Obama’s “interesting times” (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse) are upon him.
President Obama will address the nation on Tuesday to make his case for action in Syria, as Congress returns from summer recess. He is up against an overwhelming majority not only at home, but also in the international community.
The latest and most dangerous phase in the Syrian civil war began with a chemical attack on a residential neighborhood of Damascus during the night of August 21, 2013. That a chemical attack of some kind took place was quickly self-evident. What was not were the casualties, ranging from an estimate in the low hundreds to a preposterously precise 1,429 – a number the US government seemed to accept without reservation, even though none of the groups reporting it could substantiate.
What was interesting was the rapidity with which the US and many other Western governments accepted without question the complicity of the Syrian government in the attack, even though no one to my knowledge has ever indicated just why that government –- which is finally winning its civil war -– would effectively snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by doing something so self-defeating, for no discernible military or political purpose.
At least as interesting was the unwillingness of the US and its allies to officially consider the possibility that one or more of the rebel groups (there being so single unified rebel command) might itself have made the attack, simply to precipitate outside intervention and avert defeat. Unlike the Syrian government, which had nothing to gain and everything to lose from such an atrocity, the rebels –- all of them –- had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Compounding this exercise in official self-deception or duplicity (the latter more likely) was a great reluctance on the part of official Washington to acknowledge publicly the brutal character of all sides in this civil war, and the unpleasant fact that the Syrian opposition included elements of Al-Qaeda –- supposedly our great enemy in the misbegotten “global war on terror” for twelve years, but in Syria the indirect recipient of weapons, training and other assistance from the US and others.
The crisis quickly assumed a military nature, with many in the Obama administration and others declaring that this atrocity required some type of punitive action for a variety of reasons. As at the beginning, the action was consistently attributed to the Syrian government without a shred of hard evidence of that, other than the identification of the chemical used as Sarin, something readily available on the clandestine international arms market as well as from many intelligence agencies – just as (e.g.) the US CIA provided sophisticated “Stinger” SAMs to Afghan insurgents fighting the USSR. The principal military option discussed was using naval and air forces to launch cruise missiles against selected Syrian targets from a distance, presumably in a limited strike (whatever “limited” means in a practical sense) without any need for ground troops to be introduced. President Obama’s speech on July 31, 2013 declaring both his intention to strike Syria and his referral of that action to the Congress for its endorsement, seemed to set everything in motion.
Something of this type had been in the making for some time, awaiting only a useful provocation, real or contrived. For two decades, the US has been working its way around the Middle East, beating up on Israel’s enemies, with Syria and Iran bringing the two remaining outliers in late 2013. In this context, an attack on Syria would be sort of a “consolation prize” for Israel, which wants both Syria and Iran hit, but would like more to see Iran taken out –- an attack on Syria perhaps opening the way for one later on Iran. It seems that the Obama administration expected active support from a number of traditional US allies, especially in NATO. And Obama genuinely appears to have thought that Congressional approval would be a “done deal,” once he had the leadership of both parties in both houses on board — and he got that quickly — with AIPAC doing a full-court press telling the Hill just how important it was to Israel that the US do this.
Things didn’t work out that way. Britain’s Parliament voted against participating in a military strike against Syria, thus depriving the US of its most steadfast past ally and the legitimizer of so many of its military interventions. Only a handful of other countries expressed support for the US position. Russia and China adamantly opposed the use of force against Syria and dismissed what the US government called “evidence” as “nonsense,” which made it effectively impossible for the US to go to the United Nations for support.
I have nonetheless been intrigued by the White House’s portrayal of its refusal to go to the UN Security Council because that body is supposedly hamstrung by a Russian veto, for three reasons: First, it would not be only Russia but also China, with Britain abstaining and only France backing the US, among the permanent members. Second, even without the veto, the US would lose — and lose badly — in a straight majority vote, given the declared positions on an attack on Syria voiced by the 10 non-permanent members of the UNSC. And third, the US position is something between laughable and pitiful, given the dozens of times it has used its own veto to shield Israel — many times on 14-to-1 votes, with all of our allies against it. The US position is essentially akin to a thief crying out, “I wuz robbed!”
Even worse news for Obama came from the public and from Capitol Hill. No one anticipated the huge groundswell in public opposition to an attack on Syria by the US virtually alone, and that opposition spanned the political and partisan spectrum. Every single senator and representative was deluged with emails, phone calls & office visits by their constituents, sometimes running 10-to-1 against the resolution. The leadership in the Congress had all said that a vote on this resolution was a “conscience issue,” which meant that there would be, and could be, no attempt to impose party discipline (even as that is defined loosely in the US). And an especially devastating public relations blow came on September 5, 2013, when the New York Times carried a front-page story of rebel atrocities with a graphic picture, and the major TV news services covered that story all day and the next – making “are those the barbarians Obama wants us to support?” a compelling and all but unanswerable question.
The effect of this decision, plus an unusual degree of public input into the process and adverse media publicity, is crushing to Administration hopes for Congressional support. The latest “head count” on Capitol Hill has a majority (246) of the Representatives voting “no” or leaning that way with 161 more undecided, and only 217 votes “no” are needed to kill the Syria war resolution. The Senate has 33 “no” or leaning that way and only 25 in favor, with 42 undecided — but their 41 “no” votes suffice to keep the measure from being put to a vote.
Moreover, this has also turned unintentionally into a test case of how Americans and the Congress react when the dynamic shifts from “this [Iranian nuclear ambitions, Syrian chemical munitions — forget for now the veracity of both] is bad and something needs to be done” to “it is bad and we alone, or mostly so, will deal with it.”
Both Israel and its lobby here cannot like what is unfolding, because absent UN endorsement and a cobbled-together coalition, a large majority of the public and therefore members at least of the House of Representatives are saying, in effect, “hell, no, we won’t go.”
One way or the other, what happens will be settled within two weeks or less. A “no” from the Congress after the very public position Obama has taken would be politically catastrophic for him. This is not a parliamentary system. If he acceded, he would stand as a fool; if he attacked anyway, he would be impeached and his agenda in ruins.
Complicating things internationally, within 10 days, if news reports are correct, several additional Russian warships — including a powerful missile cruiser named the Moskva — will reach the Eastern Mediterranean, as will at least one Chinese warship now transiting the Red Sea (there are some reports of others, including at least one submarine, but I cannot say for certain). Probably the only possible “out” for Obama is a Russian proposal for Syria to relinquish its chemical munitions under international supervision, which might be the straw Obama grabs to avert other and (for him politically, at least) far worse alternatives.
So here is how it is shaping up as we enter the end game. Obama simply has to avoid a crushing “no” vote in the House of Representatives and nothing better than stalemate in the Senate, or his political goose is cooked & carved for dinner the remainder of his time in office.
So does he declare defeat in advance of the vote? I doubt it. Does he accept the Russian proposal? I hope so, because the only alternative left is a strike before Congress votes, and especially before Russian and Chinese warships assemble off Syria, after which he cannot attack without courting absolute disaster or humiliation if those warships simply shot down the incoming cruise missiles, which would have to pass over the warships en route to targets in Syria — and what could be more humiliating to Obama than to order a missile strike launched that then went missing? So any attack would have to come on or immediately after the 9/11 memorials to rally support or at least to mute opposition, a dicey proposition at best. Obama’s “interesting times” (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse) are upon him.
Dr. Alan Sabrosky (Ph.D, University of Michigan) is a ten-year US Marine Corps veteran and a 1986 graduate of the US Army War College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org