April 12, 2024

Bad Red Line Options

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – If the Red Line has been crossed, if Syria used chemical weapons in its civil war, what will or can the United States do? President Obama set the marker when he warned of Red Line consequences, but he did not indicate what they might be. Now, he is being pressured to do so.

He is faced with an unclear-cut set of choices because there exists no significant group of American advocates who favor boots-on-the-ground American military intervention in Syria. And there is no desire to aid that portion of Syrian rebels made up of anti-American jihadists. Further, there is not yet absolute certainty that chemical weapons were actually employed and which side did so.

Assuming that confirmation is forthcoming and that it absolutely points to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, the president will be compelled to act by his own words and by international consensus that forbids the use of weapons of mass destruction, regardless of the sides involved.

In such an event, Red Line retribution scenarios could include the following:

  1. A no-fly zone could be created and enforced by the U.S. and its allies, but this would virtually ensure a rebel victory before the radical elements can be purged or neutralized, a concern raised by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in his talks with the president and congressional leaders.
  2. A targeted attack against any number of Syrian targets could be initiated simply as a punitive measure, but these would have to be massive to have any impact, and even then it is unlikely that they would have much deterrence value against a regime embroiled in a bitter war.
  3. Drone attacks could be launched against specific Syrian leaders. Such aerial-borne assassinations are the very method currently being employed against al Qaeda leaders in Yemen and elsewhere, yet al Qaeda in Syria is fighting alongside the rebels, a twist that would not be lost in the arena of world opinion.
  4. Syria’s international commerce and foreign investments could be interdicted, but this, too, would likely ensure a premature rebel victory.
  5. Direct military aid to non-al Qaeda rebels could achieve the desired result if there is a means of preventing it from reaching al Qaeda fighters, a task that might prove to be impossible.

In the end, Obama has no good choices. America is fighting and targeting al-Qaeda in several countries, and it would be self-defeating to support that group in Syria. Put in context, the Syrian Civil War is the worst iteration of the Arab Spring, that phenomenon of Arab revolts against entrenched dictators from Libya to Egypt and elsewhere. When Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt, the militant Muslim Brotherhood won power. It is not a scenario the U.S., Jordan, and their allies want to see repeated in Syria.

What then should Obama do? He cannot use covert actions to undermine al-Qaeda rebels in Syria because it would weaken the rebel cause. He cannot take steps to weaken Assad’s grip on power because al-Qaeda leaders would likely replace him. But he could commence these actions simultaneously. In short, he must do what is necessary to defeat both Assad and al-Qaeda at the same time.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
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