Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 30 Aug ­ – 6 September 2013

Conflicts Forum

Prospective US intervention in Syria:  The harshness of the dilemma now facing President Obama is becoming clearer (even if its resolution of it remains obscure). In brief, both the effort last month by Prince Bandar to bribe President Putin to abandon President Assad (see here) plus the parallel exercise in Tehran to float a political solution to the Iranians having failed, Saudi Arabia (with western assent) determined it would lead a military escalation in Syria – with opposition ‘thrusts’ in the north and in the south of the country.  The aim was to to establish military “facts on the ground” – in order to push Assad towards a ‘transition’ in which the latter would be required to relinquish all executive Presidential powers as part of this ‘transition’.  Bandar in fact, explicitly warned Putin that military escalation would ensue as the inexorable result of Putin’s rejection of the Saudi ‘bribe’. The problem (from the Saudi perspective) however, was that these opposition fronts were being roundly defeated by the Syrian army. It was just as the northern thrust was being routed, that the chemical weapons event exploded, and was instantly hyped by Israeli officials and in the Israeli press, and subsequently bannered across the international media. It is little wonder that Putin and Syria’s other allies were so sceptical. Putin was clear in suggesting that the whole event possibly was a calculated ‘provocation’ — that is to say an intelligence ‘black operation’ mounted (possibly by the Saudi and Israeli intelligence services working together) in order to corner Obama into a military intervention ­– the “game changer” that that was so desperately needed – if the opposition were to prevail in any way at all in Syria.
Initially, this conveniently-timed ‘news event’ seemed ideal from the western optic (even by those who may share Putin’s suspicions). By insisting so forcefully on military retaliation in Syria, it was assumed that Russia and Iran would bow to the inevitable: the latter’s ‘rational’ interest, it was calculated by the US and its allies, would be for Hizbullah, Iran and Russia, to stand aloof from America’s ‘limited action’ (and the concomitant leveling-up of the Syrian ‘playing field’ in respect to the balance of power between the insurgents and the government).  The Israeli press was the most plain in this respect: there was nothing for Israel to fear — none of Syria’s allies would surely risk a confrontation directly with the US and its European allies.

But the unexpected occurred: Syria and its allies did not acquiesce to this US intervention, but warned plainly that its consequences would be a wide regional war – and this is just what Obama and the US military feared most.  Obama and the Pentagon desperately do not want a new Middle Eastern war.  A further complication has been that (to date), the US and its allies have been unable to offer any definite proof as to Syria’s responsibility for the chemical attack. It remains at the level of ‘balance of probabilities’, ‘logic’ and that “the opposition lacked such capabilities” (the latter being patently untrue).  Obama is clearly very sensitive – in the wake of Iraq – to the risk of starting a major regional war on flimsy intelligence assessments: “Keep in mind, I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq, and I’m not interested in repeating mistakes about basing decisions on faulty intelligence,” the US president said at a news conference in Stockholm en route to the G20 meeting.

The telling shift that Syria and its allies’ predicted response has failed to materialize can be seen in the Israeli stance which has gone from utter sanguinuity (as to the risk of blow-back on Israel) to a different tune. They know that Hizbullah and Iran are on a war footing; Putin continues publicly and repeatedly to warn that US intervention will lead to regional war; and Putin, in an interview published on Wednesday, said it was too early to talk about what Russia would do if the US attacked Syria, but added: “We have our ideas about what we will do, and how we will do it, in case the situation develops toward the use of force or otherwise. We have our plans.”  Even as the US sought to add credibility to the threat, moving naval vessels to the Mediterranean,  Syria and its allies have not at all backed down under these pressures. President Assad, not least, says clearly that Syria will defend itself ­even at the expense of risking World War Three.

This then, is the crux of Obama’s dilemma: back-down, and face the clamour from his enemies (and not only from his enemies, but likely from his politically ambitious Secretary of State too) with their taunts of weakness (global order collapsing, America’s strength undermined, Iran strengthened, etc.); or risk taking America into a major war with the Pentagon underprepared and under-funded for such an enterprise ­at a moment public support is completely absent, and the public patently war-weary.  The President instead chose to step into the Rose Garden and kicked the can down the road ­to Congress. He has subsequently been careful to distance himself from ‘ownership’ of any resulting consequences. Speaking during his stopover in Sweden, Obama denied his political credibility was at stake – insisting it was not he who had set the red lines requiring a military response if the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons: “The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons was abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war,” he said. “That was not something I just kind of made up, I did not pluck it out of thin air.”

It is not clear, however, that this move will succeed in creating distance between him and the dilemma. It would be easy to assume from the mainstream media that both houses of Congress are falling into line on intervention in Syria: “Boehner agrees to support Obama on Syria“, “Senate Foreign Relations Committee passes resolution authorizing an American strike on Syria”.

Reports from inside the Washington beltway, however, give a very different picture. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the authorization resolution with weak support – a 10-7-1 vote. This sends a message that even some hawks are loath to throw their weight behind it.  If Obama’s success is looking fragile in the Senate, it is not hard to extrapolate that matters in Congress are more problematic.  ThinkProgress House whip count as of the end of Wednesday 4 Septmeber broke down with 47 members of the House as firm or inclined to a yes vote, 187 firm or inclined to a no vote, and 220 unknown or undecided. Firedoglake comes up with a broadly similar picture: 55 firmly or inclined to a yes, 155 firmly or inclined to a negative vote.  One Congressional source said that on the basis of conversations with Republicans, he was pretty certain the Administration will be forced to withdraw the resolution or postpone a vote in the House. (Note that the tentative schedule is for the Senate to start debating the resolution next Tuesday (10 September) and to vote that day, or on the 11th. The House is set to start debate either on the 12th or in the week beginning the 16 September).

It is of course possible for the Administration to turn things around in the House, but as the ‘insider’ Politico blognotes:  “House Republican staffers tell us that several key members are unsatisfied so far by the classified intelligence briefings from the administration. A top aide said the administration has failed to make a compelling case “beyond spasmodic moral outrage”.

“Nobody has really heard how this is going to either improve the situation on the ground in Syria, improve the situation for pro-democracy groups, not play into al-Qaeda’s hands, not play into Russia’s hands, not play into China’s hands”, the aide said. “Members felt the Administration hasn’t made a case about how this is going to stop it from happening again. They’re putting a lot of chips on: “We have to do this for Israel”, or, “We have to do this because it’s unacceptable”.

“Another House GOP aide told us that President Obama will have to make a better personal case to the public, not just to Congress: If you’re going to sell the members, you also have to sell the constituents. Otherwise, the country could watch the amazing spectacle of Congress defeating a war resolution backed by the president and every top elected leader. And Wednesday evening, a top House Republican aide said the measure could actually lose”. Constituent calls to Congressional staffers are reportedly running at over 90% opposed to intervention, Politicoadds.

In short, the dilemma may well boomerang back to President Obama in the event that Congress does not back the resolution, given that Obama controversially has given a further hostage to fortune by stating that how Congress votes is in any event irrelevant to the Commander-in-Chief’s prerogative to mount military action.  And if anything, Obama’s dilemma will have deepened: on the one hand Syria and its allies are upping the warnings of wider war (albeit that none of them has an interest in inviting such a conflict), and, on the other hand, the hiatus is giving the intervention lobby, the Iran hawks and AIPAC time to mount their platform against any back-down.  It is possible then, that Obama may be in the process of being handed a major political defeat (see also here) over Syria.

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