Red line fever in Syria

Congressional Republicans think it’s time for President Obama to make good on his “red line” threats against Syria, if U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies are correct in asserting that the regime of dictator Bashar Assad has deployed chemical weapons against rebel forces.  From Fox News:

“The president has laid down the line, and it can’t be a dotted line,??? House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told ABC???s ???This Week.??? ???It can’t be anything other than a red line.???

U.S. officials said last week that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad probably used chemical weapons twice in March, amid a two-year civil war in which more than 70,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced.

???For America to sit on the sidelines and do nothing is a huge mistake,” Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss told CBS??? ???Face the Nation.???

Some question remains about whether the Syrian government has crossed that “red line.”  Judging by the forensic evidence, the quantity of nerve gas released thus far would be so small that it seems puzzling Assad’s forces would have bothered risking global backlash for almost negligible strategic gain.  On the other hand, the Syrian resistance has every reason to accuse Assad of crossing the red line, in the hopes he would suffer from further international sanctions, or maybe even military action.  It’s even possible that the chemicals were released by accident, while government forces were transporting them.  Means and motive worth considering in any crime.

The Jerusalem Post says that, according to a senior diplomatic source, “Israel has clear evidence of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army using chemical weapons against rebels.”  The Israelis are worried about such weapons falling into the hands of “Hezbollah or other terrorist groups in Lebanon.”  Supposing this evidence proves conclusive, what should be done if the Assad regime really has crossed the line?

Representatives from both sides of the aisle offered different opinions on the weekend talk-show circuit.  Senator John McCain said “the worst thing we could do is put boots on the ground.”  Democrat senator Ben Cardin of Maryland likewise argued against the use of ground troops.  But Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) argued that ground troops should not be completely ruled out.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) worried about WMD stockpiles falling into terrorist hands if Assad falls.  But how could those weapons be secured without the introduction of ground forces?  Taking them out with precision airstrikes doesn’t seem feasible, while measures designed to aid the rebels in other ways (such as safe zones or no-fly zones) would only hasten the fall of Assad, and the situation Schakowsky worried about.  One of the reasons for setting a stern red line against chemical weapons deployment was to discourage the Assad regime from breaking those weapons out of storage and moving them into the field, where they would become more vulnerable to seizure by terrorists.

The New York Times took a hard look at Assad’s enemies over the weekend, and found an assembly of terrorist interests that we might not want to “win” the Syrian civil war, no matter how nice it would be to watch Assad lose… especially if the winners find a stockpile of nerve gas in their prize package.

In Syria???s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

[…] Among the most extreme groups is the notorious Al Nusra Front, the Qaeda-aligned force declared a terrorist organization by the United States, but other groups share aspects of its Islamist ideology in varying degrees.

???Some of the more extremist opposition is very scary from an American perspective, and that presents us with all sorts of problems,??? said Ari Ratner, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former Middle East adviser in the Obama State Department. ???We have no illusions about the prospect of engaging with the Assad regime ??? it must still go ??? but we are also very reticent to support the more hard-line rebels.???

“Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of,” the Times concludes.  In other words, the enemy of our enemy turns out to be our enemy.  The Middle East is such a lovely place.

That’s something President Obama should have taken into account before he drew those “red lines.”  McCain worried that the Assad regime saw the red-line warning as a “green light” to get away with all sorts of lesser atrocities.  It also runs the risk of diminishing American prestige, as other bad actors wonder just how seriously their “red lines” should be taken.  There have been efforts to reassure us that Iran’s nuclear program is a totally different story from Syrian chemical warfare – Iran’s looking at a real red line they’d better not cross, as everyone knows nuclear weapons are the ultimate arms violation.

But why shouldn’t Iran conclude that Obama’s warnings are hollow bluster?  The effectiveness of any threat depends on perceived credibility.  That’s why threats should be made sparingly, and always with a realistic strategy for carrying them out, particularly when dealing with a character like Bashar Assad, who combines brutality with desperation.  There was always a good chance that he’d reach the point where he felt like he had nothing left to lose, and zero chance his conscience would dissuade him from doing the worst.

The “world community” is no better at dealing with desperation and brutality than the Obama Administration.  Many tough warnings were given to Assad by those who never had any intention of wading into the Syrian quagmire to enforce them.  International law, like domestic criminal law, is not very good at restraining rogue states who have minimal interest in enjoying the benefits of respectable membership in civilized society.  There’s just not that much a tyrant can be threatened with, short of the military destruction that only a few of them can be singled out for.  What difference do sanctions and Strongly Worded Letters make, when the alternative is eviction from power, incarceration, or death?  The Syrian crisis seems likely to provide the latest evidence that when dealing with devils, it is vitally important to mean every word we say.