The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Obama Threatens War with Syria

In a move designed to turn up the heat on Assad, President Obama signaled he was ready to intervene in the conflict if Syrian forces use chemical or biological weapons against their own people. The Wall Street Journal has the story:

Mr. Obama, speaking at a news conference at the White House on Monday, said the U.S. was closely monitoring the situation and, although he hasn’t yet ordered military action, has “put together a range of contingency plans.”

In a blunt warning to the Syrian government, Mr. Obama promised “enormous consequences” if the U.S. detects any preparations by Mr. Assad to use chemical weapons, which are internationally banned. The use of such weapons, he said, isn’t only a worry in Syria but also to the U.S. and its close allies in the region, including Israel.

“A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moved around or being utilized,” Mr. Obama said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

U.S. presidents don’t threaten war every day, so this news is worth noting.

That “responsibility to protect” we heard so much about back in the heady days of the Libya intervention is clearly inoperative in Syria. But U.S. concerns about WMD in the Middle East remain real. The problem of WMD will grow more acute as fighting spreads and the country falls into chaos. The Obama administration could find itself sending troops into Syria to keep WMD out of the hands of Hezbollah or other terror groups.

This isn’t over yet. Unfortunately.

Published on August 21, 2012 9:12 am
  • Glenn

    I seriously doubt anyone will be sending troops to Syria. From Reuters:

    Russia warns West over Syria after Obama threats
    (Reuters) – Russia warned the West on Tuesday against unilateral action on Syria, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama threatened “enormous consequences” if his Syrian counterpart used chemical or biological arms or even moved them in a menacing way.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after meeting China’s top diplomat, said Moscow and Beijing were committed to “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law…and not to allow their violation”.

  • Jim.

    Threatening war with a country so it doesn’t use its WMD on its own people or hand them to its terrorist proxies…

    What year is this again, and what party is in the White House?

  • Sam L.

    I wonder about the “movement of chemical weapons” phrase. How would we know, how could we tell? Usage, not too difficult, but movement?

  • http://inthisdimension.com alex scipio

    If China has any guts they’ll tell Obama to go ahead, but if he intervenes China will stop buying American paper.

    This is NONE of our business.

    Now, if we want to annihilate political islam, if we want to recognize that its costs tremendously outweigh any possible benefit a return to the 7th Century brings to modernism, and get serious about the problem, rather than just feeding young men’s lives into its maw, then America ought to whole hog – as we did in WW2 where the goal was THE most important thing. But if we’re gonna just keep wasting the lives of young Americans with insane – truly – ROE and no desire to fight to win, then Obama just needs to shut up and sit down.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Sam makes an excellent point, precisely how do we know that these weapons are being moved, or that control of them is being transferred? Western intelligence services have a mixed record (at best) in terms of monitoring activities within Syria (and elsewhere), largely due to the lack of “boots on the ground”, i.e. human operatives in place. Satellites and drones/manned recon are useful, but as Iraq demonstrated, they have significant limitations, and it is difficult to imagine conclusive evidence (which is what is going to be necessary for a decision to go to war, especially given Chinese and Russian concerns) from them.

    Then of course there is the broader question of just what constitutes movement or transfer. If the rebels (a mixed bag if there ever was one) capture a chemical weapons dump, or the commander of a biowar facility switches sides, just how do we ensure that those newly ‘liberated’ weapons end up in safe hands, or even if they do, that before they are secured that there aren’t some diversions. Finally, if we see a chemical weapon attack on some civilian target, just who used the weapons? A direct order from the Syrian government? A rogue (or simply panicked) commander? Perhaps the rebels arranged this to encourage Western intervention? As a side point, how would we know that they wee being used against civilians? The rebels typically aren’t wearing uniforms, and like most insurgent movements, they hide amongst the population. so even in the event of the use of such weapons against a true rebel position (arguably a legitimate target), it would be difficult if not impossible to deterimine what the purpose of such an attack was.

    Also, given the very nature of most chemical weapons, they are tyipcally poor tactical choices for many military operations. Persistent agents (nerve gases such asSarin, Tabun, VX or blister agents such as mustard gas) tend to be used more as denial agents (they are used to deny access to an area such as an airfield or military installation), and are inefficient killers when compared to high explosives. Choking gases (Phosgene is the most obvious example, though plenty of blood agents exist as well) are far more effective as killers, but susceptible to environmental conditions and ‘finicky’ at best. My point here is that the costs of using these agents (international opprobrium far in excess of what Assad faces now, and certainly the end of any talk of amnesty or negotiated settlement…we would be deep into war crimes territory) far exceeds whatever limited tactical advantage the employment of such weapons offer. They are far, far more valuable as bargaining chips in an endgame negotiation (or as deterrents against Western intervention) than in some showy but ultimately ineffective terror strike.

    The broader point, however, is that this is another example of the callow posturing of Obama and his team of advisers. Intervention in a region where heavy casualties (civilian and military) would be almost inevitable is not something that any administration is going to engage in less than 3 months before an election, tough talk notwithstanding.

  • LarryReiser

    As much of what Obama does is for personal or political gain it is difficult to gainsay what this most egotistical of Presidents will or will not attempt in the crisis that is Syria.

  • memomachine

    So. Obama lied, people died? No blood for WMDs? I wonder if we capture these bio/chem war materials if they’ll have “Property of Iraq” on them?

  • thibaud

    Qwitcher [complaining] folks. Obama’s taken foreign policy off the table in this election.

    If, as a result of the Syrian crisis, it does come back as an issue, foreign policy will HELP this incumbent who’s already bulletproof on foreign policy.

    Remember, it was Obama who avoided overseas disasters while taking out Bin Laden and hundreds of AQ leaders with low-cost, non-invasive targeted drone attacks.

    Were Obama to make a modest, successful intervention to prevent a chem weapons massacre in Syria, his victory margin would be even larger than now seems likely.

  • gracepmc

    Lacking any evidence that Obama treats foreign policy as anything beyond ideology and self promotion odds are that he will do what Valerie Jarrett tells him to do when/if the time comes.

  • Jim Hawkins

    Obama is probably less concerned about Assad using chemical weapons against his own population than it being smuggled off and used in a terrorist attack elsewhere.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Far from taking foreign policy off the table, Obama has simply swept it under the rug, where it remains as an increasingly unsightly bulge. Now perhaps he may escape any immediate consequences for this incredibly irresponsible behavior, but when one continuously kicks a can down the road, it is likely that one will eventually run out of road. Iran’s nukes, Syria’s nascent civil war, Egypt’s long slide into Islamism, and that is just a part of the mess in the Middle East. For his sake, you had best hope that none of those cans reach the end of the road before election day….it will be an ugly experience for the [please remain respectful] if they do.

    As for using drones in Syria to accomplish anything, you apparently have very little understanding of the problems involved. Syria is not Libya, they have a well-integrated air defense network and at least some surviving air force that continues to operate. Both of these could conceivably be destroyed by a sustained air campaign (and it should be noted that both are likely to have already been significantly degraded by the ongoing civil war), but it would hardly be low-cost/low-risk, and it certainly wouldn’t be modest. Unless you get the Israelis (unbelievably stupid) or the Turks (unlikely) involved, there are significant basing issues for manned aircraft, and drones have significant payload limitations that make effective sustained attacks on hard targets problematic. This doesn’t even begin to take into account problems with target location/identification and potential post-strike assessment issues. Of course this also assumes that the Russians (who are moving some small force of Naval Infantry into the area, and might disperse some of them as human sheilds if Putin wants to be truly unpleasant) and the Chinese, to say nothing of the Iranians, don’t decide to interfere either diplomatically or in some other less pleasant fashion. None of the aforementioned takes into account the possibility of some horrible miscalculation leading the Israelis (who will be seriously freaked out by the use of release of chemical weapons a few dozen miles from their northern border) doing something regrettable.

    Then of course there is the problem of what happens if the strikes ARE successful, unlikely as that might seem. These are not safe, binary-type munitions (the way the US used to make them) in revetted bunkers, but rather they often are bulk-stored, with large quantities of highly explosive materials (like rocket boosters and explosive warheads) in very close proximity.
    A successful strike on one of these storage depots could result in a massive uncontrolled release of thousands of gallons of incredibly toxic materials into the surrounding area, killing any number of civilians. Even a ‘surgical’ strike might just kill the guards, leaving the target ripe for ‘liberation’ by the FSA or one of the other rebel groups. Keep in mind that the preferred form of delivery for these agents are missiles, either the FROG series of unguided rockets, or the SS-21/23 series of long(er) ranged missiles (essentially SCUD follow-ons), all of which have an uncomfortable tendency to explode when attacked, Soviet-era solid rocket technology not being the safest thing to hang around near in an airstrike.

    There is also the issue of what Assad would do if he saw his last useful strategic assets under attack by NATO air forces. Since right now the administration has said that it would attack if a bright line was crossed, one must already assume that Assad has used (or attemped to transfer) these weapons, and thus is fascing war-crime trials as his best case post-war scenario. In this case, why wouldn’t he simply start luanching them. Aside from any NATO airfields/support facilities, etc. in range, there is always the possibility that he would use them on the Israelis, in the hopes of drawing them into the conflict, and perhaps diverting attention from himself for a while. This does not even take into account the possibility of transferring small amounts of these agents to proxies to use in terrorism or in asymmetric attacks elsewhere in the world. Keep in mind that if Assad has biologicals available, he can do this with only a few kilograms being moved, something easily done across any of the rather porous international borders.

    So, even if the significant political, logistic, and operational issues with attacks could be overcome, and if the attacks were actually effective in destroying some portion of the existing Syria WMD stockpile, the consequences of these strikes, ranging from collateral civilian casualties to international political fallout to potential Syrian repsonses, would make such an attack highly problematic at best, and unlikely to either remove the threat of Syrian WMDs, protect civilian lives and property, or remove the Assad regime.

    So lots of risk, very little chance of any useful out come, and substantial expenditure of resources (personnel, political capital, munitions/aircraft/drones, and of course money) with no realistic chance of success. Yep, sounds like exactly the sort of thing that Obama, a fumbling tool of his even less capable advisers, would think of as a dandy idea.

    Assassinating a single individual whose location is well known and who can be isolated for the attack is one thing, destroying thousands of gallons of highly dangerous substances dispersed over a large region surrounded by military assets designed to prevent successful attack upon them is entirely a different issue.

    [Please refrain from disparaging other commenters]

  • Corlyss

    Wag the Dog.

  • Jim.

    @thibaud-

    And Kerry’s decorations were suppose to render him immune to criticism on military grounds, too.

    Expect to see the SEALs play a large role in this election… and not to Obama’s advantage.

  • john

    Oh no…. not another American intervention in the Middle East.

    But the most amusing thing (if one can call it amusing) is the hypocrisy of the liberals who voted and will vote again for their peace-loving-messiah-Barrack H. Obama!

    The liberal hypocrisy has no bounds. :-)

  • thibaud

    Dream on, Jim. Only the birthers think Obama’s soft on Al Qaeda. Bush let ObL get away; Obama nailed him.

    The nation’s top counterterrorism official for the last two decades has completely destroyed your side’s lame attempt at partisan FUD:
    http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-05-02/news/31543270_1_osama-bin-laden-counterterrorism-claims

    Richard Clarke:

    “What would be best for the country on the issue of counterterrorism is if we could somehow manage to return it to a nonpartisan matter…. voters should be advised to look carefully at claims that are made by both sides, and stick to the facts.

    “TEN FACTS THAT TELL THE TRUE STORY:

    1. The Bush administration moved assets to Iraq away from the search for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    2. In 2006, the Bush administration closed the Bin Laden unit at the CIA in a reorganization.

    3. Bush changed his rhetoric from wanting Bin Laden “dead or alive” to publicly minimizing his importance. (Mitt Romney followed this pattern, saying in 2007, “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”)

    4. In 2007, candidate Obama said he would send troops into Pakistan to get Bin Laden, unilaterally if necessary, and was criticized by leading Republicans (Romney included) for saying so.

    5. After he took office, Obama directed an increased priority be given to getting Bin Laden.

    6. The President personally participated in repeated high-level meetings on his aggressive new strategy for getting Al Qaeda and its leaders in Pakistan.

    7. Obama ordered a dramatic increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, wiping out Al Qaeda leaders and making it almost impossible for Bin Laden’s senior commanders to operate there.

    8. The President rejected cabinet members’ advice and ordered the raid that killed Bin Laden to go ahead.

    9. It was the commander-in-chief who ordered that additional helicopters be made part of the operation, a decision that turned out to be crucial.

    10. Bin Laden is dead.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Obama’s taken foreign policy off the table in this election.

    I think he failed to get permission from Bibi.

  • f1b0nacc1

    While I take great pleasure in noting that binLaden is dead, I must confess that this pleasure is driven more by a sense of justice and no small part of revenge, not by any geostrategic benefit arising from it. Aside from satisfying a general desire for revenge (one that I share), what really did we get out of the decision to pursue bin Laden, as distinct from the more general choice to pursue Al Qaeda leadership in general?

    The drone campaign against Al Qaeda leadership was hardly Obama’s idea, and its significant expansion, while tactically successful is more a result of vastly improved technology coming online since 2008 than any steely-eyed presidential decision making, however much one might like to spin things. This is not to criticize Obama for making use of the tools available, but it was hardly revolutionary, and certainly didn’t begin with him.

    As for Clarke’s comments, he has been carrying on a long bureaucratic turf fight even after being shunted aside, and is hardly a disinterested party. While legitimate disagreements about how counterterrorism should be conducted (I personally think that it should be solely a Pentagon party, but that is a very different debate), Clarke is not a particularly honest broker when it comes to this issue.

    Obama was in the White House when bin Laden was killed, and hence he gets credit for the victory. How big a victory this is, I cannot say…from the numerous leaks, we are treated to a picture of OBL as increasingly isolated and ineffective, hardly worth the effort or the damage done to our relations with other players in the area, not to mention the resources used in his assasination. The truth of the matter is that OBL was yseterday’s man, and his death, welcome news though it was, is hardly a game-changer.

    If OBL is the best that Obama can do on foreign policy, I doubt that soon-to-be President Romney will have much to worry about in terms of the act he will have to follow. Obama has already squandered much of the (deserved) credit he gained with his unseemly desire to exploit politically convenient leaks about the actual heroism on the part of SEAL team six.

  • Corlyss

    @ Tibaud
    “Obama nailed him.”

    Using intel developed under the Bush administration using methods that Obama denounced. Typical lefty: claim credit for work done by conservatives.

  • Eurydice

    @thibaud – I’m less interested in how an intervention in Syria will affect Obama’s reelection chances than I am in how it will affect our country in general. I had hoped Obama would turn around our growing indifference to a state of war (yes, I know, it was a delusion), but it seems this is going to keep dragging on regardless of who’s in the White House.

  • joseph

    Obama is a good president. If chem weapons get away from syrian hands it would get real ugly . Any terrorist goal would be Israel and US intrest. I hope we don’t have to get involved.

  • Kris

    f1b0nacc1@11: You raise valid points.

    “There is always the possibility that he would use them on the Israelis, in the hopes of drawing them into the conflict, and perhaps diverting attention from himself for a while.”

    At the cost of getting Israel’s fully focused attention. That strikes me as a Samson decision.

    Corlyss@12: “Wag the Dog.”

    How dare you insult a long-time and valued commenter such as Wi… Ah. Never mind. :-)

  • thibaud

    Jim – again, Romney is on record as repeatedly insisting that we should not have devoted resources to going after Bin Laden. Romney also voiced his strong opposition to targeted assassinations on Pakistani soil. For these foolish positions the man was strongly rebuked by then-candidate McCain and by Byron York of National Review.

    To say that this foolish and completely rudderless little man is somehow stronger on nat-sec’y than President Obama is absurd.

    Which is why you never hear Romney talking in depth about any nat-sec’y issue of consequence. He has little knowledge and even less credibility.

    Regarding the SEALs, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention.

    It was just a few weeks ago that the head of the Special Operations command, former Navy SEAL and current Admiral William McRaven, was showering praise upon President Obama and his team:

    “The president of the United States is fantastic,” Admiral McRaven said. “I’m not a political guy. I’ve worked in both [administrations,] very much enjoyed working with President Bush and I very much enjoy working for President Obama. …

    “I’m not a political guy, but I’ll tell you as an interested observer of this, they [Pres. Obama's national security team incl. DefSec Gates, JCOS CHair Adm. Mullen, Sec'y Clinton] were magnificent how they handled the start-to-finish,” McRaven said. “The president asked all the right questions…The president gave me ample time to prepare once the conversations were through.”

    http://www.politico.com/blogs/under-the-radar/2012/07/mcraven-gives-fantastic-obama-credit-for-bin-laden-130150.html

  • thibaud

    f1b – here are the facts, again:

    President Bush shut down the Bin Laden unit at CIA, and devoted nearly all his attention to his war in Iraq.

    Candidate Romney repeatedly insisted in 2007-2008 that it was wrong to devote substantial resources to finding and killing Bin Laden.

    President Obama reversed Bush’s approach, instead emphasizing targeted assassinations of Al Qaeda leaders including Bin Laden.

    Spin all you like, but you won’t fool anyone on this. Even McCain and the editors at National Review have chastised Romney for his cretinous positions re Bin Laden and Pakistan.

    Aside from reflexive hatred of the current president, why are you defending this fool?

  • f1b0nacc1

    I don’t have any particular hatred of Obama…contempt for him certainly, but hatred I save for those worthy of significant attention.

    As for Romney’s comments, I don’t necessarily agree with them entirely, but I am not sure that they can be dismissed out of hand. Unless you are going to embrace the argument that getting rid of OBL was worth ANY price, then the cost assassinating him (and lets be very clear about this, that is what we did) in terms of manpower, money, material, political capital, etc. must be weighed against the benefits gained by doing so. This is what Romney did, and while you might disagree with his conclusions, they are hardly indefensible.

    There is not a single shred of evidence that killing OBL got us any significant benefit other than the intelligence we captured (which certainly was worthwhile) and the sense of satisfaction from wreaking revenge. OBL was isolated from most of the day to day operations of AQ, deeply deperessed, and generally ambivalent about the whole enterprise he began. Now, we could argue about whether this was causation or causality, but that doesn’t change the fact that by the time we got him (and we know that Obama had spent at least 18 months dithering over this) OBL was hardly a supremely valuable target worth any price. Perhaps he was worth what it cost us, but I remain unsure.

    As for Bush’s decision with regard to the CIA, Clarke (who as I pointed out before, is hardly a disinterested party in all of this, and has excellent reason to spin the decision to make himself look good) suggests that this was a deemphasis of OBL as a target by Bush. I see it more as a move by Bush to deemphasize the role of the CIA (which had been actively leaking information to his political opponents, and was consistently disinclined to follow any leads that implicated Pakistan, with whom many of the senior officials had close ties), instead transferring authority to the DOD, which was seen as more reliable and action-oriented. Once again, the wisdom of this decision (personally, I agree with it, but I would shut down the CIA entirely and distribute its functions to the various interested departments, so I am biased) can be debated, but that debate would be very different than simply suggesting that “Bush gave up”, as Clarke does. Remember, for Clarke, anything that doesn’t keep the CIA at the center of the picture is a diversion, whereas Bush had a somewhat better perspective on things.

    An interesting example of how Bush and Obama differed (and how Clarke, and by extension you) ignored the subtleties of those differences is the way targeted assassinations (i.e., ‘the drone war’) was executed. Before the CIA was removed from it’s central position, the emphasis was overwhelmingly on killing senior AQ leadership. This made for wonderful press of course, but rarely had much influence on operational effectiveness of AQ. Bush increased the overall resources available (i.e. drones in the air) in every single year of his presidency, but the dominant guiding hand changed from the CIA to the DOD. The targets changed from senior leadership to ‘middle manager’ terrorists, the moneymen, bomb-builders, mid-level leadership – the terror infrastructure, without whom the entire operation falls apart. The CIA typically eschewed such targets, often because they lacked ground-level intelligence (the CIA is notorious for staying far away the actual theatre of action, relying on electronic intercepts and informants of dubious value) which was necessary to make them effective. Obama, with his poor relationship with DOD (the position of a few political generals notwithstanding), moved back to a CIA centric model, which had the additional advantage of generating useful press headlines. What is important here is not who was right and who was wrong (I certainly believe Bush was right, but that is of course debateable), but rather that both administrations did attempt to use the tools at hand to cope with the problem. The difference was not the level of comittment, but rather the method of implementation.

    As for the opinions of NRO and McCain, there is very little that McCain says that I would take seriously. He was a very brave man, and suffered immensely in the service for his country, which I respect deeply. He is also vain, obsessed with his ‘honor’ (he has never given up trying to redeem his reputation after the Keating 5 scandal), and his grasp of geopolitics (to say nothing of constitutional law) is limited at best. On rare occasions he will stumble across an idea of some value, but it is more accidental than anything else. If you are citing him as justification for your views, you are scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    Regarding the editorial staff at NRO, I sometimes agree with them, and sometimes do not. I understand their arguments against Romney’s position, but am not convinced by them, as I do not believe that the benefits gained were worth the cost. Keep in mind that NRO never really addressses Romney’s central point, that everything – EVEN the death of OBL – comes with a pricetag attached, and that perhaps it would do us well to consider that price in the context of the benefits gained. I suspect (without proof) that this was Bush’s insight as well since he tended to take teh b-school approach to matters of this sort. Romney’s point, while debateable, certainly cannot be dismissed out of hand.

    As for these positions being ‘cretinous’ (your term, not mine), you see more interested in an ad hom attack than seriously grappling with the issues that Romney raised. That, plus the almost pathological need to use this assassination to demonstrate Obama’s putative foreign policy chops, strikes me as much more serious spin than anything you accus me of.

  • tex

    The activities of Russia,China and the Iran in Syria are getting out of hand. It look like the world order is shifting to the EAST. Russia is making a mistake that they will forever regret in any attempt to drag the conflicts in the middle east into a unilateral war. If they think China is on their side, then they are mistaken. China currently has the highest economy growth and feels that the reason why USA has been the world supper power was because of their little involvement in WW1 and WW2. If in any situation they get involved in a war against the USA, they will be putting many things…