Jewish Journal


Thinking Methodically About Syria, Red Lines and Chemicals

by Shmuel Rosner

April 29, 2013 | 12:01 pm

Syrian protesters silhouetted behind a Syrian opposition flag. Photo by Reuters

Amid all the talk about “red lines” and “chemicals” one might get a little confused about both the facts and the conclusions that should be drawn. The following is a quick and incomplete guide with which to follow the debate:

Chemical weapons, yes or no:

Yes, there was certainly use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces (or so both Israeli and American intelligence agencies say). Last week's confusion was the outcome of miscommunication. The question remains though: were the chemicals used as a local initiative, or as a result of direct orders from Assad's headquarters.

House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. revealed the other day that “there is also classified information that we have, that I think strengthens the case that in fact some small amount of chemical weapons have been used over the course of the last two years”. Former head of Mossad Meir Dagan told the attendees of the JPost conference that despite Assad’s many war crimes, the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war was a “local decision” and it was “not approved by the Syrian government”. The “small amount” and the “not approved” give the Obama administration some room to maneuver as it can argue that the question of Syria's crossing the red line isn’t yet settled, that what the President was talking about is chemical weapons being used systematically or a danger of them falling to the hands of terrorists.

Red line, yes or no:

Sure, Obama drew the line – for reasons unclear. Senator John McCain rightly argues that when “the president drew red lines about chemical weapons” he was “thereby giving a green light to Bashar Assad to do anything short of that”.

Obama is, in fact, usually an opponent of red lines himself, but for another reason. He laid it out when Israel wanted him to draw a red line on Iran: he reasonably argued that a red line is a trap that limits the ability of decision makers to act when circumstances change.

That’s exactly what happened to the President with Syria: he drew the line, and now he's trying to explain why the line isn’t really a line, or the red is merely pink. He is trapped by his own rhetoric. Nevertheless, one could still argue that in this case the line was necessary to deter Assad from using chemicals – and we could also argue that if what we’ve seen thus far is only a “small amount” of “locally approved” use of chemicals – then the strategy worked. So you can see why determining “who gave the order” is important from every angle you look at the problem.

Action, yes or no:

Obviously, and for many good reasons, the Obama administration doesn’t really want to act in Syria, and doesn’t want to be dragged into involvement because of the statement made by the President about chemicals being a red line. Should Obama change his mind? The answer is not easy, and needs clarification from those arguing for involvement. All in all, there are three main reasons that could be found in the articles and speeches of the people who are calling for action:

  1. Moral: if one says that the US can’t just stand by and watch as Assad uses chemicals against his own people, one will easily conquer the moral higher ground. But does the US truly want to intervene whenever a dictator kills his people? Does it want to intervene no matter the cost of the involvement? Being moral is admirable, but it isn’t easy. Surely, Obama wants to be moral too, but he doesn’t think that in this case the American people will be willing to pay the price of morality.
  2. Strategic interest: Is it necessary for the sake of American national interests for its military forces to intervene in Syria? Is the current Syrian situation a direct threat to American interests and security? That isn’t an easy sell to make, and it only works better- to an extent- if it is presented as a complicated chain of reactions: if Syria is a mess, it threatens Lebanon, and emboldens Iran, and weakens Jordan, and does all kind of other things that ultimately might result in damage to American interests in the region. As I said: not an easy sell.
  3. Image: this is a different kind of strategic interest. Image is important to every country, and is particularly important to a country which is supposed to be the leader of the free world. A leader can’t draw a red line and then do nothing about it when the line is crossed. A leader can’t just let a country become a bloody mess without attempting to lead an effort to save it. If the US is a leader, and if it wants to remain a leader, it has to demonstrate its leadership. If it wants other countries to fear it, to admire it, to depend on it, to take its advice seriously, the US can’t be a reluctant bystander.

Does Israel care, yes or no:

Officially, no. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told his ministers to keep silent about Syria to avoid giving the impression that Israel is pushing the international community into armed intervention. The ministers are trying to follow his orders: “We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria”, Minister Yuval Steinitz explained. For Israel, American intervention could be good and bad. It could be good because it could give the region a taste of American power and determination and it might give the Iranians some food for thought. It could be bad since it might drain American resources and draw all the attention away from Iran.

Bottom Line:

If one wants to see American action, the excuse is available.

If one doesn’t want to see action, one can still get away with it.

Is American action advisable? Morally- for sure; strategically- it’s more ambiguous.

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