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December 09, 2012, Sunday

America’s Syria dilemma

Last week US President Barack Obama gave an important speech at the National Defense University in Washington and once again warned the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons against his own people will not be tolerated. As far as Washington is concerned, the use of weapons of mass destruction constitutes a red line. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages in signaling to the Syrian regime that there will be limits to America's inaction.

Obviously, Obama wants Assad to take the threat of military force seriously. Credibility is key for effective coercive diplomacy. The clear advantage of the president of the United States delivering such a speech at the National Defense University to an audience of mostly military students and personnel is that the Syrian regime now knows that there will be a very heavy price to pay for escalating the violence to a new level. The downside of warning Assad about chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is that such an approach puts the bar for American military action too high. In other words, the regime in Damascus may receive the message that “as long as I don't use chemical weapons, I'm fine.” As a result, it is very likely that the Syrian civil war will continue along its regular dynamics.

All this once again indicates that America's reluctance to take military action in Syria will continue in the absence of a major game changer, such as the use of weapons of mass destruction by the regime. Washington is unwilling to become militarily involved for at least three reasons. First, unlike in Libya, there is no UN mandate for Syria. Russia and China have opposed all the proposals at the UN Security Council. Second, there is sense that an American intervention in Syria will create a military confrontation with Iran. At a time when the Obama administration wants to have bilateral talks with Tehran on its nuclear issue, the last thing Washington wants is to complicate this engagement with a “military confrontation by proxy” in Syria. The third reason for the American inaction is the uncertainty about the forces that are fighting against the Syrian regime. The American media is awash with stories about the growing numbers of jihadist fighters and other radicals who are now in Syria. As a result, there is a major concern that arming the Syrian opposition may end up arming these extremist forces.

In addition to these three factors one can add a final strategic concern: the fear of a civil war in a post-Assad era. Washington is intimately familiar with this scenario because of its misfortunes in Iraq. The end of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad did not pave the road for peace, democracy and stability. On the contrary, what ensued was a bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. The fact that the United States had 150,000 soldiers on the ground did not stop the Iraqi civil war between 2003 and 2006. Why should a post-Assad period in Syria be any different? Under such circumstances it makes no sense for the White House to get involved.

America's dilemma is clear: Intervention will not solve Syria's problems but non-intervention is also making things worse. The longer the status quo in Syria continues the more jihadist infiltrations will occur. Similarly, the longer this phase of war continues the more sectarian anger will build until the post-Assad civil war phase when revenge killings will undoubtedly become the norm. America seems to have adopted a position of strategic patience in Syria. This means things will have to get much worse before they can get better.

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