Obama, Assad, and the Credibility Game

The U.S. president knows he must strike, while the Syrian dictator plays for time.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks to journalists after his meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, November 13, 2008. The visiting leader  said that US President Barack Obama should come up with a firm plan of action to renew peace talks between Syria and Israel.  UPI/Eco Clement
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Aug. 26, 2013, 2:12 a.m.

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.”

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