Obama’s Syria posture: Punishment takes a back seat to deterrence

September 11, 2013

President Obama on Tuesday hit the pause button on the prospect of a military strike against Syria, telling the nation in a prime-time address that he intends to first pursue a potential diplomatic solution to the problem of President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons.


(Evan Vucci/AP)

"It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed," said Obama about a Russian plan for Syria to hand over control of its chemical weapons, "and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies."

Translation: There may well be a solution to all this that won't require a single United States military attack.

If it works, the diplomatic route might spare Obama the uphill climb of convincing a war-weary public and skeptical Congress that force is necessary. And it could accomplish Obama's goal of ensuring that Syria doesn't launch another chemical attack like the one last month the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.

But what it wouldn't do is level punishment against the Assad regime, which Obama and his aides have cited repeatedly as a justification for military intervention.

Here's how The Post's Karen DeYoung put it in a Tuesday night blog post:

As President Obama repeats that his goal for military strikes — “deterring” the use of chemical weapons — he makes no mention of punishment for Assad having used them. That seems to avoid the “consequences” for the Aug. 21 strike that he and other officials initially said was part of their justification for the proposed attack.

If the Russian proposal goes ahead and the strike is canceled in exchange for international monitoring and destruction of Syria’s chemicals, “consequences” would apparently go away.

Consider what Obama said on Aug. 31, the day he announced the surprise decision to go to Congress for approval of a military strike: "If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?"

Last Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CNN that Congress "has an opportunity this week to answer a simple question -- should there be consequences for [Assad] for having used that material?"

Obama and his aides have argued that the threat of military action spurred Syria and Russia to move toward a potential diplomatic resolution. So it can argue, in a sense, that its actions have already yielded consequences, and that if Syria agrees to hand over its chemical weapons, then the entire episode has clearly been consequential.

Still, if diplomacy wins out over military action, Syria will have avoided the very serious consequence of having to endure an attack. That appears as though it may be an acceptable trade-off for Obama, given his willingness to put a strike on hold for now.

Whether or not that is acceptable to lawmakers and the international community is what remains to be seen. If it's not, Obama will face more criticism in what has been a quickly shifting situation with many moving parts. If it is, then Obama stands to gain credit at home and abroad.

The diplomatic path may work. Or it may not. We don't know yet. But what we do know is that Obama's openness to the possibility tells us that deterrence rather than punishment is his current priority.

Aaron Blake contributed to this post.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan | September 11, 2013