Obama is boxed in on Syria

President Obama faces “no win” situations at home and abroad no matter the outcome of the military actions he authorizes in Syria in response to the use of chemical agents.

First, he must set the stage, and that means offering the best proof available that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday, “Yesterday I made clear that the intelligence community is working on an assessment and that once we had that assessment, we would provide information to the public about it.”

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Wednesday that it would be “this week.”

More than statements from U.N. inspectors and Syrian victims or doctors are required. Physical evidence will be key, as well as intelligence — varied documents, including intercepted verbal messages would help.

“One can only hope the Obama administration understands . . . its first unclassified report is not a minor event,” Anthony Cordesman said. He is an intelligence and national security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Many remember the George W. Bush administration’s cherry-picking intelligence used to support the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. When the Obama administration’s unclassified Syria assessment comes out, “every error, every overstatement or fact in that first report that does not prove out over time, will impact on U.S. credibility indefinitely,” Cordesman wrote.

He warned: “The limits and flaws in what that initial report says will fuel every anti-American conspiracy theory in the region. So will any failure to constantly follow up the report by further validating it undermine its credibility where it proves to be correct.”

Harf has said sources and methods will be protected in the unclassified version. Noting that some published reports had indicated that there were intercepted conversations related to Syrian forces using chemical weapons, she cautioned “against anyone assuming that any signals intelligence or any human intelligence will be included in that unclassified version” because the intelligence community wanted “to be able to use them in the future to detect future use of these kinds of weapons.”

The Bush administration had allowed transcripts from overheard conversations to be used by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003.

Harf did indicate indirectly that there may be evidential proof of the specific Syrian Army-owned weapons used in the Aug. 21 chemical attack.

She said, “Multiple rockets fired through a certain delivery system” carried out the chemical attack “against a wide swath of area.” She added, “There is one party in Syria who has the capability to do that, and it’s the Assad regime.”

As for speculation that elements within the Syrian opposition did it, she said, “Our assessment remains crystal clear, that they don’t have the capability.”

Of course, proving that negative will be impossible to those who refuse to believe it.

But satisfying critics about Assad ordering the attack is just the beginning of Obama’s problems.

As Harf acknowledged to reporters, there is no precedent for taking military action against a country that, like Syria, is not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

But as she quickly pointed out, the convention only went into force in 1997 “and since then, we haven’t actually seen a massive use of chemical weapons in the same way that we just saw recently.”

Of course, that won’t sell well in Iran and other countries in the Middle East and South Asia that were reminded as recently as Monday of the Reagan administration’s posture. In the late 1980s, not only did the Reagan White House take no action when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and his own people but the United States also aided the attacks by providing intelligence.

Monday’s Tehran Times wrote: “U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Saddam Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent,” repeating information published Monday by Foreign Policy on its Web site.

But Obama’s troubles are deeper still.

Already, critics have lined up. They say whatever military response he authorizes will expand the Syrian bloodshed or have no effect at all on the Assad regime. It will be the beginning of a greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war or, if not followed up, will encourage the Syrians to use chemicals again.

At home, Obama faces lawmakers’ demands that he seek congressional approval for any action, based on the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Forget that every president since has essentially paid lip service to its provisions.

Or how about the lawmakers who say none of this would have been necessary if the United States, more than a year ago, had provided extensive military support for a no-fly zone and safe area within Syria to train the opposition — all without congressional approval.

I won’t even deal with the armchair generals who question what weapons to use and where. Then there are the historians and lawyers who want to bring in precedents such as Kuwait, Kosovo or Libya, citing moral and international laws.

Not that Obama needs any more guidance, but perhaps we in the public should pause for a moment and put ourselves in his shoes.

I thought of the saying, “First, do no harm.”

Its possible origins, most likely ancient Greek Hippocratic writing Epidemics, is even more pertinent:

“The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future — must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”

Substitute Syria for disease and maybe it’s applicable as a concept. Think of it as extended Obamacare.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

 
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