Posture in haste, repent at leisure. Barack Obama drew a very public red line with Syria, threatening American intervention if chemical weapons got used in the civil war taking place since the Arab Spring of 2011. Now that US, NATO, and Israeli intel shows that chemical weapons have been deployed, everyone’s looking at the White House to see whether Obama meant what he said. This has produced no action so far, but it has produced … “regret.” Via Daniel Halper at TWS, NBC’s Chuck Todd reports on the inevitable headache that comes from tough talk — backing it up:
“I can tell you there is regret about that red line comment,” said Todd, “because if you –”
Host David Gregory interrupted, “In the White House?”
“In the White House in this respect,” Todd continued. “You don’t draw–I mean, they meant it. They do mean it on the chemical weapons. But saying it creates this political conversation. They didn’t want to go public last week that they had this early evidence yet. They weren’t ready. And yet they knew Congress was going to get this briefing and it was all going to get out, so they decided to go public with it last week because they felt they had no choice, that it was all going to start leaking out … But they’re not ready. There is no good answer.”
This is the reverse of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous axiom, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” In this case, Obama spoke loudly while unsure of whether to pick up a stick at all. That has some inside and outside of the US worried about American credibility in other conflicts, specifically with Iran.
Meanwhile, Israel insists that it doesn’t want Obama to pick up any kind of stick at all, at least not to prove its toughness to Iran. The two issues are not only unrelated, but totally different:
A senior Israeli official said Sunday that Israel was not urging the United States to take military action in Syria, despite intelligence assessments asserting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad recently used chemical weapons in the civil war gripping its country. …
Some Israeli officials and analysts suggested that Mr. Assad was testing Mr. Obama and that failure to act could send a signal to Iran that American threats were not to be taken seriously.
But Mr. Steinitz said the situations in the two countries were not comparable. Syria was engaged in a civil war with terrible humanitarian consequences internally; Iran’s nuclear program, he contended, posed devastating, even existential, threats to Israel and much of the region and world.
“It is problem No. 1 of our generation,” he said of Iran’s nuclear program, comparing it, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often done, to the threat posed by the rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930s.
Mr. Steinitz said that recent visits to Israel by top American officials, including President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, had shown the deep level of cooperation between the two countries, especially on the matter of Iran. But, he added, Israel had made clear to the visitors that it could not hand off such a significant security issue to anyone — even its closest ally — and that it had to be able to handle the threat on its own.
The big question we need to answer in Syria is who benefits from Western intervention at this point. While no one questions the evil nature of the Assad regime, the alternatives look worse. The New York Times reported over the weekend that there are no secular forces of note within the rebel alliance, and that control has gone over to Islamist terror networks that we’d normally be fighting:
In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has come in on Assad’s side:
Although the Lebanese militant and political group Hezbollah has acknowledged little about its role in the fighting next door, Syrian rebels and an analyst close to the Shiite organization, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, say it has amplified its operations inside Syria in recent weeks, adding muscle and firepower to an ongoing Syrian military offensive to retake a strategically important border zone from the rebels.
That acceleration has provoked a backlash from Hezbollah’s Sunni opponents inside Lebanon, who had mostly stayed on the sidelines until now. This past week, two prominent firebrand clerics publicly called on their Sunni followers to go to Syria to fight Hezbollah on behalf of Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels. One of the clerics, Ahmad al-Assir, said that his call to jihad had already galvanized a volunteer force of hundreds of young men.
From a strictly strategic point of view, why not let Hezbollah fight al-Qaeda affiliates and let them drain each other of strength? That has to be a better outcome than victory for Assad or for the Nusrah Front and its AQ allies. An American intervention that tips the scales towards AQ would be absurd, and yet that seems to be exactly what Republicans and Democrats in Washington want from the Obama administration.
If we are going to intervene, it should be with a heavy footprint that ends the Nusrah Front’s control of wide swaths of Syria. That will take years, hundreds of thousands of troops, and probably trillions of dollars — but it’s the only way to intervene and keep Islamist terrorists from taking over large parts of Syria like they did in Libya, after a 30,000-foot intervention by Obama and NATO. If we don’t want to pay that kind of price for intervention, then let’s stay the hell out of Syria in the first place.