Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Obama’s policy toward the Syrian Civil War has been to escalate U.S. support for the Syrian rebels in Friedman units, unless it’s an election year. By December of 2012, it seems that Obama’s policy toward Syria was to keep it in a perpetual state of civil war. It appears to me that the rumors of a missile strike on Syrian regime targets that began on August 26, 2013 as a result of War Hawk John Kerry’s remarks to the press and as a result of movement of U.S. warships into the Eastern Mediterranean and as a result of Obama’s recent remarks today are not the result of any coherent strategy that Obama has, but, rather, a coincidental, and potentially catastrophic unintended agreement between Obama’s policy of escalating support for the Syrian rebels in Friedman Units while keeping the regime largely intact, and the War Hawks’ intentions to end the war by taking actions that would lead to the fall of the Assad regime and an eventual victory for the supposedly “more moderate elements” of the Syrian opposition. Thus, the rumors of a U.S. missile strike on Syria that began in late August are not the result of a single coherent strategy, but of two mutually contradictory strategies being accidentally compatible due to a potential inner contradiction in Obama’s strategy.
Obama’s strategy since the beginning of the Syrian uprising has been to escalate support for the Syrian opposition in Friedman units (for my source on the summary of U.S. sanctions on the Syrian regime, see here), except during election season. At first (March 27, 2011), Obama’s Secretary of State considered the possibility that Assad might be a reformer. On April 29, 2011, Obama signed Executive Order 13572, which imposed sanctions on several Syrian government figures. On May 18, 2011, Obama signed Executive Order 13573, sanctioning Bashar al-Assad and senior Syrian regime officials. On August 17, 2011, Obama signed Executive Order 13582, imposing full blocking on all property and interests in property of the Government of Syria. Obama followed the Executive Order with a call for Assad to resign. Further sanctions were authorized by Obama on April 22 and May 1, 2012 on those cooperating with the Syrian regime.
On December 12, 2012, Obama recognized the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people”. In February of 2013, the U.S. began sending nonlethal aid directly to rebel groups. On June 12, 2013, a little over a week after the regime’s decisive victory at Qusayr, the Obama administration lifted some sanctions on rebel-held territory. One day later, overt and direct lethal aid was announced to be sent to Syrian rebel militias by the U.S.
The window of opportunity on Western ability to control the uprising ended on March 6, 2013, when al-Qaeda forced the last regime troops out of ar-Raqqa. Yet, the Obama administration did not conduct an attack on Syria then. Neither did Obama take any actions that would lead to the sure fall of the Assad regime, such as his 2011 actions that led to the sure fall of the Gaddafi regime. Thus, by June of 2013, it seemed to me that the Obama administration had a perfectly sane and perfectly cruel policy on Syria-to keep the war going for as long as possible. This policy had numerous advantages to American interests-it kept the war focused on a few strategic fronts (Damascus, Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor, and the region of Idlib), it kept the terrorists in Syria and, consequently, outside of Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and it kept Iran and Hezbollah busy and exhausted. Any decisive action in favor of regime change would lead to Hezbollah and Iran withdrawing from the conflict and al-Qaeda in Syria to come into direct conflict with American interests.
However, it appears to me that in August, the contradiction inherent in Obama’s policy toward Syria finally caught up with him. That contradiction is that a policy of gradual escalation in support for the rebels and a policy of support for perpetual war may lead to the escalation in support becoming so great as to lead to an end to the perpetuity of the war.
In July of 2013, Christopher Harmer, a War Hawk, detailed how America could significantly degrade Syrian Air Force military capability using missiles launched from U.S. warships. This was apparently in response to the regime’s victorious advances in the cities of Homs and Hamath and its continuation of consolidation of its territory in central Syria and Daraa province. Harmer was later alarmed by Obama administration officials’ seeming lack of strategy, though he agreed with Obama’s implied conclusion that strikes on regime chemical weapons facilities would be better than allowing chemical weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah.
The idea that “Obama wants to strike Syria to avoid looking weak” apparently comes from Obama’s “we’re thinking of striking to deter the regime from using chemical weapons to prevent regime chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands” (not a direct quote) rhetoric in his interview with PBS news hour. This is basically a repeat of Obama’s remarks on August 20 of 2012, in which Obama said that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the U.S. However, firstly, it is unlikely that Obama wants to strike Syria. Secondly, striking the sick man of the Orient while being the most powerful man in the world does not make the most powerful man in the world look strong- it makes him responsible for all the events resulting from the strike. And imagine the appearance of weakness that Obama would give off once the Assad regime continues on largely unaffected or al-Qaeda makes vast gains in Syria or, worse, spreads its military activities into Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon? Does anyone remember how weak Obama looked nearly a year ago when he couldn’t even save an ambassador from an indirect result of his 2011 policy on regime change in Libya?
For the War Hawks, a strike on Syria is the first step toward regime change. For Obama, a strike on Syria is most likely merely a concession made to the War Hawks in his administration and, possibly, a means to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons. A short-term attack on Syria has no real purpose as part of a long-term strategy, though it is consistent with both part of Obama’s strategy toward Syria and the War Hawks’ plans of regime change. The strategic reasons and tactical objectives Obama gave in his statement on Syria today- “we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out” are remarkably vague. The best we can make of this statement is that the strike shall only be to prevent the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime by degrading the capability of the Syrian regime to store, produce, transport, and use chemical weapons, as though the U.S. thinks chemical weapons are the equivalent of AIDS or Ebola. I don’t think the supposed use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is the main reason for why Obama has placed his support behind an attack on Syria, as Obama’s statements on the U.N. inspection- “While the U.N. investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted.” and “I’m confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors.” are ambiguous.
Which strategy will prevail? That of Obama or that of the War Hawks? For that, we have to wait and see. Even if Obama orders an attack on Syria, there is still a chance that the attack(s) will only be temporary, and that Obama’s apparent plan of continuing to keep the Assad regime besieged, but intact, will remain in operation.
I think that once the events leading up to Obama’s decision to support a strike on Syria are finally released to the public, we shall see that Obama was one of the most reluctant members of his administration to support a strike on Syria and that he accepted giving his approval of a strike only very reluctantly, and only on late August 30 or early on August 31, under significant pressure of such War Hawks as John Kerry and Samantha Power. I think Obama will be found to have accepted the stance that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons rather early on. I also think that it will be found that Obama did not think that a strike to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons facilities would be a good idea until August 30 or 31 due to the risk of Syrian regime retaliation, the lack of long-term strategic warrant for this attack, the risk of the Syrian regime being seriously hurt by the strike, or (unlikely) due to the strike making no impression on Assad.
I wrote the bulk of this post on August 30. It seems that my theory is paying rent-Obama has decided to bend to the demands of the War Hawks, but is trying as best as he can to prevent himself from ordering a strike by deciding to seek the approval of the ever-uncooperative Congress. Even I only placed a roughly 20% probability on Obama’s throwing such an important decision to Congress.
UPDATE (Sept. 1): It appears that even Obama did not seriously consider something as unnecessary as throwing the matter to Congress until late August 30. Obama’s National Security Council was befuddled by Obama’s decision to seek the approval of Congress.
UPDATE (Sept. 3): I’ve finally thought of a strategic reason for an attack on Syria “designed to be limited in duration and scope”, though it has nothing to do with the U.S.’s long-term strategy toward Syria: the Ledeen Doctrine.