Five reasons the U.S. doesn’t act on Syria chemical weapons reports


People carry the body of a civilian on a stretcher after what activists say was a gas attack in the Ghouta area, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. (REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah)

With the exception of the Obama administration's official acknowledgment in June that Syria had almost certainly used chemical weapons against civilians, a moment it used to announce the shipment of some small arms to rebels, the United States has not shown much of a response to Syrian chemical weapons. It later turned out that even the U.S. weapons shipment announced in June had actually been decided weeks earlier.

That trend appears to be continuing today, with horrifying if unconfirmed reports of a mass chemical weapon attack in Damascus, which has so far not prompted much more than a statement of concern from the White House and a request for a U.N. Security Council meeting, both largely symbolic responses.

Why has the Obama administration been so relatively inactive -- or, many argue, restrained -- in response to the drumbeat of chemical weapons reports out of Syria? It's tough to know the White House's internal debate, much less President Obama's personal thought process, for sure. But a great deal can be inferred from the administration's statements and policies in the year since Obama announced, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus."

Here are, from what I can tell, the five overarching reasons why the White House, and thus the United States, is choosing to do little more in response than send some small arms and lobby a bit at the United Nations for a tepid Security Council resolution that has little chance of passing.

1. Domestic politics offer high risk, low reward for acting

It's a sad testament to the way foreign policy is made that the likely biggest factor guiding White House thinking on Syria has little to do with either Syria or U.S. foreign policy. But the truth is that within Washington, the White House has little to gain and lots to lose for trying to help Syrian civilians under threat of chemical weapons attacks.

Any White House cares first and foremost about domestic politics, and this administration was punished severely for its leadership on Libya; many of the same political voices that demanded the intervention spent months hammering the White House when, in the foreseeably dangerous post-conflict disorder of Benghazi, a militant group succeeded in attacking the local U.S. diplomatic outpost and killing the ambassador. You might think that Libya would have been considered a political success for the Obama administration, but it became a major political liability.

The White House’s efforts to reach out to Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia, meanwhile, received condemnation and criticism at home. Pragmatic, long-view Middle East watchers turn out to represent a fairly narrow slice of the American electorate. And political figures who ask the White House to take big foreign policy risks appear quite willing to punish the administration if anything goes wrong.

2. Obama wants a negotiated settlement in Syria; ostracizing Assad makes this harder

President Obama's interview with Charlie Rose in June, as well as contemporaneous administration statements to the press, made clear that he's not seeking to outright topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. This is partly because the United States is wary of a chaotic or rebel-run Syria, and partly because the administration wants stability first and foremost. That means seeking a peace deal between the rebels and the regime -- one that would leave some elements of the government in place, though not Assad himself.

Chemical weapons reports make this strategy a lot more awkward to pursue. They make leaving some elements of the Assad regime in place tougher to justify and tougher to sell to the stakeholders in the conflict, particularly Turkey and Qatar and other countries that want to see the regime gone.

3. Obama wants stability, not escalation, in Syria

What measures the United States has taken in Syria have appeared aimed at maintaining some sort of balance between the rebels and the Assad regime, enough to prevent an outright Assad victory but not enough to tip the balance. The White House clearly fears what would happen if the country imploded into the chaos of total state failure. That means that even if it doesn't like Assad, it also isn't thrilled about the idea of U.S.-armed rebels pushing him out just yet.

Despite his earlier statements that Syrian chemical weapons usage would cross his "red line," Obama ultimately doesn't seem to believe that throwing substantially greater support to the rebels is a good strategy. Right or wrong, this informs why he's reacting to chemical weapons reports with, depending on your point of view, either inaction or restraint.

4. Muddying the chemical weapons "red line" without erasing it

It's not exactly a secret that the Obama administration has been significantly softening its language on where it's drawing a red line on chemical weapons in Syria and how it would respond. The trick here is that this "red line" matters for more than just Syria; it matters for upholding the international taboo against chemical weapons.

It appears that the Obama administration wants to uphold this norm without forcing itself to intervene more forcefully in Syria. Squaring those two goals has led it into some real contortions: at times by playing down the red line, and at others by playing up its response. That gets tougher as the Assad regime continues, assuming these latest reports are true, to successfully call the administration's bluffs.

5. Doesn't want to commit to the rebels

Extremists are making up a growing share of the Syrian rebel movement, some of the most prominent allied explicitly with al-Qaeda. The United States has seen this movie before, in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when it backed extremist militant groups against the Soviet invasion force. That did not exactly pay off for the United States long-term, so it's understandable why Washington is hesitant to send arms, money or even rhetorical support to a rebel movement that could conceivably turn against the West.

Here's what this has to do with Syrian chemical weapons reports: The worse that the Assad regime makes itself look, the tougher it is for the United States to call for a negotiated settlement or to hold back support from the rebels. So, given the Obama administration's preferred plan on Syria, it doesn't have much of an interest in playing up the chemical weapons reports.

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