What did President Obama’s speech of Tuesday night tell us? That’s not hard to discern. In his own words, President Obama said, connoted, and conveyed the following:
- The whole Syria policy and campaign is intrinsically linked to Iran. President Obama said, “A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.”
- The purpose of a military airstrike against Syria is to “deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.” So the goalpost has moved, from what was once the “Responsibility to Protect” civilians from mass atrocities – known as the R2P principle – which was implemented in the Libya 2011 NATO campaign, to now the use of chemical weapons. Down the road, will the goalpost shift yet again?
- President Obama possesses “the authority to order military strikes,” yet he felt the need to respect U.S. democracy and take the debate to Congress. That means that he is making gestures toward Congress for political legitimacy at the domestic level for military strikes against Syria, but leaves open a huge window to employ his executive authority to order the airstrikes, with or without that political endorsement. This raises the question of whether or not the airstrikes, if and when they are carried out, will be defined as “war.” The War Powers Resolution imposes certain parameters on the President, once he engages in military actions in the context of (conventional) war, understood as deploying troops on the ground. Given that President Obama has promised not to put troops on the ground in Syria, that might allow the military airstrikes to sidestep the definition of war, as was the case the President made with the Libya campaign. NATO led that campaign against Qaddafi, which allowed the President to say that the U.S. is not engaging in a war; it is carrying out cooperative engagement within the framework of NATO, without troops on the ground, and without the intent of regime change. We know how it ended for Qaddafi, nonetheless.
- President Obama asked every member of Congress and viewers at home to watch the videos of the August 21st chemical attack. He uses the word “children” seven times, and “infant” and “our kids” also added in his speech. Clearly, he is appealing to the audience’s compassion and humanitarian sensitivities and ideals. It’s an emotional appeal for reserving the U.S. right to carry out airstrikes against specific targets inside Syria, which may in turn lead inadvertently to more chaos and civilian deaths.
- Diplomacy engines are working hard, and the ball was lobbed into Russia’s court. Russia responded by saying they would be glad to oversee the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. The ball is now back in the U.S. court. President Obama is giving diplomacy a chance. But, at the same time, the President unequivocally maintains that the U.S. has the military standing by to continue to apply pressure on Assad, and act in the event that diplomacy fails.
What President Obama omitted, did not address, or left in a grey area included the following:
- He said that, “We cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The U.S. responsibility for actually triggering civil war, arguably in Iraq following the troops pull-out, and potentially after the 2014 pull-out from Afghanistan, is not mentioned or addressed. Anyone who has watched the film or read the book, Charlie Wilson’s War, learns that after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. packed its bags and left the Af-Pak region, despite Representative Wilson’s pleas for U.S. investments in Afghanistan’s postwar education sector. The moment that happened, Afghanistan descended into civil war. This also conveys the lesson that once a country enters a war, the chaos and instability does not end after the ceasefire or peace takes hold, or the core objectives of that country are achieved.
- Chemical weapons use is not tolerated. But, killing civilians by conventional means since 2011, with a death count beyond the 100,000 mark, is unchallenged.
- The poison gas sarin is mentioned a few times. While some analysts have said that rebels could not have deployed chemical weapons because it requires sophisticated technology, no one has mentioned the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in Japan’s Tokyo subway in 1995. The cult, Aum Shinrikyo, coordinated five attacks on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring fifty severely.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), this is how the Aum Shinrikyo operatives carried out the sarin gas attack (see http://www.cfr.org/japan/aum-shinrikyo/p9238):
“During the morning rush hour on one of the world’s busiest commuter systems, Aum members put a liquid form of sarin, tightly contained in packages made to look like lunch boxes or bottled drinks, onto five cars on three separate subway lines that converged at the Kasumigaseki station, where several government ministries are located. The perpetrators punctured the packages with umbrellas and left them in subway cars and stations, where they began to leak a thick liquid. Witnesses said that subway entrances resembled battlefields as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground with blood gushing from their noses or mouths. Twelve members of Aum, including Aum founder Shoko Asahara, were sentenced to death for the subway attack.”
- President Obama said, “Al Qaeda (AQ) will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.” Who’s to say that AQ can’t still get its hands on some chemical weapons? By the way, many argue that U.S. airstrikes will actually intensify the chaos in Syria, not alleviate it.
One of the take-aways from the President’s speech tonight is that this issue or crisis will drag on for much longer. Diplomacy is a slow process; civilians will continue to die; waves of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will continue to flow within and outside Syria; and all the while the clock is ticking for Russia, Syria, and Iran to finalize the proposed deal with the U.S. with some U.N. involvement. That will take a long time, and all the efforts might still come to naught.
Will the U.S. military remain mobilized while the clock ticks? President Obama says yes. Will important, pressing American domestic issues be addressed and resolved, like the debt ceiling, the budget, Sequestration, Obamacare, and the health of the economy in general? If the Syria crisis remains in crisis status in the eyes of the U.S. President and Congress, then we can be assured that those pressing domestic issues will be placed on the backburner, and kicked down the road.
The most important component of the Obama plan and strategy is the word “deterrence.” If chemical weapons are dismantled and removed out of Syria, then what? Will that deter Assad from killing his own people? Not likely.
If the U.S. carries out the airstrikes against Syria, will this action deter Assad from killing his own people? Not likely. The targeted strikes might degrade Assad’s capability to use WMDs, but certainly he will not wave a white flag and declare a ceasefire. He might even try to crush the resistance even harder.
A big picture, long-term vision in the plan and strategy for Syria must be considered, for not just deterring Assad from using WMDs, but for comprehensive, sustainable conflict resolution.
The U.S. must illustrate that the goalpost remains at R2P, and not a new yardstick, or “red line,” of civilian suffering only by use of chemical weapons unleashed against them.
War is counterproductive for all parties involved, including the U.S., Iran, Russia, and Syria. Sun Tzu said, “All war is deception.”
The bottom line from this speech, in very simple terms, is that it’s all about the geopolitical chess game with Iran. Who will shout “checkmate” first is anyone’s guess.
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.