Syria’s fate: Does U.S. prefer Assad’s secular government or a hardline Islamist regime?

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The geopolitical chess game over Syria continues as the world enters autumn with the clouds of war swirling in the Eastern Mediterranean. The civil war which has engulfed Syria since 2011 killing 100,000, and now having crossed President Obama’s proverbial “red line” of chemical weapons use allegedly by the Assad regime, has triggered an American response set to punish the Damascus ruler.

Given the Obama administration’s bellicose rhetoric combined with the drumbeat of CNN and the media as a backdrop to conflict, the situation has morphed into a dangerous momentum.
Faced with a skeptical American population and confronted by deep political concerns among both Democrats and Republicans, the Administration was wise to go to Congress. First, the U.S. Constitution in Article 1 Section 8 clearly enumerates the role of the President in the case of war; it does not give a blank check to the Chief Executive.

When Barack Obama was running for President in 2007, he told the Boston Globe, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Well, well.

Second, Obama calculates that should something go wrong, he’ll then say, “We went forward into Syria with bipartisan Congressional approval.” This actually covers his political flank.

Conversely, if the U.S. Congress votes down an attack on Syria, as did the British Parliament, the President, lacking a mandate, would be reckless to pursue the policy.

We have witnessed the antics of a Keystone Cops foreign policy where the Obama administration talks increasingly tough, leaks to the mainstream media telegraph and specify the intended targets, all breathlessly delivered to suggest imminent action.

For all the righteous anguish about Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use, I ask an obvious question? When news of the atrocity splashed across the world press there was one little fact strangely forgotten. Why with UN inspectors just having arrived in Damascus to investigate another use of chemical weapons, would Assad, now winning the civil war, allow his military to launch a massive attack with the UN in town and able to visit the site of the atrocity? The timing was just … wrong. Who profits?

Secretary of State John Kerry presented a passionate and clear case for using force following the Syrian chemical weapons attack. Kerry has become the political “point man” (and perhaps scapegoat?) for a mercurial Administration policy.

But we may have reached the point of no return. We have crossed the rhetorical Rubicon and thus are on the other side of the river but without many political allies and even worse, WITHOUT a clear and cohesive policy about what to really do to the Damascus dictatorship. We are in a tough political position to use force; essentially unilaterally and certainly not within the legal confines of the UN Security Council.

Both Moscow and Beijing have blocked Security Council action on at least three occasions and they will do it again. Thus all the self-congratulatory hubris about the Obama Administration having marvelously “reset the relationship” with Russia, who are we kidding? Reset it to the Cold War?

This is a geopolitical chess game. Thus we would be wise to first assemble a “coalition of the willing” as the Bush Administration did in Iraq in 2003; after a Security Council resolution allowing for action, #1441 in 2002, and then first and foremost build a proper political/military coalition.

When Obama and his GOP enablers such as Sen. John McCain speak about American credibility, maybe we should rephrase that and say the Obama administration’s credibility from a muddled and confused Middle Eastern policy. Why not await the Report of the UN Weapons inspectors and equally follow the will of the U.S. Congress? What is the rush to war for a murky national interest?

Clearly there are no angels to chose from in Syria. This is a vicious, increasingly sectarian, and ethnically complex conflict. The Obama team has unilaterally chosen to use force, without first having carefully outlined the American national interest in the conflict.

The USA clearly has the capacity and competence to bring a swift and mighty military blow against the Assad regime. But should Assad’s secular rule collapse, we may have triggered the law of unintended consequences; the coming to power of the hardline Islamic fundamentalist forces we will come to fear more than Assad. A cruel Catch 22.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for He is the author of Transatlantic Divide ; USA/Euroland Rift (University Press, 2010).

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