President Obama, criticized for delaying a punitive military response in Syria, indicated on Sunday that some kind of action against dictator Bashar al-Assad was imminent. Assad, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to shore up his regime by inviting U.N. inspectors to probe allegations of chemical-weapons use, thus offering a measure of appeasement to the international community.
For both Obama and Assad, the moves amounted to notable concessions. In a CNN interview on Sunday, Obama continued to take the line that there is little the United States can do to affect the outcome in Syria. Nonetheless, the president appears to be taking on board arguments that his credibility is at risk if he doesn’t act soon. The Obama administration has announced twice since June that it believes the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people and has therefore crossed the “red line” the president laid down a year ago. But there has been no discernible change in U.S. policy as yet.
Assad, who has found himself increasingly isolated internationally except for support from Iran and Russia, seems to be sensing a shift in the wind of the Arab Spring, one that might help him to gloss over the brutality of the counter-insurrection that has left more than 100,000 of his people dead. In recent weeks, the democracy movement that began in Tunisia and Egypt has been oddly transformed into popular support for a military regime not unlike Assad’s. Neighboring states that have sought Assad’s ouster, such as Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf countries, are now backing the Egyptian junta despite a bloody crackdown that has left more than a thousand Egyptian protesters dead. And, like Assad, the Egyptian military sees itself as arrayed against radical Islamists.
Despite Assad’s apparent shift in permitting the U.N. in to inspect the sites of a purported chemical-weapons attack, U.S. officials hardened the Obama administration’s line on Sunday, indicating strongly that some kind of military response was being planned. “At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible,” one senior administration official said after a weekend-long series of meetings about how to respond. This official said Assad’s concession would change nothing “because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days.”¦ Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts, and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”
The official said various military options were being considered. Those are said to include surgical strikes using aircraft or cruise missiles. Yet even here, the president and his spokespeople were careful to limit the parameters of likely military action to what may amount to a one-off operation. In an interview on CNN, Obama said the reports about chemical-weapons use, which include some vivid video of dead women and children, indicate “this is clearly a big event of grave concern.” But he added that the U.S. is “moving through the U.N. to try to prompt better action,” and that America will “work within an international framework to do everything we can to see Assad ousted.” Obama also cautioned that “the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.”
For Obama, the critical question will be whether he can restore some credibility to a Mideast policy that has been roundly criticized for being indecisive and reactive, without getting too enmeshed in Syria. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, writing in the Financial Times, suggests that limited action such as cruise-missile strikes against chemical-weapons sites or Syrian command and control might do just that, offering “a way to reinforce critical norms without getting drawn into a costly and uncertain war.”
But some administration officials remain concerned about the infamous “Pottery Barn” rule attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who reportedly warned President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq, “If you break it, you own it.”