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America’s Syrian blunder

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why Obama’s proposed military strike against the government of Assad is likely to make a bad situation worse

President Barack Obama’s decision on a military strike against Syria demonstrates the triumph of politics over policy, fear over reason and tactics over strategy. Obama had drawn a red line on the use of chemical weapons.

The government of Bashar Al-Assad, if American intelligence is to be believed, has crossed that line. Can Obama allow Assad to call his bluff? It is very possible that Obama is acting to protect his and America’s credibility so as not to appear weak.


When you are a super power (or a leader of a super power), you cannot afford to make empty threats. Inability to enforce your threats sets a dangerous precedent. Upstarts are always watching you for signs of weakness.

In international relations, power is both myth and reality. But the myth is always more important than the reality. When others perceive you to be strong, they shape their behavior towards you in line with that perception. Should you exhibit weakness, it will be a signal for them to disregard your demands.

From this perspective therefore, it is understandable why Obama had to honour his word. But it also shows that it is Obama’s loose rhetoric, not policy or strategy, and not even American national interest that have committed him to intervene in Syria.

What is the strategic objective of the proposed military strike? What is the outcome against which to measure success? Is the action merely punitive i.e. limited to punishing the Assad government with cruise missile strikes but not overthrowing it? What would such token action achieve? Will it stop Assad from using chemical weapons again? What if it does not?

The effective response would be to bomb Assad out of power. Indeed, this would also be the logical end if military strikes do not alter Assad’s behavior. However, if Assad is toppled, it will create a vacuum in an already volatile country.

Currently, the most effective and best-organised armed group to seize power in the event Assad’s government collapses is a collection of radical Islamic militants allied to Al Qaeda. Is this the alternative to Assad’s control of chemical weapons that America is looking for?

To avoid chemical weapons falling into the hands of these groups, America’s military strike would have to be effective enough to destroy every nook and cranny where they are hidden. However, most military experts on Syria say the regime has been dispersing them across the country, making it difficult for any set of military strikes, however well targeted, to destroy all of them.

This means that a military strike would either leave a weakened, desperate, paranoid government increasingly gravitating toward extremism still holding on to chemical weapons or cause it to fall in circumstances where the confederates of Al Qaeda get their fingers on them.

Therefore, the best option for Obama is to actually send in American troops on the ground to secure chemical weapons’ sites. America would then have to establish a military occupation as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It would have to choose a successor government and commit itself to fighting an inevitable civil war whose end would be unclear. Yet Obama has ruled out this option because he has been critical of such open-ended commitments.

Obama has done everything (and worse) on Syria which he criticised George Bush of doing on Iraq. He has decided on a military strike based on intelligence he has neither shared with allies nor with other global players like Russia.

He has ignored the UN Security Council in favour of unilateral action. He is committing US treasure in a conflict where there is no clear American interest at stake. Finally the US does not even have a “coalition of the willing” like Bush had and its poodle, Britain, has opted out of the war.

Of course intervention is understandable from a moral perspective. It may be dangerous for the world to watch a government use chemical weapons against its citizens and get away with it. But this moral justification is hypocritical.

There are many regimes doing bad things or even worse to their citizens than Syria and some of them are being supported by America. Therefore, this holier-than-thou attitude of the West can only be bought by the uninitiated. And if the issue is of international law, then Obama should seek the approval of the UN Security Council, which he has ruled out.

It is possible that Obama is betting on no intervention. A sign of this was his decision to seek congressional approval for the military strike. If congress refuses as the UK parliament did, it will have provided Obama with some face-saving exit out of his red line threats. Yet the US president has already said that although he will seek Congressional approval, he does not actually need it.

He made it clear that he has already made the decision on a military strike and that it can happen “tomorrow or next week.” So what is Congressional approval for if he has already decided?

Obama’s blunders in Syria are actually a failure of imagination. There is a path to a solution although difficult to craft. It is seeking a political settlement to Syria’s intractable armed conflict.

I am not a fan of internationally negotiated peace agreements because they rarely work. But Syria is worth a try because both sides seem to have fought themselves to a stalemate. It is therefore possible that the warring factions can find some form of political accommodation more attractive than continued combat.

America and her allies need to begin looking at Iran, China and Russia, not as spoilers, but as strategic allies. America needs to understand the fears and temptations of these stakeholders, rather than pursue its own vision in Syria.

What is driving their policy? How can their interests be reconciled with those of America and her allies? Russia and Iran seem to have a close relationship with the Syrian government. They can persuade Assad to accept a deal.

America can also persuade her confederates in Syria’s opposition to do the same. This will isolate forces allied to Al Qaeda. So far, Obama has been demonising Russia and Iran.

Yet he is the same man who promised during his 2008 campaign that he would seek to work with others. In demonising Russia and Iran, he has made himself part of the problem rather than part of a solution.

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