Saturday, September 14, 2013

Obama’s Multi-Stage Syria Strategy: An Educated Guess

The deal reached by the US and Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria in lieu of airstrikes seems to be the latest stage in the strategy created by President Obama to deal with the unique constraints on his ability to act on this latest Middle East flareup.

With the US still winding down its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan after more than a decade of punishing conflict, and with over 50,000 troops still in place, neither the President nor the American people have much appetite for another armed intervention in the absence of an obvious existential threat; a Pew poll last week found only 29% of respondents in favor of the limited step of airstrikes against Assad.

Add to this reluctance the additional domestic constraints of a growing public suspicion of the abuse of Presidential power in the use of force overseas and an obstructionist Congress that probably won’t be able to pass a bill continuing to fund the federal government, much less muster any sort support for a military action, and President Obama is presented with an extremely narrow set of options for acting against a legacy dictator in an increasingly bloody war.

Faced with these strictures, Obama opted for what historians will probably describe as a nifty bit of political jiu-jitsu: at the end of August, he sought Congressional approval for a military strike against Assad and his forces, simultaneously showing his respect for the Constitution and putting the responsibility for an unpopular military action with a deliberative body that had no real ability to act on that responsibility.

At the same time, Obama found a way to weaken the Assad regime, appear to be honoring international conventions against chemical weapons, and neutralize frenemy Russia’s opposition to American intervention, all while providing himself with enough plausible deniability should the plan fail: by having Secretary of State John Kerry “inadvertently” suggest having the international community take control of Syria’s chemical weapons as the only way of deterring a US military assault, he provided Russia and Syria, as well as the US, with a route away from a military action that would only make things more difficult for all parties involved, morally satisfying though it might seem.

The result is that, as Professor Farley notes, the US has “sold” the Syrian chemical weapons problem to Syria while militarily weakening the Assad regime. Add to this the report that the CIA has finally started delivering arms to Syrian rebels, and you have the culmination of the middle stages of a strategy that, while it may not look familiar as a traditional American armed response, is realistically the only one Obama is left with as a way of eventually removing Assad from power.

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