FPI Bulletin: Assad Openly Challenges Obama in Syria

August 21, 2013

According to news reports, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has killed as many as 1,300 Syrians in a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. If Assad ordered the attack, it would present a brazen challenge to President Obama’s repeated warnings that chemical weapons use is a “red line” for the United States.  Sadly, the Obama administration’s feckless handling of the conflict in Syria has made such a challenge more likely.

As Joseph Holliday from the Institute for the Study of War has argued, the Assad regime has pursued a deliberate strategy of gradual escalation throughout its war against the Syrian people, using ever more deadly tactics over the past two years.  Initially, this escalation included the gradual introduction of artillery, aerial bombardment, and SCUD missiles through 2011 and 2012, culminating in the use of chemical weapons this year. 

Gradual escalation has served two purposes for Assad.  First, it has allowed his regime to increase the level of violence used against the Syrian people without incurring any international response.  Second, it has allowed Assad to send a clear and consistent message to the Syrian people—“no matter what I do to you,” his attacks say, “the world will not respond.”

This messaging is essential to Assad’s campaign because it undermines the moderate Free Syrian Army’s best hope for survival—that the United States will support their struggle for freedom.

Throughout, the Obama administration has played into Assad’s trap.  In April 2013, just a month after the President warned that Assad would be held accountable for using chemical weapons, the United States joined other world governments in assessing that “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.”  The main consequence of this finding was a request for a United Nations investigation.

Two months later, the White House announced in June 2013 that the U.S. intelligence community had “high confidence” that Assad had used chemical weapons multiple times, resulting in the deaths of as many as 150 people.  The Obama administration then committed itself to providing military support to moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, but this assistance still has not arrived.

This morning’s attack would break from this pattern in one regard. Instead of sneaking through the loopholes in Obama’s rhetoric about chemical weapons, Assad appears to offer an open challenge.  Such a massive attack would declare that Obama’s “red lines” are meaningless, that the United States is irrelevant, and that the Syrian opposition is on its own.

So far, the Obama administration’s response is not inspiring.  The White House today called for the Assad regime to allow U.N. inspectors full access to the attack site, while one American intelligence official was quoted a saying, “As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything.”

If the Obama administration does not act decisively in response to this latest outrage, then it is hard to imagine that the moderate forces among the opposition will long last against the combined onslaught of Assad’s forces and the al Qaeda-backed extremists.  Left unchecked, these combined forces will soon create in Syria what the United States has spent decades trying to avoid: the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by a rogue regime, the emergence of safe havens for terrorists in failed states, and terrorist access to WMD.

Of course, such a demonstration of American impotence will have consequences for other cases where the United States has set “red lines,” most notably in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Failure has consequences, and it is such tragedies as this morning’s attack that brings them into focus.

Over the past two years, President Obama has failed to address the catastrophe in Syria, allowing the situation to spiral out of control. For the sake of the Syrian people, the security of the United States, and the future of the Middle East, it is time for that to change.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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