With Syria, Obama keeps calm and carries on

With Syria, Obama keeps calm and carries on

Amid strong domestic opposition to US intervention, Obama doesn't feel any pressure to commit troops to the war-ravaged nation

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Barack Obama, right, speaking with Joe Biden in the Oval Office in March. (photo credit: Pete Souza/Official White House)
Barack Obama, right, speaking with Joe Biden in the Oval Office in March. (photo credit: Pete Souza/Official White House)

“I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts. That’s what the American people would expect.”

That line, drawn from President Barack Obama’s unexpected Tuesday morning press briefing, neatly encapsulates the US administration’s strategic logic regarding the Syrian civil war.

Obama has drawn a great deal of criticism over American inaction in the ongoing conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 70,000 Syrians, many of them civilians, and led to well over a million refugees fleeing their homes, and in many cases their country, to escape the carnage.

In August of last year, perhaps as a result of growing concern over the apparently tranquil American stance toward a devastating humanitarian crisis, Obama issued a stern warning to the Assad regime that the use of the regime’s infamous chemical weapons cache in the raging conflict would mark a “red line.”

“There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” Obama said in a press briefing much like that of Tuesday.

Since then, intelligence reports from Germany, France, Israel and some Syrian regime defectors have pointed to the likely use of chemical weapons on a small scale in clashes. Many in the United States and in the region are now watching carefully to see if the Obama administration’s red line is, in fact, a red line. Will he act?

It’s a peculiar position for Obama to find himself in. As Shmuel Rosner has pointed out, a president who refused to sign on to Benjamin Netanyahu’s red line on Iranian nuclear development — on the grounds that such pronouncements limit an administration’s maneuvering room — is now trapped in a red line entirely of his own making. That red line has almost certainly been crossed. Chemical weapons were used, though Obama rightly noted on Tuesday that “we still don’t know when they were used, how they were used, and who used them.”

But that uncertainty hasn’t done much to lower expectations of the administration. Now Obama must either intervene in a conflict in which, the White House believes, there are no good outcomes, or risk a dramatic show of irresoluteness in a region fraught with enemies.

The president must be feeling the pressure, the self-made trap that has no comfortable exit strategy.

Then why, besides his famously unrufflable demeanor, does the president seem wholly unperturbed? Calling the conflict “a slowly unfolding disaster for the Syrian people,” he cautioned, “It’s important for us to do this in a prudent way. We have to do everything we can to investigate and establish with some certainty what has happened in Syria.”

“Prudent,” “investigate,” “certainty.” Or to summarize, Obama is in no rush.

For one thing, the American people seem to support the president’s cautious approach. A CBS News/New York Times poll released just hours before the Tuesday briefing shows an unequivocal preference for staying out of the Syrian conflict.

Asked if the United States has a responsibility to intervene in the civil war in Syria, 62% of Americans said it does not. Just 24% said it does.

The pro-intervention figure marks a 4-point increase since a similar poll last month, but with the poll’s 3% margin of error, even that modest increase may not indicate any coming change in attitude among the American public.

Meanwhile, Obama has done a great deal short of military intervention or aid, as he took pains to note.

The US has not been “simply bystanders to what’s been happening,” he said.

“We’ve organized the international community,” he said, though critics might fairly ask: to do what? “We’re the largest humanitarian donor,” he added.

Indeed, Tuesday saw the delivery of the first shipment of humanitarian aid to Syrian rebels — some $8 million of medical supplies and additional food aid, according to CBS News.

But what about the concern of parties, such as Israel, that failure to intervene in Syria, especially after setting in his own words a “red line,” would send a profoundly dangerous message to the Iranians and other regional opponents?

The administration’s response seems to be a simple one. There are key differences between the Syrian and Iranian situations and Iran isn’t stupid enough to ignore them. Syria is undergoing a civil war that threatens to transform it into a failed state, while Iran is a regional power seeking hegemony and nuclear weapons. Syria has no dedicated US military presence meant to challenge its aggressive policies, while Iran faces a vast international military and political alliance constructed specifically to curb its nuclear ambitions. In short, at least in Washington’s view, there is no parallel between the two cases.

Foreign policy-focused pundits will likely continue to opine about Obama’s sticky situation, his self-made trap and mixed messages. But with the American public firmly behind him and no compelling strategic (as opposed to moral) advantages to be gained from intervention, the president is simply not feeling the pressure.

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