President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional authority to attack Syria for alleged chemical weapons use has dismayed friends, delighted foes and prompted criticism that he’s undermined U.S. credibility.
In Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad learned the tactics of brute force from his father, Hafez, state-controlled media hailed the start of a “historic American retreat.”
Syrian deputy foreign minister Fayssal Mekdad told reporters in Damascus yesterday that, “The hesitation and the disappointment is so obvious in the words of President Obama yesterday. The confusion was clear, as well.”
“The regime people are taking great comfort from this,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University in Norman, Oklahoma. “They see it as a sign of Obama’s weakness, that he doesn’t really want to hurt them or get involved.”
In 1982, the elder Assad killed as many as 30,000 people in the city of Hama to squelch a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. His brutality gave rise to a Syrian joke about the Angel of Death bringing judgment to Hafez al-Assad, only to have Syria’s secret police return him to God battered, bruised and empty-handed.
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Now one possible immediate, unintended consequence of Obama’s move to Congress is that Assad “retaliates with an even more brutal crackdown in civilian areas where the opposition is operating,” said Sean Kay, director of the international relations program at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. “The red line has been chemical weapons; he might see that as a green light for conventional weapons.”
Still Kay and Landis were among analysts who defended Obama’s decision, even if it’s perceived as indecisive in the Middle East and among Obama’s domestic critics.
“Critics will say this signals weakness, that America doesn’t have resolve,” Kay said. “It’s a pretty important thing for the U.S. to demonstrate to the region respect for democratic procedures.”
Landis said that, “you’ve got to say this is good for democracy to debate this.”
A delay would serve the U.S. well, Kay said, as Obama and his advisers have to take into account and prepare for the secondary effects of a strike, including even greater refugee flows to U.S. allies, such as Jordan, that neighbor Syria. “A pause gives some time to reflect,” Kay said. “At minimum, there’s time to prepare.”
Heavy clashes erupted yesterday between the Kurdish militias and government forces in the al-Ashrafiya neighborhood in the Province of Aleppo amid intense artillery shelling on the area, the Observatory for Human Rights in Syria said in an e- mailed statement.
There was fighting in Aleppo as well, according to the Observatory, based in Coventry in the U.K. In Daraa, near Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan, clashes between rebels and regime forces resumed while rebels targeted government forces with mortar rounds.
In a statement yesterday, the Syrian opposition coalition said Assad’s regime also had begun to move troops, weapons and equipment into residential areas and civilian government buildings, including schools, then ordering government workers and students to go to work and school.
The opposition “feels abandoned,” Landis said.
Louay Almokdad, a logistical coordinator for the rebel force, said that while he understood the democratic mechanisms in the U.S. and Europe, it was clear the price of delay “will be more blood.”
“We have no confidence in the U.S.’s intention to help rid the Syrians of Assad,” Colonel Ahmad Hijazi of the Free Syrian Army said by phone today from an undisclosed location. “Whatever strike that follows will just be for show.”
That perception is region-wide, said Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
“History since 2009 hasn’t been very favorable in the Middle East, in terms of U.S. action, resolve, commitment,” Pavel said. “Friends there think the U.S. has essentially evacuated the region. This is another pretty big data point in that direction.”
Israeli politicians and media slammed the decision for sending a signal of weakness to Iran, though the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t comment officially.
Israeli politicians and military analysts said they’d concluded that Israel can’t rely on the U.S. to help defend against the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran claims is for civilian use and the U.S. and Israel allege is to develop nuclear weapons.
Israeli Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel commented on his Facebook page that, “In Tehran they are opening bottles of champagne, and surely shifting into high gear toward nuclear weaponization.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar link in his Aug. 30 remarks arguing for action against Syria, saying that a failure to respond to the attack, which a U.S. intelligence assessment said killed 1,429 men, women and children, would embolden Iran “to obtain nuclear weapons.”
Kay dismissed that linkage. “It’s a tricky argument at best to say one has to go to war in Syria to signal credibility to Iran,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s just as likely Iran would like to see us bogged down in Syria, which could drive a wedge between us and European allies.”
Israel, the Syrian opposition, and other critics aren’t taking into account that the U.S. has no partners for an attack on Syria, Landis and Kay said. “No NATO, no Arab League, no British,” said Kay.
“Our partners in Europe are looking spongy.”said Landis in a telephone interview. In France, the only nation ready to join the U.S. on a Syria strike, the parliament reacted to Obama’s decision by demanding its right to weigh in, a step not taken for France’s 2011 intervention in Libya.
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In the U.S., analysts such as Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, a Washington policy institute, acknowledged the fallout from Obama’s decision.
“Forget the merits of what the president’s done; the sense of contradiction and confusion has been intensified by his decision, and no amount of reassurance” from Kerry or the president “is going to change that,” Miller said.
“Does that mean it’s a disaster,” Miller said. “Not necessarily. This is about his perception of the national interest as far as Syria goes.”
“Syria is a tragedy, but the president has seen that outside narrowly circumscribed instances, it’s not an American tragedy,” Miller said.
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