Syria: The Iron in Obama's Soul

by | Sep 5, 2013

Boehner Cantor

For the first time through the two-year old Syrian conflict, the United States has mentioned the sacred cow – “boots on the ground”. The Secretary of State John Kerry has pleaded that the US Congress should approve the use of American ground troops although the Obama administration may not intend to take recourse to such action. 

This is a hugely significant turning point in the fast-developing scenario of US military intervention in Syria. There was added poignancy that Kerry was speaking at a congressional hearing on Tuesday with the Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey seated beside him listening. 

Kerry’s careful choice of words indicated that the deployment of ground troops in Syria is very much in the consideration zone of the White House. “I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country”, Kerry said. 

He then went on to add the caveat that President Obama would exercise such an option of deploying ground troops in Syria if there is a potential threat of chemical weapons falling into the hands of extremists. As he put it:

In the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of [Al-Qeda affiliate] al-Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interests of our allies and all of us – the British, the French and others – to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements. 

Despite the scant support for US military action against Syria among the American public and despite the pockets of resistance on Capitol Hill, it is a foregone conclusion now that the US Congress will support US military action against Syria. 

The two top Republicans, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have both voiced support for Obama’s decision to attack Syria. Boehner told reporters: 

Only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated. I believe that my colleagues should support this call for action. 

Of course, there were “telltale” signs already by last weekend that Obama’s mind is furiously working and that he could be beginning to think about the unthinkable, namely, committing US ground troops to yet another Middle Eastern war. The point is, the Administration’s proposed resolution for the US Congress, titled Authorization for the Use of Military Force [AUMF] authorizes the president to use the armed forces “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate… in order to: 

1. prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons; or

2. protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons. 

A leading international authority on the subject, Professor Jack Goldsmith at the Harvard Law School (who previously served as US Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel and also as Special Counsel to the Department of Defence, apart from being a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law) warned on Sunday, “There is much more here (in the proposed AUMF) than at first meets the eye”. 

In a detailed commentary for the Lawfare journal, the learned professor wrote: 

It [AUMF] authorizes the President to use any element of the U.S. Armed Forces and any method of force. It does not contain specific limits on targets – either in terms of the identity of the targets (e.g. the Syrian government, Syrian rebels, Hezbollah, Iran) or the geography of the targets. 

Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to take sides in the Syrian Civil War, or to attack Syrian rebels associated with al Qaeda, or to remove Assad from power? Yes, as long as the President determines that any of these entities has a (mere) connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and that the use of force against one of them would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons. It is very easy to imagine the President making such determinations with regard to Assad or one or more of the rebel groups.

Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to use force against Iran or Hezbollah, in Iran or Lebanon? Again, yes, as long as the President determines that Iran or Hezbollah has a (mere) a connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and the use of force against Iran or Hezbollah would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons. 

The proposed Syrian AUMF is worth a lot, for it would (in sum) permit the President to use military force against any target anywhere in the world (including Iran or Lebanon) as long as the President, in his discretion, determines the target has a connection to WMD in the Syrian civil war and the use of force has the purpose of preventing or deterring (broad concepts) the use or proliferation of WMDs in, to, or from Syria, or of protecting the U.S. and its allies from the mere threat (again, a broad concept) of use or proliferation of WMDs connected to the Syrian conflict. 

Congress needs to be careful about what it authorizes.

Quite obviously, a frightening scenario is looming large in front of the world opinion. This could turn out to be the George W. Bush doctrines of humanitarian intervention and “unilateralism” combined and multiplies by two… 

To be sure, the joint US-Israeli missile test yesterday in Eastern Mediterranean has an ominous ring about it. What explains the shift in Obama’s thinking? Or, has there been a shift at all and all we are witnessing is the unveiling of a hidden project? There are no easy answers. 

To be sure, the US’s regional allies – especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel – have been feeling terribly disheartened that Obama might strictly resort to the “limited action” he repeatedly promised to take against the Syrian regime, which would leave matters not only inconclusive in the civil war but even fail to turn the military balance in favor of the rebels. The worst fear of these allies has been that the Syrian regime might survive a volley of US cruise missile attacks and President Bashar Al-Assad himself would emerge triumphant having withstood a US attack. 

Again, another main plank of criticism against “limited action” has been that it would settle nothing and the US would emerge out of it all looking an ineffectual and bumbling superpower, which would seriously dent its capacity to influence the future course of the civil war or play a defining role in the Middle East’s issues. Misgivings have been expressed that Iran would become “uncontrollable” if the US’ standing weakens at this crucial juncture. 

Above all, the input for the White House from the Pentagon would have been that there is high danger in the US making an entry into Syria with one arm tied behind its back. The US military doctrine has consistently favored maximum use of force to establish supremacy over the enemy. 

One major constraint Dempsey had expressed was with regard to the financial cost of a full-bodied military intervention. It stands to reason that the US’ oil-rich Persian Gulf allies – for whose regimes this is after all an existential struggle – would have offered to defray much of the financial burden. 

Finally, Bill Clinton’s example with regard to Kosovo has willy-nilly become a benchmark for Obama. Clinton has been unabashedly advocating a Kosovo-like intervention in Syria – sidestep the UN Security Council, disregard opposition from Capitol Hill, act decisively and firmly in the US’s supreme interests and create a fait accompli for the world community and the UN to come to terms with. 

Suffice to say, a variety of factors would have come into play in Obama’s calculus. So far, it was being taken for granted that Obama will not cross the Rubicon of deploying ground troops in Syria under any circumstances. Even influential opinion makers in the US such as Senator John McCain shuddered at the very suggestion of “boots on the ground”. 

But Kerry’s structured remarks on Tuesday indicate beyond doubt that all that could be dramatically changing. Conceivably, Obama can’t take anymore the criticism that he is “weak”, that he leads from the rear, that he is indecisive and so on. The very demarche by Kerry that Congress should not restrict Obama’s freedom of choice in expanding the parameters of the military intervention depending on the exigencies of the situation underscores that iron has entered into the president’s soul. 

It may be that this was not the presidential legacy that Obama would have been looking for after two terms in office as he set out from Chicago for the White House, And, arguably, this legacy is being thrust upon him by friends and allies – and force of circumstances. But then, he cannot escape the responsibility, either. It is, if or when it is taken, without doubt, his choice in the ultimate analysis – and that is how it will go down in history books. 

Reprinted with permission.



  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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