Britain’s decision not to participate in a potential military strike on Syria, in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, constitutes a serious blow to U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise to hold Assad accountable. Despite saying categorically in August 2011 that Assad must step down, Obama has been reluctant to provide support for rebels fighting the Syrian dictatorship. It was a year later in August 2012 — with Assad still holding on to power and showing increased brutality in what had by then become a full-fledged civil war — that Obama declared the use of chemical weapons to be a red line, the crossing of which would carry severe consequences. Another year later, in August 2013, Assad crossed that line, with forces loyal to him launching a devastating chemical attack against rebel areas that caused the death of hundreds.
The main message behind Assad’s brazen move may have been directed at the rebels : that an impotent international community will not come to their rescue even in the face of such a blatant violation of international conventions. The timing, however, near the anniversary of Obama’s “red line” statement, suggests that it was also an affront to Obama himself.
Obama will now feel compelled to respond. His dilemma is that, without the UN Security Council mandate that Russia continues to deny him, his response exposes him to accusations of following the path of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whom Obama himself criticized for unilateralism. At the same time, were he to choose not to respond, he would face the criticism for the United States’ loss of global influence, credibility, and power.
With suggestions by his administration that a U.S. response will be inevitable and forceful, Obama has already raised expectations among Syrian rebels and their supporters — expectations that he is both unwilling and unable to meet. The letdown may result in more frustration, new accusations of broken promises, and the further erosion of the United States’ standing in the region. In trying to mitigate the rebels’ irrational exuberance, Obama may have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, giving advance notice to the Assad regime and its backers of the limited scope of likely U.S. operation. The expectation of limited damage effectively voids the punitive potential of any military response.
Damascus, on the other hand, is poised to declare victory irrespective of what happens. If limited U.S.-led military strikes do take place, the regime will claim victory in repelling foreign aggression and foiling the West’s plans. Assad’s propaganda machine is already setting the stage for this narrative by suggesting that a full scale invasion is in the works. Worse, if a strike does not happen, the regime will boast of its deterrence power and declare the end of U.S. hegemony. Rather than being punished for its lethal use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, the Assad regime is almost guaranteed to achieve a propaganda victory.
Obama has fallen into a trap. He now faces a difficult choice between losing credibility as a principled leader who abides by international norms and undermining his own leadership through actions that are not in line with his statements. What this embarrassing situation has demonstrated is that even if Obama decides to run away from the Syrian conflict, it will come to him. This, coupled with the fact that Syria’s war is incubating the next generation of violent Islamist radicals and has ruined so many lives, clearly suggest that a more proactive U.S. role is necessary to contain the damage and avoid further destruction.