America has stepped up its rhetoric on Syria precisely because it doesn’t want to get involved in any intervention there, writes Adam Lockyer.
On Monday, US president Barack Obama gave the toughest indication yet that the United States will only tolerate a certain level of brutality in the Syrian civil war.
At the National Defense University, he said: “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable.” Switching to speak directly to Syrian president Bashir al-Assad, he continued: “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
These comments echoed those of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton a day earlier: “I am not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”
As some have done, it is tempting to view these comments as a “precursor” to an imminent American intervention in the Syrian conflict. However, the opposite is true. Washington has been watching the Assad regime’s increasing use of artillery, mortars and attack aircraft in populated areas and interpreted this as desperation. They believe that the regime is in its death throes, frantically seeking to take any advantage.
Therefore, when intelligence reports emerged that the regime’s forces were preparing Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons (including, reportedly, sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas) for deployment, the United States was understandably concerned. This was partly due to genuine humanitarian fears. But the motivation probably comes more from the Obama administration having done all that it can to not be sucked into the conflict. The use of chemical weapons would make that impossible.
As such, this week, rather than signalling its intent to intervene in the conflict, Washington employed a textbook case of deterrence. If the regime crosses a clearly stated “red line”, then there will be consequences.
This is the diplomatic version of a parent threatening to punish a child if she takes a cookie from the jar. The parent would prefer not to punish the child. Indeed, being forced to take action would be considered a failure of the deterrence strategy.
The logic of deterrence states that a well-crafted strategy will make the consequences outweigh the benefits (e.g. grounding vs cookie, or massive NATO airstrikes and an appearance in the ICC vs a short-term tactical battlefield advantage) and any rational actor will refrain from the action. Obama and Clinton’s speeches were made because the US doesn’t want to have to get involved.
Syria is not Libya. It has a much larger and more urbanised population. It also has a more sophisticated military, and powerful international allies in the form of Russia and Iran. It is feared that any American involvement will pull it into another quagmire and will ultimately distract it from its true foreign policy objectives.
In the long term, Obama’s greatest foreign policy legacy is likely to be beginning the United States’ rebalancing towards Asia. This is a long-term policy agenda, which will be left to his successors to complete.
The Obama administration’s greatest first-term foreign policy achievements were twofold. First, it successfully withdrew American troops from Iraq and is in the process of doing so in Afghanistan. Second, a little noticed prize of Obama’s first term was an agreement with Russia to decrease the number of nuclear weapons each country possesses. Russia has been one of the Assad regime’s closest allies.
These first term accomplishments are the foreign policy terrain that America’s response to the Syrian civil war is navigating through. Washington is highly conscious of not undoing its hard-fought successes.
America’s strategy towards Syria remains one of containment. Washington seeks to contain the level of violence, thus the deterrence threat targeted at Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It also wishes to contain the conflict within Syria’s boarders. The real fear is that the Syrian civil war will spill over into Turkey, Iraq, or Lebanon. This is the reason for the NATO deployment of Patriot missile batteries along the Turkish border.
The United States’ secondary objective is to assist the overthrow of the Assad regime without being drawn militarily into the conflict or overly offending Moscow. It has attempted to assist the rebels via both political and military means.
Politically, Washington has worked with the opposition to create the Syrian National Coalition – a lose network of factions that only marginally hate the Assad regime more than each other. Indeed, it was only a week ago that open fighting exploded on the streets of Aleppo between the Kurdish rebel forces and other insurgency factions. The Kurds have still refused to take up their seat on the SNC.
Militarily, the US has announced $50 million in support for the insurgency, which will be used to purchase non-lethal military equipment such as communications gear, which will be passed on to the rebels on the Turkish side of the border.
Ultimately, the United States must pin its hopes on its political efforts to help the insurgents. Otherwise all will have been for naught. After weeks of stalemate, the military momentum has returned to the rebels. It is clear that the Assad regime can delay the ultimate victory of the rebels, but is unlikely to ever regain total control of the country. Exile must be on the rulers’ minds and the use of chemical weapons would instantly and permanently close that door. The real concern is what happens on the day after Assad. It looks increasingly likely that the fighting will continue. Without a functioning SNC the rebel factions are likely to turn around and point their weapons at each other. This is where the United States and the international community must now be investing their diplomatic energies.
Dr Adam Lockyer is a lecturer of US Politics and Foreign Policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. View his full profile here.