With mounting evidence that the Syrian regime launched a large-scale chemical attack on civilians, there are growing calls for the Obama Administration to "do something!" This is a political problem partly of his own making, since a year ago he declared chemical weapons use a "red line" that would provoke an (unspecified) response. At the time, it seemed likely that he said that partly to try to deter Assad's use of chemicals, and in part to get domestic critics off of his back by demonstrating that he had a policy. Deterrence has now failed, and I don't think the other thing ever really worked out.
So now what? As my friend Steve Saideman has pointed out, there are no good options. Steve's latest post on the subject even leaves out a critical point: unlike both Libya and Iraq, Syria has a fairly formidable air defense system, increasing the likelihood that not only would a no-fly zone be largely pointless, it would also cost the US pilots and planes. We've gotten used to no-fly zones being essentially free; that may well not be the case here.
The reasons Obama, and pretty much everybody else, are reluctant to get involved, are twofold:
- There are no good guys. The Syrian opposition is severely divided and fractured, and there are indications that they are already fighting amongst themselves (see: Afghanistan, 1980s). It's not clear who, if anybody, the US would want to support - and without a side to back, intervention seems ridiculous.
- Colin Powell reminded us (unsuccessfully) of the "Pottery Barn Rule" ahead of Iraq: You break it, you bought it. If the US steps in in a serious way (i.e. with boots on the ground), we essentially own Syria for the foreseeable future. And THAT is something nobody wants.
Despite John McCain and some other voices in the GOP there is very little stomach in Congress, and even less among the American public, for intervention, whether Assad used chemicals or not. Nobody wants another war, nobody wants to become embroiled in another vicious local dispute among groups who are, at the very best, indifferent (if not downright hostile) to US interests in the region.
Predictions are tricky things, but I think the odds against serious intervention are long. Yes, Obama will take some lumps from some factions of the GOP for doing nothing - although if he's clever, he can get Republicans to argue amongst themselves, since I doubt the Tea Party/libertarian wing wants another war. It's just hard to see any options that aren't very expensive, useless, or both. Maybe this will start to send the message: America's might is limited. We very often can't control things at all. And if you don't have any control, trying to exert some is usually a very bad idea.