President Barack Obama’s decision to postpone an American punitive strike on the Syrian regime following its use of chemical weapons against its civilian population may adversely affect America’s strategic interests, both on the international and the Middle Eastern fronts. By suspending the attack to seek congressional approval and broader international support, the United States might find itself facing far more complicated challenges not only vis-a-vis its rivals in the Middle East, but also among its closest allies.
Being a superpower, America has a decision-making process and strategic calculations often requiring a long time before implementation. It is also understandable that both the American public and its intelligence community are traumatized by the recent experiences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, their subsequent economic costs, the public debate about the purpose of risking the lives of many young Americans for the sake of fighting wars in remote lands and disappointment from the prevailing anti-American sentiments in the region, despite decades of American aid. Add to that Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s past opposition to former President George W. Bush’s campaign in Iraq and the result is an overall American reluctance to get involved in a war.
Yet, in the aftermath of Obama and Kerry’s speeches on Syria, the American message to the world is equivocal: A determination to take action against the Syrian regime is seasoned with a high degree of hesitation. To the world, the Obama administration signals hesitancy, indecisiveness and a dependency on domestic and international legitimization to act.
For the Syrian regime, the decision to postpone the attack will provide precious time to better prepare itself by relocating and distributing strategic assets among new sites, thereby minimizing the scope of damage that would incur from the attack. As reports from Syria already suggest, the regime is currently relocating some of its strategic assets to residential facilities, including schools, universities, civilian prisons and mosques, thus creating a human shield that will further complicate American intervention.
While in the eyes of some Americans, Obama’s hesitancy implies responsibility rather than recklessness in making a move that may drag America deep into another war in the Middle East, the perception of the United States and its president in the Middle East is quite different.
Chained by his pledge that the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad would cross a “red line” and change his calculus regarding American intervention in Syria, President Obama is expected to back up his words with deeds. Anything less is perceived in the region as weakness and provides freedom for other regimes to use ruthless means to impose order.
By seeking congressional approval to act, Obama signaled that the red line that he imposed in the White House last year is open to debate — even when a regime has evidently used weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against its civilian population. Much worse would be the blow to America’s international credibility if Congress votes against military action.
Nearly three years since the turmoil in Syria began, the world mostly knows what the United States chooses not to do in Syria: there will be no boots on the ground, there will be no long-term military commitment and there will be no direct intervention in Syria’s war. Worse is that the suspension of American action is not complemented with a clear strategy of what the United States aims to achieve by taking more time. Listening to what America is not prepared to do touches upon the most basic issues of credibility in the international system and further aggravates uncertainty in the Middle East.
The signals that America’s rivals in the global and Middle Eastern arenas are receiving are clear. Leaders from Damascus to Tehran and Pyongyang and from Beijing to Moscow see that the United States and its leaders are hesitant to use hard power, limited in scope as it may be.
Interestingly, similar signals are being received by America’s allies in the Middle East. For them, the message of hesitancy and reluctance to act is significant, too. When the leader of the world’s superpower is perceived as hesitant to enforce his own red line, even against a crumbling regime that gassed its own innocent civilians, what are the odds that the United States will commit itself to future, more complex actions? Simply worded, America’s allies are now asking themselves: Is America still a trustworthy ally when it comes to the use of force?
The strategic fatigue that the United States projects may lead some of its closest allies to engage in unilateral actions (that is without American support) to pursue their strategic interests, thereby diminishing the role of the United States in their decision-making mechanism. Such actions have the potential to further complicate the already messy state of affairs in the Middle East and jeopardize American strategic interests in the region.
Above all is the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran. Less probable in the short term, yet not to be excluded later, is the pursuit of WMDs by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which in turn may trigger a regional arms race. More probable, however, is an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Indeed, when Israel has considered strategic risks as existential, it has acted unilaterally. Israel’s pre-emptive attack on the Egyptian air force in 1967 and the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facility in Osirak in 1981 were followed by other minor pre-emptive operations for which Israel has seldom taken official responsibility.
On the other hand, American power proved important for Israel’s strategic thinking. During the first Gulf War in 1990, Israel abstained from retaliating to Saddam Hussein’s bombing of Tel Aviv with Scud missiles. Among other reasons, Israel’s abstention was because it knew that America would use its power to protect its close ally.
Following the messages from Washington, Israel’s concern is that if the United States is reluctant to engage in limited military action against a beaten regime that attacked its own people with WMDs, how can it be trusted to take an active role in a pre-emptive strike on Iran, a state that is merely on track to obtaining destructive capabilities? Is President Obama’s pledge that he will not allow Iran to become nuclear credible or an empty vessel?
Several analysts argue that an American attack on Assad’s regime can be as effective in a couple of weeks or even a month. These analyses are problematic. Nowadays the Middle East is highly dynamic as states are disintegrating into lawlessness and sectarian strife and are flooded with new nonstate and terrorist groups. Rapid changes also change priorities. What if tomorrow new developments shift the world’s attention to Cairo, Benghazi, Lebanon or Gaza? How then will a strike on Syria be legitimized?
Diplomacy is the best and only solution to end the war in Syria. Yet, as a party to negotiate the terms to end the war, the United States must produce leverage. And to produce leverage for future negotiations — considering both Obama’s pledge and the trajectory of the conflict — military action is required now. A calculated attack on Syria will not only strengthen America’s deterrence and credibility in the region, but can serve America’s dealings with Iran, where the Obama administration advocated a diplomatic solution as well.
It is important for the United States to reform its policy in the Middle East. If President Obama’s decision to postpone a strike on the Syrian regime will be used to advance such reforms, they may yield positive results for America’s future in the region. But considering the region’s reality during the past three years, such a reform must be preceded by an America that is not hesitant to back its words with action, especially when it comes to the gassing of innocent civilians.
The absence of alternatives to the United States guarantees that its Middle East allies will remain on whichever path the American leadership will eventually choose on Syria. But by postponing the attack or, alas, avoiding it, the United States might find itself facing far-more complicated challenges, not only vis-a-vis its global and Middle East rivals, but also among its closest allies.
Moran Stern is an adjunct lecturer at the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and at American University’s Center for Israel Studies. Follow him @MoranStern