President Obama and U.S. allies like France and Britain appear quite close to launching some kind of military strike against the Assad regime in Syria. The stream of graphic reports of a chemical weapons attack that killed over a thousand last week east of Damascus revitalized what had been sagging international focus on the 2-year-old civil war, the “redline” Obama laid down a year ago for intervention finally crossed in a way no one — not even the White House — could effectively dispute. Now, with the American anti-war “movement” a shadow of its former self, Obama is poised to launch a limited Libya-style incursion despite broad public disapproval of such a project. And thanks to robust war powers granted the executive, he won’t need much in the way of Congressional approval, at least not for the first 60 days of action. But what we still don’t know is how significant an appetite the White House or its partners have for day-to-day intervention, or whether this is simply about symbolism and casting about to burnish a dented American brand in the region.
Soon after Obama took office, his first major speech abroad in Cairo was a signal that dialogue should commence between the West and the Muslim world. But with the exception of allied success in ousting the Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011, Western military intervention over the last few years has been known to the region as a brute force that employs despised war machines like unmanned aerial drones and ignites sectarian conflict rather than some kind of humanitarian savior. As Jeffrey Goldberg and many other astute observers of the Middle East have quickly pointed out about the prospect of limited air strikes, they’re unlikely to change the dynamics of power on the ground, in contrast to the Libyan scenario, where they quickly shifted the balance in favor of the rebels. As long as Assad has support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, he is unlikely to buckle in the face of a few strikes on his military outposts and installations. And damaging or even completely compromising his ability to use chemical weapons will not stop Assad from carrying on the slaughter of Sunni insurgents with more conventional arms, which has been his preferred means of containment anyway.
Throw in the possibility that limited intervention might actually inflame the situation by inspiring Hezbollah to expand its commitment of forces to saving Assad — or perhaps encouraging another Islamist group like Hamas to strike Israel — and we have the makings for quite a disaster here. All, it seems, in the name of proving the “redline” was more than mere rhetoric. It’s hard not to see this as a bet that the current popular disapproval of such an action will pale in comparison to the laurels it will add to the humanitarian legacy Obama seems set on building (with some prodding from the Saudi monarchy behind the scenes, of course)
It may well work — for Obama, if not for Syria.