feign ignorance by pretending not to see the situation in Syria. They, like the rest of the international community, have a moral responsibility toward the Syrian people that demands putting aside their own differences. Supporting competing rebel groups within Syria for the narrow interest of individual Arab States is to play a very risky regional game on Syrian soil. Nevertheless, the status quo is unsustainable; something will have to give. In this case Iran and al-Qaeda are in the running for the win.

What will the U.S. do?

Despite the tough place Obama finds himself in, as he reluctantly accepts the responsibility to lead a punitive militarily attack against the Assad regime, he is left out in the open without much support or international cover. It is too late for the White House to back track at this point. The U.S. will, and is obligated to, act on its promise to punish the Assad regime sooner rather than later.

The Arab world has to take heed, especially countries that have yet to enjoy the transformative effects of the Arab Spring, that they are missing out on an opportunity to stay relevant; particularly considering that U.S. reliance on petroleum imports is diminishing as its own energy production and exports are rising. The equation is changing for the U.S. in the Middle East and thus it will inevitably change the nature of the current rapport with each of the region’s players.

Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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