Saturday, February 25, 2012

From Covert to Overt War

Yesterday, following a Washington meeting with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, President Obama ratcheted up the pressure on the Assad government yet again, declaring "it is absolutely imperative for the international community to rally, and send a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition, it is time for that regime to move on," and that "it's important that we not be bystanders during these extraordinary event." 
        The backdrop of Obama's statement was the "Friends of Syria" meeting that took place in Tunis,  attended by Secretary of State Clinton.  The meeting, which was attended by 60 countries as well as the exile-dominated Syrian National Council, was ostensibly organized to facilitate a "humanitarian" response, however the topic of increasing the violence in Syria by arming an opposition force was on the forefront of discussions.  While the U.S. has not yet openly endorsed the idea, they are making sure to leave the option on the table.  Speaking in London enroute to the conference, Clinton spoke of the "increasing capability" of the armed resistance in Syria. "They will, from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves, as well as begin offensive measures," she added.  At the conference, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia openly called for arms to be provided to the Syrian rebels, and at the conference's conclusion, a statement was released calling for "a political solution" in Syria, leaving the option of a military intervention on the table.  According to the New York Times, this wording was favored by the U.S. over less the bellicose phrasing of "a peaceful, nonmilitary solution," that was endorsed by some countries. 

           It appears that the Obama administrations is signaling that an overt military intervention in Syria is on the Pentagon's drawing boards.  However, the question then becomes is this just another rhetorical blast in the game of diplomatic chicken being played between the NATO powers and Syria, or are the Obamanistas seriously considering starting another Middle East war nine months before a general election.  If the prior is true, my guess is Obama is praying for a military coup within Syria, that some faction of the Syrian security regime will decide that Assad is expendable for the sake of preserving the power structure and avoiding a lengthy battle with western-backed fighters.  This would take Obama off the hook for declaring that Assad must go and justify the covert war on Syria that has been waged over the past 10 months.
            However if the latter is true, and war plans are being sent to the Oval Office, then Obama has a whole other set of questions facing him.  How long to keep up intelligence and weapon support to the rebels without air cover?  Armed resistance of some form has been ongoing since late last spring, and it does not seem close to breaking the Syrian army, which is large and supplied by Russia and Iran.  And if airpower doesn't work right away, when do the Marines get called in?  
            Obama also faces the political question of whether the American people, and specifically the Democratic electorate he is hoping will give him another term later this year, are willing to spend blood and treasure on yet another military adventure in the Middle East.  They probably are not, especially when he has already led a very hawkish first term.  And then there is the entire sphere of legality, both domestically in regards to the War Powers Act as well as internationally in regards to the UN.  While it is one thing to wage a covert war, an overt one has far more dilemmas to consider.
           The date looming over the entire discussion is May 18th, when Chicago will host both the annual G8 summit as well as a NATO meeting.  Certainly Obama does not want to bring a failing Syria policy to the table at these meetings, which are being held in his political base of Chicago.  However, he probably also has no desire to add extra spark to the protests that are sure to take place by starting another NATO war.  Once again, Obama has backed himself into a corner in his foreign policy, and does not seem to have a way out. 

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