After Obama’s red line of chemical weapons has been crossed, what now for the U.S. in Syria?

By Jack Thompson

The reports coming in yesterday morning of a chemical attack outside Damascus remind us that the Syrian Civil War is entering a dangerous phase, one not likely to be resolved internally. But what routes can international actors, most notably the United States, take to resolve the crisis?

Now might be a good time to look at President Obama’s options, and what is holding his administration back.

For a long time now, Obama has explained that chemical weapon use in Syria would be a ‘game changer’, yet since the first reports of their use, the US has remained on the sidelines, offering humanitarian aid, but unwilling to step up and engage against the Assad regime. Various ideas are floated around, with those favouring a drawn back approach advocating logistical support and supplying weapons to the rebels, whereas defence hawks, like John McCain (R-Arizona) pushing for a full intervention.

One of the proposed plans involves arming the rebels. There are fears that supporting the opposition could be problematic in the long term. Past ‘freedom fighters’ that have been supported by the US include Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. It would be unwise to strengthen groups that will eventually turn on the West. And it’s not a case of just promising to arm the official leaders, because the major rebel groups are in fact umbrella organisations consisting of various organisations and militias. The varied nature of these groups makes controlling the proliferation of weapons extremely difficult, especially when rebel leaders openly offer to share weaponry and resources with extremist groups.

When it comes to a full intervention however, there are a number of reasons we can attribute to the lack of action. First off, we cannot doubt the Obama administration’s willingness to use force, as seen through its liberal use of drones across countries like Qatar. However, Obama has been very reluctant to use any real intervention policy ever since he won the presidency. US involvement in the Libyan Civil War was drawn back, and part of a wider international coalition. Rhetorical support was offered during the Arab Spring, but by and large the US kept a wide berth. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the administration has done its best to avoid definitive statements that would land them with a military intervention. Why?

Iraq.

The spectre of Iraq looms over the Obama administration, much like Vietnam did with Jimmy Carter. It’s not hard to see why: a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives later there is destabilised region and vast anti-American sentiment, both in the Middle East, and amongst the US’s allies.

Obama wants to avoid his Iraq, for a number of reasons. Firstly, he ran his first election as the ‘anti-Bush’; putting an end to illegal wars that damaged US prospects abroad. He spent the majority of his first term blaming Bush for the state of the country’s finances, for the diplomatic fallout of his policies, for the costly and failed war. To then turn around and intervene in a Middle East country that would likely bog down American troops for years to come would seem like a u-turn for the President. Of course, Syria is not Iraq, but comparisons can be made.

There are also financial arguments to be made. They may not be the most ethical ones to make alongside the daily deaths of Syrian civilians, but on the back of a recession, policymakers have a duty to manage the books. As Republican’s fight to balance the books, it seems unlikely that Obama will commit to another billion dollar conflict, as the money would likely come out of spending cuts at home, and potentially even derail his flagship policy, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which he is battling a hostile congress to get funded. Extensive military action could not come at a worse time for the US economy.

There’s also the legal argument. Iraq was a coalition of a few nations that used questionable evidence to circumvent international law and invade another country. Returning to the idea that Obama is trying to fix the damage done by Bush, it is most likely he would prefer a course of action that is approved by the UN and the rest of the international community, and one that includes a vast amount of participants, where the US is not simply the major player with a few states assisting. However, with Russian and Chinese opposition on the Security Council to any major involvement by the UN, this issue is likely to be moot for the foreseeable future.

Obama is limited by the past, the present and the future. The Iraq syndrome that affects his administration is crippling any productive action in the Middle East, while the financial state of the US means any intervention would potentially mean crippling cuts to government programmes he has been championing. And arming the rebels could have dangerous consequences for the United States in the future, and further military action could enrage other regional actors and destabilise the Middle East.

The longer the US waits, the longer it risks losing key regional allies. Yet are the financial and legal costs too high for America to continue playing the world’s policeman? Have we reached a new time of national autonomy, where international anarchy reigns freely? Are we truly alone?