June 17, 2013

June 17, 2013 | Commentary on Syria

Prez Shifts on Syria, 'Wags Dog'

Team Obama’s on-again, off-again red line on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its people and the reported decision to provide some additional military support to rebel forces isn’t only about the use of ghastly nerve agents.

It’s bigger than that.

Of course, we can assume that President Obama, like so many others, abhors the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons (likely sarin gas) and the tragic loss of a reported 100 to 150 people to the chemical Grim Reaper.

In the past, the president said the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime was a “game changer” in his calculation about the bloody Syrian conflict, which has now taken some 100,000 lives.

But in a likely jab at the Bush administration in April, Team Obama insisted it wanted our intelligence community to confirm the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria, triggering some sort of perceived hard-hitting U.S. response.

While it appears Team Obama has the proof they feel they need from our spooks, the timing is nothing less than interesting.

For instance, the White House is willing to do just about anything to change media coverage of late from the bungling of Benghazi to the intrusive IRS to rifling of reporters’ emails to a possibly naughty National Security Agency.

If you don’t like the story, change it. How about a little “wagging the dog” in Syria?

Beyond that, the White House is likely invoking chemical weapons as cover for upping U.S. support for the rebels in hopes of staving off a regime victory and all that entails. (See my June 5 Herald column, “On Syria’s menu: The bad, the ugly.”)

The Lebanese terror group Hezbollah and the Iranians have poured fighters into Syria to prop up their ally and shift the momentum on the battlefield.

It’s working.

The rebels lost the strategic town of Qusair recently due to the influx of thousands of Hezbollah fighters — and they may lose Aleppo (Syria’s second largest city) shortly. The Bashar Assad regime could actually survive the 2-year-old-plus civil war.

This undermines the administration’s increasingly-tattered narrative that Assad’s days are numbered. It would also be a victory for Iran and Hezbollah, no friends of the United States.

That’s not all.

If Washington doesn’t enforce its red line, it may signal a green light for further chemical weapons use. Plus, no one will ever take U.S. red lines seriously again. (Think: Iran and its runaway nuclear weapons program.)

In the end, the president’s long-standing reluctance to wade into the Syrian mess means that any uptick in U.S. support for the rebels will be modest, if not simply symbolic, for the moment.

But it’s likely the White House sees this as a chance to change the headlines, put off a Syrian regime victory, curb chemical weapons use and retrieve some of Team Obama’s squandered credibility. Unfortunately, none of that’s likely.

-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in Boson Herald.