Looking for Answers

Obama struggles to come to a decision on whether the U.S. should take military action in Syria. At the same time, America’s role as a peacekeeper is at stake.

Up to this point there is no ultimate certainty on whether chemical weapons were used in Syria, and if so, who did it. However, it is apparent that there are fewer doubts stemming from the reports coming out of Syria; the Syrian opposition’s claim that the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapon assault is more and more accepted as being reasonable. So how should the international community and the Western world react to this “crime against humanity”?

President Obama and England’s Prime Minister Cameron already discussed how an appropriate response could look. One of them, Obama, drew a red line last year: Whoever crosses this line and uses weapons of mass destruction will face serious consequences from the U.S. Since then, Obama’s Syria policies have been defined by hesitation and especially by the attempt to stay away from any military intervention in Syria’s civil war — a testimony to the Americans’ growing tired of intervening and a consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other, Cameron, pled vehemently back in the spring to provide the moderate rebels with weapons in order to somehow oppose Assad’s military superiority.

Not Much Enthusiasm for the Rebels Remains

In the subsequent months, not much enthusiasm is left. The main reason for this development is that radical Islamist forces gained the upper hand within the Syrian opposition. This [development] diminished hopes that the situation would ameliorate in a “post-Assad era,” and overthrowing Assad currently seems to be less likely. However, a chemical weapon assault, causing hundreds or even thousands of deaths, changes the situation. And because of this, one could theoretically consider a big “conspiracy” behind all of this: The opposition might have committed the crime themselves and/or manipulated the film footage in anticipation of a massive strike against the regime’s military facilities, by whomever. Assad’s propaganda apparatus is of course spreading this conspiracy theory, and he denies any personal involvement.

If the militarily significant Western forces come to the conclusion that a military reaction is indeed necessary — because this is about a crime against humanity, because using chemical weapons is outlawed, because their own core interests are affected — then they can’t expect to operate with a U.N. mandate. Russia, Assad’s main sponsor, and China will not authorize military action against the leaders in Syria. There shouldn’t be any doubts about that. America and other countries would thus presumably act on a very thin legal basis. Remember Iraq: we still recall the fierce debates around legality and legitimacy.

Is Obama True to His Word?

President Obama, who vehemently opposes Bush’s course of action in Iraq, thus faces a question he has tried to avoid by all means: Should he order a military attack against Syrian military facilities and the enforcement of a no-fly zone without a U.N. mandate and in direct confrontation with Moscow and Beijing, based on a presumed mass murder? And at a time when American soldiers are still involved in acts of war in Afghanistan?

Obama’s concerns about a bigger military involvement in the Syrian conflict are well-justified. However, he still needs to ask himself if he is still true to his word, if he threatens with consequences but then doesn’t take any action. Both the president’s credibility and the role of the U.S. as the world’s peacekeeper are now at stake. Included in those who will follow Obama’s response to the events in Syria with great interest are the leaders in Iran and North Korea.

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