U.S. Says That Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons, Will Reportedly Start Arming Rebels

The U.S. is now confirming that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. What's next?

Syria Area Map

The United States is formally acknowledging that the regime of Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons against the rebels fighting against the government on several occasions, thus accusing Assad of crossing President Obama’s “red line”:

WASHINGTON — American and European intelligence analysts now believe that President Bashar al-Assad’s troops have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in the civil war in Syria, an assessment that will put added pressure on a deeply divided Obama administration to develop a response to a provocation that the president himself has declared a “red line.”

According to an internal memorandum circulating inside the government on Thursday, the “intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” President Obama said in April that the United States had physiological evidence that the nerve gas sarin had been used in Syria, but lacked proof of who used it and under what circumstances. He now believes that the proof is definitive, according to American officials.

But a flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week only underscored the splits within the Obama administration about what actions to take to quell the fighting, which has claimed more than 90,000 people. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops — joined by fighters from the militant group Hezbollah — claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse.

Senior State Department officials have been pushing for an aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country, and receive shipments of matériel from Iran. But White House officials remain wary, and one American official said that a meeting on Wednesday of the president’s senior advisers yielded no firm decisions about how to proceed.

It is unclear precisely how the Obama administration made its final determination about the chemical weapons use in Syria. According to the internal memorandum, intelligence agencies have “high confidence” in their assessment, and estimate that between 100 and 150 people have died to date from chemical weapons attacks. The memorandum goes on to say that the conclusion is based on a variety of intelligence.

“Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information,” the memorandum said.

The Obama administration’s cautious approach about Syria has already frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups.

Moreover, the United Arab Emirates declined to host a meeting of allied defense officials to discuss Syria, concerned that in the absence of strong American leadership the conference might degenerate into bickering and finger pointing among various gulf nations with different views on the best ways to support the rebellion.

This isn’t entirely new news, of course. Nearly two months ago, there were preliminary reports that the U.S. believed that the Syrians had used Sarin gas in small quantities but that there hadn’t been sufficient testing to confirm that veracity of those reports at that time. Prior to that, of course, the President had issued an explicit warning to the Syrians back in August 2012 when he stated that use of chemical weapons by the Syrians would be crossing a “red line.” While it wasn’t made clear at the time what the consequences for crossing this “red  line” would be, but there was much speculation that it would mean increased U.S. support for the rebels, and possibly even military action against Syria directed at the their chemical weapons stockpiles. As I noted after that initial report, it was fairly clear that the President’s decision to draw a “red line” was a mistake:

By saying that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrians was a “red line,” he created the impression that the U.S. would not tolerate even a single chemical shell being fired. The “red line” was vague  enough, though, that it was unclear exactly what the United States would do if the line was crossed,or even what kind of an act constituted crossing the line. Now that the Syrians have apparently engaged in the limited use of chemical weapons, the world expects the United States to do something and President Obama’s domestic opponents stand ready to pounce if they perceive that he’s backing down from the threat. Unfortunately for the President, backing down may be the smartest thing to do under the circumstances. For that reason, he may come to realize that drawing a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons wasn’t really a good idea after all.

In the immediate aftermath of that April announcement, there seemed to be signs that the Administration was slowly backing away from the “red line” rhetoric, a development that did not sit will with the interventionist crowd at all. However, there were several reports in May that the U.S. was considering sending arms to the Syrian rebels and “rethinking” its Syria strategy in other ways.  At the same time, though, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been saying that additional military force might not accomplish much of anything in Syria and some reports indicated that arming the rebels would be likely to do nothing more than prolong a conflict that the rebels have been losing for some time now. There was even a report, which since seems to have been in error, that it was actually the rebels who used chemical weapons.

The question, of course, is what happens next. In a speech on the Senate floor shortly after this news became public, Senator John McCain claimed that President Obama had decided, based on this news, to start sending arms to the Syrian rebel. The the White House has not confirmed that, but CNN’s White House Correspondent is reporting that this is indeed correct. Other options would include a no-fly zone or even military strikes against chemical weapons sites in Syria. While we may not take those actions at this time, the obvious concern is that we’ll end up getting dragged further into this conflict. Even if our involvement stays limited to arming the rebels, though, that still leaves a numbers of unanswered questions. For example, and perhaps most importantly, who do we arm? The “rebels” are in reality a hodge podge of many groups under many different leaders and, recently, it’s the radicals and the groups from Iraq with ties to al Qaeda who have come to predominate the coalition. Do we really want to give those kind of people military aid? Even if we’re able to determine who the “good guys” among the rebels are, how do we ensure that the aid we provide doesn’t fall into the hands of the bad guys? Has anyone in Washington even bothered to think any of this through.

I don’t deny that Syria is a tragedy, but not every tragedy demands that the United States ride to the rescue. For example, in the 1990s, the civil war in Rwanda led to massive numbers of deaths in what turned into a Tutu-Hutsi bloodbath. President Clinton didn’t intervene in that conflict, for what I would argue were wise reasons, but reports now indicate that it is one of the decisions of his Presidency that he regrets. Notwithstanding the horrible legacy of that war, Clinton is wrong to have any regrets. The idea of the United States intervening in a tribal war in the middle of Africa is as absurd now as it was then. In all likelihood, U.S. involvement in Rwanda would have just made a bad situation worse. And, that’s why we ought to keep our noses out of the tragedy in Syria.

Update: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the options that Administration is planning appear to go far beyond simply sending arms to rebel groups:

WASHINGTON—A U.S. military proposal for arming Syrian rebels also calls for a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there, according to U.S. officials

Asked by the White House to develop options for Syria, military planners have said that creating an area to train and equip rebel forces would require keeping Syrian aircraft well away from the Jordanian border.

To do that, the military envisages creating a no-fly zone stretching up to 25 miles into Syria which would be enforced using aircraft flown from Jordanian bases and flying inside the kingdom, according to U.S. officials.

The White House is currently considering proposals to arm the rebels in Jordan, according to U.S. officials. White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on the details of those deliberations.

The limited no-fly zone wouldn’t require the destruction of Syrian antiaircraft batteries, U.S. officials said.

Officials said the White House could decide to authorize the U.S. to arm and train rebels in Jordan without authorizing the no-fly zone recommended by military planners. A White House announcement could come soon, officials said.

Jordan has been inundated by a flood of refugees that Jordanian and U.S. officials say is a growing threat to the kingdom, a key U.S. ally in the region. The U.S. has already moved Patriot air defense batteries and F-16 fighter planes to Jordan, which could be integral to any no-fly zone if President Barack Obama approves the military proposal.

Proponents of the proposal say a no-fly zone could be imposed without a U.N. Security Council resolution, since the U.S. would not regularly enter Syrian airspace and wouldn’t hold Syrian territory.

I wonder if the President will seek Congressional authorization for such an operation, as the Constitution and the War Powers Act would seem to require him to.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Middle East, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    We armed the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, and THAT went well.

  2. Rick DeMent says:

    This is a really bad idea.

  3. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I wonder if the President will seek Congressional authorization for such an operation, as the Constitution and the War Powers Act would seem to require him to.

    As we saw in Libya, Obama believes that the War Powers Act only applies when he declares it does. And I seriously doubt he will judge that it does here.

    There is NO compelling argument to take either side in this mess. No indicators that the rebels would be any better than Assad, and several that they’d be as bad or worse. I’d be considered an “interventionist,” and I can’t see a good reason or a positive outcome here.

  4. stonetools says:

    I thought the US would escalate intervention, for humanitarian and strategic reasons, so this is unsurprising. Once Assad appeared to get a decisive upper hand and once Russian weaponry started flowing into Syria, some action looked likely. Doing nothing would have conceded the game to Iran and Russia.

    Obama’s statement ends:

    The United States and the international community have a number of other legal, financial, diplomatic, and military responses available. We are prepared for all contingencies, and we will make decisions on our own timeline. Any future action we take will be consistent with our national interest, and must advance our objectives, which include achieving a negotiated political settlement to establish an authority that can provide basic stability and administer state institutions; protecting the rights of all Syrians; securing unconventional and advanced conventional weapons; and countering terrorist activity.

    That doesn’t sound like he is sending the 82nd Airborne into Damascus; rather, he is pushing for a negotiated settlement and he wants to give Assad a reason to negotiate.Prior to today, Assad was thinking “I am winning: why should I compromise?”. Well, now he has a reason to.Pawn to king four: your move, Assad, Putin, and Khameini.

  5. rachel says:

    Damn.

  6. Tillman says:

    Anyone else get the feeling the Arab League is using us as a policeman here?

  7. Davebo says:

    The memorandum goes on to say that the conclusion is based on a variety of intelligence.

    Let me guess. Knuckleball, Slider and Spitball right?

    The Obama Administration isn’t about to start arming the “rebels” no matter how often the idiots say we should.

  8. walt moffett says:

    And in the meanwhile, the Russian Air Force is performing snap drills moving aircraft south, together with Ukraine will be doing anti-terrorist drills in Black Sea, plus the Strategic Rocket Forces are also doing readiness drills. Has anyone seen Major Kong?

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    @stonetools:

    The Russians have made it very clear that Assad’s staying is a precondition for any political settlement. I strongly suspect that Assad has no retirement plan.

    The rebels have made it equally clear that Assad must go. Doesn’t sound like much of a basis for a political settlement to me.

  10. edmondo says:

    Looks like the MIC got their new Obama war. Billions for defense; austerity for our senior citizens.

    Is there still any doubt that we have ourselves a black Bush?

  11. Anderson says:

    “As we saw in Libya, Obama believes that the War Powers Act only applies when he declares it does.”

    Like every other president from 1973 onwards.

    Bore on, dude. Bore on.

  12. Stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Sounds like negotiation Middle East Style. You start with maximalist demands and work toward the middle. Wouldn’t be the Middle East if they started with reasonable proposals.
    The point is to give Assad a reason to come to the table. Without that he may never have bothered.

  13. Caj says:

    I think this will be a big mistake. We have no real clue who’s who and who’s fighting for what side! Don’t know why Assad couldn’t have been taken out for want of a better word a long time ago. They got Osama Bin Laden, surely they could have found this guy and got rid of him with a drone!

  14. anjin-san says:

    I see no upside to involvement in Syria, and plenty of downside. “Defense” contractors win again.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @anjin-san:

    I’m with you on this. I think we should sit this out.

    Of course “arming” the rebels can mean a lot of things. It can mean “Here’s some serious missilery,” or, “Here’s a popgun.”

  16. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Anderson: Like every other president from 1973 onwards.

    Bore on, dude. Bore on.

    No, you idiot, UNLIKE every other president from 1973 onwards. Every other president followed the law, but with a little note saying they were acting “consistent with” the Act, but not “in compliance with.”

    Obama didn’t bother with that; he just said it didn’t apply because he said it didn’t.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Jenos Idanian: No, the War Powers Act, passed over Nixon’s veto, has always been a dead letter. Where Obama broke from tradition in Libya was extending the war past the 90 day window without consultations with Congress. He pretended that flying hundreds of missions and blowing things up didn’t constitute “hostilities” as defined by the act. I called him out on that. But Congress would likely have gone along; Republicans were more enthusiastic about the war than Democrats.

  18. Scott says:

    Yes, we need to stay out. There will be blowback. There always is blowback. My tangential rhetorical question is this: Where are all the congresspeople who keep demanding budget cuts saying we can’t afford anything? I think we need to put in place a law that automatically raises taxes whenever we have to spend over and above a baseline peacetime defense force. Let’s force ourselves to pay for any involvement. If it is important enough to engage and spend resources, then it is imiportant enough to tax.

  19. Jenos Idanian says:

    @James Joyner: With all due respect, I disagree. Up until Obama, every president complied with it, but with a note saying that they were not recognizing its binding authority. They all avoided confronting its Constitutionality directly. Bill Clinton came the closest to challenging it with the Bosnian bombings, where he said that Congress had approved it by funding it, despite the actual Act saying that such funding does NOT constitute approval. But in each and every other case where the Act applied, the presidents in question did not challenge it directly.

    Obama’s policy was to simply say that the Act didn’t apply in Libya because we weren’t in charge, we were simply going along with NATO’s leadership. That was an even more fatuous excuse than Clinton’s.

  20. Davebo says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Once again Jenos proudly displays his ignorance.

    It’s up to congress to invoke the War Powers Act. They can do it at any time after 90 days of military action.

    If they choose not to, which has been the case for decades, the President can do as he wishes.

  21. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Davebo: You really need to look up “ignorance.” Because you’re demonstrating a textbook edition.

    The War Powers Act is triggered by the calendar, not Congress. The president MUST notify Congress within 48 hours of US forces engaging in hostilities, and cannot continue the hostilities after 60 days without Congressional approval. If none is given, then they must be withdrawn within the next 30 days.

    Yes, it’s Constitutionally questionable. But ti’s also the law as it stands now. And every president from Ford to Obama has gone along with it without actually acknowledging it — essentially “agreeing to disagree” over the matter without putting it to the test.

    Oh, and Senator Obama was on record as supporting the War Powers Act. As in so many other cases, President Obama has demonstrated a profound disagreement with Senator Obama here.

  22. edmondo says:

    President Obama has demonstrated a profound disagreement with Senator Obama here.

    Looks like we’ve finally found Obama’s legacy. They can debate each other at the Obama Library on healthcare mandates, transparancy, debt limits and NSA spying.

  23. Nancy JS says:

    It was Hutu & Tutsi, not Tutu & Hutsi, and it was a deliberate government genocide, of which there were warnings. it was reasonable to be reluctant, about 5 minutes after “black hawk down” in Mogadishu,but it would have been relatively easy to stop in the first few weeks.

    this is a civil war, between well-armed and intense adversaries, and the regional powers should be the ones to try to sort it out– especially since most states in the middle east want us to protect them while they demonize us to their people, and blame us for their problems.

  24. Caj says:

    @anjin-san:

    Amen to that. Contractors are the ones who will benefit. They’ve never seen a war they don’t like either!

  25. stonetools says:

    @anjin-san:

    I see no upside to involvement in Syria, and plenty of downside.

    That’s the Conventional Wisdom on this website, but there are foreign policy experts that see it exactly the reverse. Follow Laura Rozen, who on Monday predicted an announcement this week:

    Why? It appeases UK/France; warns Russia, and leaves US options of what more to do pretty open. @Ibishblog @ButcherMartin 2/2

    IOW, it signals Allies and friends alike that the USA is serious about Syria.

    Secondly, it enables the possibility of Syria peace talks.

    From Christian Amampour:

    Christiane Amanpour ‏@camanpour 15h

    Gen Idriss Syria opp leader tells me he welcomes more US help, but says “if the balance on the ground doesn’t change there’ll be no Geneva

    Finally, grim realism from Daniel Drezner:

    Why Obama is arming Syria’s rebels: it’s the realism, stupid.

    Naturally, this will feed the “return of the liberal hawks” meme that’s spreading in some quarters. Other commentators will gnash their teeth or decry that this is the first ill-considered step towards dragging the United States into another Middle Eastern war.

    To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.

    This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.

    So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region? No. Everything in that Times story, and everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention. Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention. This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.

    As Drezner writes, this policy isn’t lollipops and rainbows. But it is a low-cost way to check Iran and Russia.
    So that’s the upside, from some people who know the players and the stakes.

  26. Dave says:

    “He now believes that the proof is definitive…”

    Okay, but would it be too much for us to see at least a few details of this proof? Just some basic information on the incidents such as dates, locations, estimates of dead and injured, and the tests that were performed. I’m not making any accusations here, I just want to see the evidence.

  27. Mikey says:

    @stonetools:

    That doesn’t sound like he is sending the 82nd Airborne into Damascus

    Not yet, anyway.

    While I agree it’s in our interest not to allow Iran and Russia the upper hand, I just don’t see anything good coming of our getting involved in this mess.

  28. stonetools says:

    @Dave:

    The Russians do dispute the evidence. But France and the UK are convinced.

    LINK

  29. Dave says:

    @stonetools: “To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.”

    As someone asked about ten years ago, “Tell me how this ends.”

  30. Davebo says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Shortly after President Obama conducted a brief news conference Monday with the president of Chile — and two days after cruise missiles began flying into Libya — Obama formally notified Congress of the latest U.S. military action.

    Notification of Congress within 48 hours? Check.

    At that point it’s up to congress to put forward a vote on an authorization of military force or declaration of war.

    The president can’t force such a vote, that’s up to congress. Hence the “invoking” part of the war powers act. They either authorize continued use of force or vote it down. If they do neither there is no legal restriction on the president’s power.

    Don’t take my word for it. Just ask Ronald Reagan

  31. Dave says:

    @stonetools: Thanks, but I’m aware of that. I would still like to see the evidence myself. I see no reason to keep the basic facts from us.

  32. stonetools says:

    For those who claim that the US shouldn’t get involved because Americans are bumbling idiots who are destined to repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan, I’d also like to point that out:

    1. Leadership matters.
    2. Team matters.

    As to (1), Obama ain’t Ronald Reagan and he ain’t GWB.He saw their mistakes , he’s lived abroad, and he is no cowboy. I would describe his FP leadership as being careful, astute, and competent. That doesn’t mean he got everything right. But it does mean he’s not going to make stupid mistakes by indiscriminately showering aid on jihadists. Note that in Libya, his actions resulted in rise of a moderate regime.

    As to (2), I think that the CIA and the NSA is a lot more informed about Muslims and the Middle East than pre 2001. They’ve hired some Muslim spies and some Arab linguists. They know that there are differences between Sunni and Shia, moderate and Jihadist, secular and Islamist. They will be able to vet the groups with some success.
    It won’t be 100 per successful, but the US intelligence forces that tracked down OBL aren’t the bumblers of yore.

  33. stonetools says:

    @Dave:

    As someone asked about ten years ago, “Tell me how this ends.”

    Some of this stuff never ends, unfortunately. It’s just part of the Great Power Game.

    The USA might be happy if Iran gives up on supporting Assad because it costs them too much, like Russia in Afghanistan. That took eight years.

  34. stonetools says:

    One more thing: Iran elected a new President today. This sends the new guy a clear signal, “Come to the table”. Like I said , its a long chess game.

  35. ME says:

    I think you meant “Hutu-Tutsi bloodbath.”

    If I remember correctly, the vast majority of the deaths were Tutsis, killed by the Hutu majority.

    Just a clarification…

  36. Dave says:

    @stonetools: Well, I think you are being a little too harsh on those in the past and a little too trustworthy of those in the present. There may be a moderate regime in Libya in some sense, but it can’t control the streets outside of most of its own ministry buildings in Tripoli let alone the rest of the country. I hope things improve soon in Libya, but right now it’s on the brink of utter disaster.

    I don’t know that we have really gotten much smarter about MENA conflicts. It seems to me that we still focus too much on ethnic and sectarian differences and not enough on tribal influences.

  37. anjin-san says:

    @ stonetools

    The first that leaps to mind is the question of why “appeasing” the UK & France even enters our minds.

    The second is that Syria is very fertile ground for the law of unintended consequences to take root in.

    The third is wondering if our interventions in the middle east are ever going to end.

  38. stonetools says:

    @Dave:

    I know its popular among non-interventionists to depict Libya as a failure, but according to the Atlantic Council, its actually making progress.

    Despite localized violence and continuing resistance to militia disbandment, Libya’s democratic transition is moving forward largely as planned. Elections for the 200-member General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s first free election in six decades, took place on July 7, 2012. The National Forces Alliances won thirty-nine of the eighty seats reserved for political parties, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Development Party in a distant second with seventeen seats. Turnout was estimated at around 65 percent; roughly 1.8 million registered voters casted their ballots…..
    In the aftermath of the consulate attack and continuing violence, Libyan officials have reaffirmed their commitment to democracy and Libya’s partnership with the United States. Shortly after the Benghazi attack, popular rallies were held calling for an end to militias; the government followed up by calling for militias to disband or be absorbed into the government. Following these incidents weapons drives were held and thousands of weapons were successfully collected from militias and private citizens. A few notable militias were formally disbanded during this time, including Ansar al-Sharia.

    Now it isn’t all puppies and sugar plum fairies there, but neither was the United States two years after the end of its Revolutionary War.RTWT. You can download the PDF.
    I think that the Obama team got Libya right, and is better informed about the Middle East than possibly any Administration has ever been. I think they know what the stakes are in Syria, and I trust them to be at least careful.

  39. Spartacus says:

    @stonetools:

    IOW, it signals Allies and friends alike that the USA is serious about Syria.

    What does it mean to be “serious” about Syria. We haven’t been engaged there precisely because we have no interests there. The unfortunate deaths of 150 people from chemical weapons did not create an interest amid the deaths of 90,000 people from non-conventional weapons. Arming the rebels increases the likelihood that chemical weapons will fall into the hands of people who are interested in using them against the U.S. and its allies.

    Secondly, it enables the possibility of Syria peace talks.

    Actually, it prolongs the war and will undoubtedly increase the death toll. Period. The war was moving decisively in one side’s favor and, therefore, would have ended sooner than it now will.

    But it is a low-cost way to check Iran and Russia.

    Iran and Russia are not gaining influence in Syria; they’re trying not to lose the influence they already have there. If this civil war had never begun, Iranian and Russian influence in Syria would be greater than it is today.

  40. stonetools says:

    @anjin-san:

    The first that leaps to mind is the question of why “appeasing” the UK & France even enters our minds.

    Because they are our allies? And we are cooperating with them? And cooperation with them worked well in Libya, Tunisia, and Mali?

    The second is that Syria is very fertile ground for the law of unintended consequences to take root in.

    True. But even doing nothing in Syria still exposes you to that law.

    The third is wondering if our interventions in the middle east are ever going to end.

    Sure they’ll end. When oil becomes unimportant, when Israel stops being the Holy Land, when the Middle East stops being the land bridge between Europe and Asia, when the Suez Canal stops being a major transportation artery….

    It’s going to be a while.

  41. anjin-san says:

    cooperating

    Cooperating and appeasing are two very different things.

  42. stonetools says:

    @Spartacus:

    What does it mean to be “serious” about Syria. We haven’t been engaged there precisely because we have no interests there

    You may think that , but most foreign policy experts disagree with you.

    The war was moving decisively in one side’s favor and, therefore, would have ended sooner than it now will.

    Indeed. It was moving decisively in favor of our enemies. That’s why a response was called for. To do otherwise would concede defeat.

    Iran and Russia are not gaining influence in Syria; they’re trying not to lose the influence they already have there

    Right. They are successfully defending their position. Our hope back in 2011 was to foster a regime change that would lead to a democratic, moderate regime. Iran and Russia rightly concluded that this would undermine their position, and took action to forestall this. Remember, a defensive victory is still a victory: and it sets the stage for a future offense. If Assad wins, it sets the stage for Iran to put further pressure on US assets in the area.

  43. Spartacus says:

    @stonetools:

    You may think that , but most foreign policy experts disagree with you.

    But we haven’t been engaged in any meaningful way. We haven’t held talks or participated in conferences with the regional players. We haven’t brought this issue before the U.N. We haven’t provided weapons, sent troops, advocated NATO involvement or done anything of consequence. Hence, all the complaining from the Serious People about Obama’s fecklessness.

    It was moving decisively in favor of our enemies. That’s why a response was called for. To do otherwise would concede defeat.

    Syria is not an enemy of the U.S. and no one has even claimed as much. To the extent any of the participants in this civil war are “enemies” of the U.S., (1) it’s jihadists and the AQ-linked rebels, and (2) their involvement in this civil war is completely unrelated to their animosity toward the U.S.

    Secondly, how can we “concede defeat” when no one has attacked any of our interests and we are not at war? That is impossible. Assad’s presidency of Syria prior to this civil war did not constitute a defeat for the U.S. and we haven’t backed any of the rebels so how on earth can the maintenance of the status quo constitute a defeat for the U.S.?

    Our hope back in 2011 was to foster a regime change that would lead to a democratic, moderate regime.

    Regime change may have been our hope, but it was not our policy; we took no steps to bring about regime change. If it was regime change was U.S. policy, why did we wait for 150 people to die from chemical weapons? Were the previous 90,000 dead insufficient? And even if regime change had been our policy, it would have been a foolish one and we should all be grateful that it went nowhere.

    If Assad wins, it sets the stage for Iran to put further pressure on US assets in the area.

    What does this mean? There is no articulable harm that will come to the U.S. if Assad remains president of Syria.

  44. Spartacus says:

    Sorry about messing up the block quotes.

  45. Dave says:

    @stonetools: “…its actually making progress.”

    There has been progress in some areas, no doubt, but that paper was published eight months ago. As UPI reported last month, the situation on the ground now, or still, includes “an estimated 500 militias and armed groups across Libya with an estimated 250,000 men under arms outside of government control.”

    I’m not a non-interventionist, but I think it was a mistake for NATO to take a genuinely moral mandate for humanitarian intervention and then pervert that into serving as the rebel air force. I’m afraid that we have just begun to see the repercussions from that, in Syria and who knows where down the road.

  46. anjin-san says:

    our enemies.

    And who are they? Certainly AQ and AQ allies, but beyond that?

  47. Scott says:

    I would like to challenge the idea that Iran is really our enemy. Yes, since the fall of the Shah we have not had a real relationship with them. However, they were not behind 9/11. They were enemies of Saddam Hussein (now they are alllies of Iraq, think about that implication), they helped us in the early days of the Afghan war. They are educated and sophisticated. In fact, we should be their natural allies. Our foreign policy emotionalism prevents us from seriously engaging with them. This is analogous to Cuba. All in all, I think it would be safer for us if Assad stayed in a weaker form.

  48. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Davebo: Notification of Congress within 48 hours? Check.

    At that point it’s up to congress to put forward a vote on an authorization of military force or declaration of war.

    The president can’t force such a vote, that’s up to congress. Hence the “invoking” part of the war powers act. They either authorize continued use of force or vote it down. If they do neither there is no legal restriction on the president’s power.

    Don’t take my word for it. Just ask Ronald Reagan

    Again, wrong.

    Congress has to give its positive approval, or the action has to cease. Obama never asked for the authorization, and Congress never put forth an authorization. Instead, Obama told Congress not to worry their pretty little heads, he was going to keep up the bombing and didn’t need their authorization, and they can trust him ‘cuz he’s such a great Constitutional scholar.

    Again, let me repeat it: Congress does NOT need to disapprove. Congress needs to approve.

    You wanna argue the constitutionality of the War Powers Act? I’m unsure about that myself. But the actual workings of it? They’re black and white.

    And you’re wrong.

  49. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @stonetools: As Drezner writes, this policy isn’t lollipops and rainbows. But it is a low-cost way to check Iran and Russia.

    Change the names to “the USSR and China,” and you just summed up a lot of our policies during the Cold War. And I can think of quite a few countries around the world where that idea is not well-received in hindsight. Nicaragua, Chile, Viet Nam, and Iran all come to mind…

  50. anjin-san says:

    I would like to challenge the idea that Iran is really our enemy.

    Second that. Clearly, there are factions in our country (and out) that want them to be our enemy, but that is not the same thing. Enmity between the US & Iraq is a mistake for both parties.

  51. stonetools says:

    @Spartacus:

    But we haven’t been engaged in any meaningful way. We haven’t held talks or participated in conferences with the regional players

    The Administration has called for peace talks in Geneva. Assad would most likely not go absent this policy change. See the Christiana Amampour tweet referenced up thread.

    Syria is not an enemy of the U.S. and no one has even claimed as much.

    Sigh. Have you read any of the thread at all? Syria is the ally ( or maybe vassal ) of Iran. Iran is our enemy. Russia is also backing Syria and its kind of a frenemy. Hezbollah is another ally of Iran, and its committed troops on behalf of Assad.
    Now, if you want to argue that we can live with a Russian-armed Assad ruling in Syria, a more powerful and belligerent Iran, and a Hezbollah entrenched in both Syria and Lebanon, well OK. Most experts think that would be bad for the US and its allies.

    Regime change may have been our hope, but it was not our policy; we took no steps to bring about regime change

    We were hoping for nonviolent change a la Tunisia. Assad proved more ruthless than we thought, and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah went all in on his behalf. They rightly saw that Assad was a strategic asset worth defending.

    What does this mean? There is no articulable harm that will come to the U.S. if Assad remains president of Syria.

    I can think of articulable harm to US allies if Assad permits Hezbollah to launch operations from Syria. Then there are those modern Russian missiles now in Syria, with more to come. And possibilities for Iran to evade sanctions by running its oil through Syria. Maybe you need to think harder.

  52. stonetools says:

    @Dave:

    There has been progress in some areas, no doubt, but that paper was published eight months ago. As UPI reported last month, the situation on the ground now, or still, includes “an estimated 500 militias and armed groups across Libya with an estimated 250,000 men under arms outside of government control.

    Turmoil after a violent revolt is par for the course. The Libyan government is struggling to establish order, and that’s a cause for concern. It’s still a better situation than it was under Gaddafi.

  53. stonetools says:

    I would like to challenge the idea that Iran is really our enemy.

    Look, I would like to think of Iran as a friend too. I’m all in favor of us holding hands and singing Kumbah Yah. But in the real world, their government opposes us. Its important to understand that a big part of our policy is to get the parties to Geneva for peace talks. Most experts think that absent this policy change, there would be no peace talks. Sometimes, you have to threaten war in order to talk peace.

  54. anjin-san says:

    I’m all in favor of us holding hands and singing Kumbah Yah.

    We already have Jenos on hand to provide nonsensical hyperbole.

  55. Spartacus says:

    @stonetools:

    The Administration has called for peace talks in Geneva. Assad would most likely not go absent this policy change.

    This is not an refutation of my claim that the U.S. hasn’t been engaged. It’s an implied acknowledgement that the claim is correct along with an explanation.

    Iran is our enemy.

    Iran is not our enemy. They haven’t attacked us; they haven’t supported an attack against us; they haven’t argued for sanctions or attacks against us; and we haven’t declared them an enemy. They pose absolutely no threat whatsoever to the U.S. None of that is in dispute. We want them not to exercise their right to develop nuclear energy capabilities and not to say mean things about Jews. That’s not an enemy.

    I have no idea what a “frenemy” means in the context of geopolitics, but Russia clearly is not our enemy and no one in the U.S. government believes they’re an enemy. Again, the only combatants and benefactors in the Syrian civil war that want to attack the U.S. are the AQ-affiliated rebels that we are about to arm.

    We were hoping for nonviolent change a la Tunisia.

    Again this is not a refutation of my claim that regime change was not U.S. policy. This is an acknowledgement that my claim is correct and an attempt at explaining why it’s correct.

    I can think of articulable harm to US allies if Assad permits Hezbollah to launch operations from Syria. Then there are those modern Russian missiles now in Syria, with more to come. And possibilities for Iran to evade sanctions by running its oil through Syria.

    So Hezbollah is going to launch an “operation” against the U.S. from Syria? I don’t think that’s going to happen. Moreover, Hezbollah has been entrenched in Syria for decades and they’ve posed no threat whatsoever to the U.S. If they launch more operations against Israel, Israel will respond militarily as it has always done and it will do so without any involvement by the U.S.

    How on earth are the defensive anti-aircraft missiles Russia sent to Syria be a threat in any way to the U.S.?

    How on earth can Iran’s evasion of economic sanctions constitute harm to U.S. when those sanctions produce absolutely no benefit to the U.S.? Those sanctions do about as much good for the U.S. as do the sanctions we’ve had on Cuba for the past 65 years. IOW, they’re nothing more than b.s. that is completely unrelated to our security whose only purpose is to satisfy certain domestic constituencies.

  56. Anatomy X5 says:

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  57. Rob in CT says:

    This decision is full of suck.

    This is exactly why Libya worried me so much.

    My modest hope for this Administration was a slow but steady disengagement with the all-around disaster area that is the Middle East (expand that to include bits of Central Asia as necessary). I had no delusions of getting back to pre-great power US foreign policy, but I did really hope to see the needle steadily moving in the right direciton. Until now, even with Libya, one could still hope for that. But we’ve just picked sides in another civil war, and Syria is not Libya (which was ideal for the use of US airpower and basically nothing else).

    The closest analogy I can think of here is arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. And hey, at least the USSR was a legit power. We’re doing this to… what? Mess with Iran?