Obama remains trapped. On the one hand, he is harassed by his own doubts and those of many of his aides, including important voices in the Pentagon, advising on the risks of American involvement in the conflict in Syria. However, on the other hand, for two and a half years an unsustainable pressure has been building up, both internally and externally, forcing the White House towards intervention despite all opposing factors.
Accordingly, before seeking to understand the possible American interests in attacking Syria, first we must ask why Washington did not intervene during this time. The answer is not one but many factors, ranging from the risks of penetrating a zone of Russian geopolitical influence to their own internal budget problems, the low probability of a successful outcome of an armed attack, the majority of American public opinion which is opposed to such an operation, the impossibility of obtaining U.N. support, the potential expansion of the conflict and even the strong presence of militant jihadi linked to al-Qaida in the rank and file of the Syrian rebellion. With so many opposing factors, then why attack?
It is necessary to understand that the United States does not currently find itself in a phase of global geopolitical expansion; rather, it is in a state of withdrawal. Their interests in this intervention are not, therefore, in trying to acquire a new sphere of influence, an additional source of oil or energy, or altering the power structures of the Middle East. If this were the case, Washington would have had to attack much sooner, above all when Bashar al-Assad’s regime was clearly much weaker and overthrowing it would have been much simpler, but not now that it has regained its strength.
Nor are we dealing with a humanitarian or moral incursion, although this is what the White House is calling it—what else can it say?. The states do not act according to those sorts of considerations, but according to their strategic blueprints, agendas and their perception and evaluation of the cost of their actions against the benefits they will obtain, as measured in terms of their national interests. The Syrian conflict has already produced close to 120,000 deaths, millions of children and adults displaced as refugees, and crimes documented by the United Nations which have been perpetrated by both the rebellion, armed and financed by Washington’s regional allies, and by the Assad regime, armed and financed by countries like Russia and Iran. To think at this point in the civil war, after all this unfortunate information, that a deep desire for the protection of human life and dignity has suddenly emerged is disingenuous.
It is not at all like that. The White House’s interest is a very different one. Throughout his five years in government, Obama has been perceived as a very weak president by his own people and his opponents. At a domestic level, this was met with criticism expressed during the rocky presidential campaign of 2012. At that time, Romney complained that Obama had abandoned Israel, and that he did not act strongly against countries like Iran, or against the other global superpowers. He also argued with him, and firmly, on the subject of Syria. As a result, in August this year, Obama was obligated to draw a “red line.”
The line was one which allowed him to show a certain amount of strength, but at the same time, one which, in his own estimation, was not going to be violated, thereby forcing him to get involved: Only if Assad were to use chemical weapons against his people would it lead to greater American intervention in the conflict.
On the other hand, the weakness of Obama has also been perceived and used by external parties. This has granted them ample scope to carry out actions that in other times would have perhaps produced a tougher response on the part of Washington. For example, situations such as the Chinese occupation of the disputed territories in their bordering seas, the asylum that Moscow provided to Snowden, or the level to which the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs have progressed involve at least a certain amount of this perceived weakness. Perhaps this also explains why Assad, despite having understood the limits imposed by Obama, could have violated them a number of times—as was documented by the U.N. prior to last week’s incident— always believing that the United States would not act.
The problem is this: At the margins of what the United Nations does or does not say, there does not appear to be any doubt in Washington: the red line drawn by Obama has been crossed by the Syrian regime. In fact, this certainty was already expressed by the White House in June of this year. Having accepted that back then without subsequently acting on that knowledge, an unsustainable situation was already resulting for the leader of the world’s greatest power.
Obama’s objective, then, is not only to tell Assad that he should not cross the line. The White House seeks to send a message which will be read in many other parts of the globe, from North Korea to Iran, from Beijing to Moscow: The United States will not hesitate to intervene when it considers it necessary, regardless of whether its initiatives have been vetoed by the United Nations, regardless of its debt, its budgetary problems, or whether it is a zone of influence of one of its enemies. Obama needs his internal opposition, and the rest of the world, to know that he is not a weak leader, that the superpower is not afraid to act. The great risk lies in the possibility that his enemies want to convey the exact opposite message, and decide to continue to cross the red lines he paints, or to escalate the conflict to levels that Washington does not desire.