President Obama addressed the nation moments ago in an attempt to garner support for a possible military strike in Syria. He said there was no doubt Assad used chemical weapons, declared that their usage violates our “common humanity,” and agreed to delay a strike to allow for a possible diplomatic solution in which Syria would hand over its WMDs to Russia.
“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, is at stake in Syria,”* the president said. That’s quite a stretch. Our national security isn’t dependent on a rebel win in Syria and American principles don’t hinge on Bashar al-Assad or any other third-world potentate. But that was the president’s challenge tonight: Apply the soaring rhetoric and win over a public that’s hopping mad about another march to war. In doing so, he put forward some pretty specious rationales.
Obama said, for example, that not acting against Assad’s chemical weapons could result in their dispersal throughout the Middle East. In fact, the regime has kept those gases under lock and key, and a post-Assad power vaccuum could result in the weapons falling into the hands of al Nusra and other Sunni jihadist groups who control much of northern Syria, a nightmarish scenario.
“I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” Obama claimed. “I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.” This may be true as far as the actual military operation goes. But after Assad falls, how can we guarantee that the chemical weapons are secured without boots on the ground? If we pursue the diplomatic option, collecting and destroying Assad’s chemical stockpiles—to say nothing of keeping the inspectors safe in the midst of a civil war—is an enormous operation. How do we do that without troops?
“The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks,” the president said. “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.” That’s a nice bit of chest-thumping rhetoric. But the fact is, as Newt Gingrich said earlier, our soldiers serve their civilian leadership, who can order pinpricks, big bangs, whatever. We know that a couple days of missile strikes can’t possibly destroy all of Assad’s weapon stockpiles, let alone depose the dictator. Assad is fighting tooth-and-nail for his survival; a limited set of missile strikes might weaken his capability, but it’s hardly going to “send him a message.” The idea of sending a message to a cornered animal is a bit absurd in the first place.
“It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists,” the president argued. “But al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see innocent civilians being gassed to death.” I’m not entirely sure what that means (do they become more evil by osmosis?), but one thing that will unquestionably make al Qaeda stronger is if we help further their objective of a post-Assad power vacuum. That’s what will happen if the Syrian military is destroyed, and it’s one reason why Ayman al-Zawahiri sided with the rebels last year and called on Islamists across the Middle East to take the jihad to Syria. They seem to have heeded his call. Seven of the top nine rebel groups currently have ties to Islamists. A post-Assad Syria will put the country’s Christian and Alawite minorities at the mercy of those radicals. Already there have been countless reports out of northern Syria of Christians being murdered and Islamists attempting to implement Sharia law.
These are the concerns that make so many of us wary of American involvement in Syria. The president did a lot of explaining tonight, but didn’t satisfactorily answer many of the key questions.
* All quotes were transcribed by me and are therefore rough.