One can sometimes gauge the likelihood of US military action by the intensity of the moral rhetoric of its officials. President Assad should probably worry about just what Western airpower might pluck from his hands in the coming weeks.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke this week about the “moral obscenity” of the recent chemical attack in Syria. The “world’s most heinous weapons” were used “against the world’s most vulnerable people”. No “code of morality” could justify actions which “should shock the conscience of the world”.
Of course the hypocrisy is extraordinary. The United States has apparently rediscovered the significance of the ethics and laws of war, but in Syria – not Guantanamo. The US snoops on the world’s email and does nearly nothing about a bloody coup in Egypt but tells us we should all be especially shocked about a few hundred deaths from a chemical attack in Syria.
In 1988, the US supplied Iraqi officials with the location of Iranian troops with full knowledge that the Iraqis would use the information to launch nerve gas attacks.
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Nonetheless the current debate about whether or not Western powers will punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons should be taken seriously. This would appear to be the most likely route to war in Syria for the West.
In politics, the meaning of a debate should never be taken at face value. The topic at hand frames matters in a certain way, diverting attention and masking the central issue.
One thing the Obama administration wishes to divert our attention from is its strategic incompetence. The expectation that the US would strike if Assad used chemical weapons arose from a gaffe President Obama made at a press conference in August, 2012. He used the phrase “red line” in response to a reporter’s question.
In doing so, Obama surrendered the initiative. If such weapons were used, either he would have to strike or he would look weak. He created a perverse incentive for the Syrian rebels to stage chemical attacks that appeared to be the responsibility of the regime. He also created the problem of how much was enough: just what size of chemical attack would draw a US response? “Pin prick” chemical attacks over the past year sapped the credibility of the US and its talk of red lines.
The president learned nothing from his mistake. As initial reports came in of the most recent attack, he termed it a “big event”, tying his hands tighter. The problem is that not only is Syria arguably not the US’ biggest worry in the Middle East right now, little is to be gained from US military intervention there – either for US national interests or for the ideal of preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The reason little is to be gained from intervention is the real scandal. The chemical strike in Damascus has laid bare not only Western hypocrisy but also Western powerlessness.
The most recent talk is of cruise missile strikes and the use of other stand-off weapons that do not require suppressing Syrian air defences or breaching Syrian airspace with piloted aircraft. Weapons of this kind are both accurate and destructive, but they cannot on their own deprive Syria of its chemical weapons. Moreover, no matter what targets they hit, they are unlikely to make much impression on a regime that has lost half its country in a war for survival. An additional problem is that they will have to be fired over Russian naval units off the Syrian coast.
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The West could go for a No Fly Zone. This would deprive the regime of its airpower, weakening it substantially. Such an option requires suppressing Syrian air defences, a major undertaking that would result in many Syrian civilian casualties – a problem for an intervention justified in the name of protecting civilians. While this course of action would change the balance of forces between the regime and its opponents, it would not on its own defeat the regime or deliver a positive outcome for the Syrian people.
Rather, it would hasten the devolution of the Syrian civil war into an interminable fractional struggle, one that continues to spread outside Syria’s borders and merge with other conflicts. It is unclear how such a result benefits anyone.
There is no talk of an intervention with Western troops on the ground. The usual reason given for this is that the West is tired of war, of doing so much “nation-building” abroad. Western politicians, faced with sclerotic economies and a host of social problems, cannot justify the expense.
The actual reason is that the West has been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan and would face a third defeat in Syria. Even were the West to pull out all the stops, and properly bomb, invade and occupy Syria, it would lead to an insurgency and eventual withdrawal with little to show for all the blood and expense.
Yet, doing less than invading merely fuels the creation of a bigger mess.
It is little wonder that President Obama and his secretary of state prefer to speak of high ideals and hide behind moral postures. To confront realistically the question of the future strategic relationship between the West and the world is too much to bear.
For whatever the value of Western ideals – from democracy and human rights to the laws of war – the West no longer has the capability or the will to impose them on others or even to significantly advance them. Serious strategic thinking, in the Middle East or elsewhere, begins with acceptance of this fact.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.