As a rhetorical tactic, establishing a ‘red line’ is pretty impressive. It displays strength by implying that you know both your current position on an issue, as well as what specific events would affect your actions going forward. And in the midst of the crisis over the nature of American involvement in Syria, that’s what Obama did. Various considerations, chief among them the fragmentation of the rebel forces and the staunch opposition of Russia and China to foreign intervention, had ensured that there was no clear course of action for the US to pursue in Syria. But in the vow he made last summer, Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian population would prompt consequences from the US. This promise seemed a significant, concrete step at the time; it represented the first time Obama had directly threatened the Syrian regime and raised the possibility for direct military engagement there, thereby showing that his administration was not afraid to take action against Assad.
Unfortunately, the red line has proven a less effective move than expected. Rather like threats of resignation (which I covered in a previous post), the value of this strategy lies chiefly in its potential to prevent certain actions being taken by others – here, to discourage the Syrian regime from deploying chemical weapons. However, if the threat were to be insufficient – as it seems to have been, considering Assad allegedly used sarin gas against civilians last month – then the red line is no longer merely a scare tactic, but now a promise for action. And as a promise, this particular red line is destined for failure: both because the nature of the avowed response was never specified (making it difficult for Congress or their constituents to campaign for), and because diplomatic and financial concerns render even recently-proposed options unviable.
Discussions of the red line itself, as well as other discourses surrounding the US strategy in Syria, have been characterized by vague diplomatic language. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in a press conference that ‘the US intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.’ And not only is there still uncertainty amongst the various US intelligence agencies as to the level of ‘crossitude’ of the red line, but the US government has downplayed even the most cautious intelligence estimates. Furthermore, in keeping with Obama’s surprisingly inarticulate initial definition of the red line (a ‘whole bunch of weapons being moved around’), various government officials have described the use of chemical weapons in Syria as ‘unacceptable,’ ‘serious business,’ and a ‘game changer.’ This ambiguity demonstrates government confusion over whether the line has even been crossed, as well as to what the official response could possibly be.
So the Obama administration is proceeding cautiously when it comes to declaring that the line has been crossed. But say they decide in a few days that it has been – what will they do? In his approach to the possibility for American military support against Assad, Obama resembles a parent wagging his finger at an unruly child and vowing ‘consequences, young man!’ And what will be the ‘consequences’ for this ‘game changer’? In fact, the possibilities for American military aid to the Syrian have so far not graduated beyond the NATO provision of Patriot missiles for Turkey’s defense several months ago, a purely defensive move aimed to discourage Assad from retaliating against Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition and refugees. His administration has refused to discuss what their other (presumably offensive) operations entail; however, there are apparently military contingency plans in the works for the crossing of the red line.
There are a few possibilities for what these strategies could be, principally sending specialized teams to neutralize government aircraft and weapons stockpiles and using the ‘defensive’ Patriot missiles in Turkey to counter the regime’s Scud missiles in northern Syria. However, these strategies are costly and problematic; Assad’s stockpiles are difficult to pinpoint in the first place and would necessitate significant protective measures. And the last-resort, ‘worst case’ scenarios are not much of a comfort; they allegedly involve the deployment of tens of thousands of American troops, and are very unlikely to be executed.
Nor is the influence of Israel, despite the recently emphasized importance of the Strategic Partnership (and Israel’s place in the negotiations on Syria), likely to prompt direct American military action. Though several of the prominent US ally’s defense officials came out this week claiming they had definite proof of chemical weapons usage in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry has alleged that their claims have insufficient evidence to prove the red line has been crossed (perhaps a wise move, considering the officials have refused to reveal what, exactly, this ‘evidence’ is).
The long and short of it is, the Obama administration is not going to provide unilateral, direct military aid to the Syrian opposition because they don’t want the opposition to be militarily victorious. In this situation, the damage to the Syrian people cannot be measured relatively. No matter how much US officials disapprove of what Assad is doing, they cannot risk providing arms that would fall into the hands of illegitimate rebel groups. ‘Red line’ notwithstanding, recent developments concerning radical elements within the opposition (notably Jabhat al-Nusra’s strengthened affiliation with AQI and ISI) are considered too worrying for them to merit military assistance. That type of aid, at this point, could be expected to hinder current American and international humanitarian aid operations as well as the US relationship with Russia and China. Instead, Hagel and Obama will draw this waiting period (in which they try to determine conclusively whether Assad used chemical weapons purposefully on his population) out for as long as possible – not because they doubt the truth of the allegations, but because they are biding time while trying to strengthen the secular elements within the rebel forces.
The ‘military option’ has never really yet been an option. The US government is still too sore from the mistakes made in Iraq (which no tour of the Bush presidential library can fix) and preoccupied with domestic issues like gun control to commit to such a politically and financially costly move. Sure, a ‘red line’ was established months ago – but going forward, the Obama administration will undoubtedly start to prevaricate. And before long, we’ll hear the predictable dithering from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney: ‘Um, red? I think it was really more of a burgundy. A pink, if you will.’