Opinion | Columnists

Greatest dilemma of Barack Obama’s presidency

Intervention in Syria can embroil the US in another war with the potential of involving Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, but not acting bleeds his credibility

  • By Linda S. Heard, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 August 26, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Gulf News Archive
  • President Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s ‘red lines’ have undoubtedly been crossed. Hundreds of Syrians gasping for air and unable to control their limbs were no Hollywood extras. Distraught parents cuddling their dead toddlers close to their chests were no bit-part actors.

A terrible crime against humanity has been committed using accursed chemical weapons, most likely, sarin gas – a nerve agent causing convulsions, nausea, and death by asphyxia.

Doctors Without Borders confirms that 3,600 patients suffering from neurotoxic symptoms have received treatment in three Damascus hospitals. Whoever orchestrated this gross example of man’s inhumanity to man deserves to be hung high.

Ultimately the blame lies with the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad who should have averted the deaths of over 100,000 of his citizens and prevented a refugee crisis by stepping aside two years ago to allow for elections. But, the first casualty of war is truth and vis-a-vis this crime, knee jerk assumptions and propaganda are impeding its quest.

The Syrian regime has issued vehement denials followed by a claim that its soldiers discovered a cache of chemical weapons in a tunnel used by anti-government rebels in the Damascus suburb of Jobar and subsequently required medical treatment. Well, they would say that, you might think. Who can believe those killers?

But there is one disturbing aspect to the West’s rush to apportion blame: Al Assad may be a monster but he’s never been accused of being chronically dumb. Despite his nationalistic rhetoric, he clearly cares about the international community’s opinion, else why would he have consented to this latest visit by UN weapons inspectors? And, why would he have authorised a chemical weapons attack approximately 10 miles from the five-star hotel where they’re based, just days after their arrival?

Further, when regime forces are gaining ground and have heavy conventional weapons at their disposal, why use chemicals and why now? Some analysts judge that AlAssad’s use of chemicals was a message of “I don’t care what anyone thinks’ defiance. If that were so, why has his government launched a frenetic PR campaign aimed at damage control?

France’s Foreign Minister is leading the charge towards military intervention. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron’s office has announced that both he and President Obama are “gravely concerned” by the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime.”

Russia initially urged the Syrian regime to cooperate with UN inspectors but, later, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, stated: “We’re getting more new evidence that this criminal act was of a provocative nature…In particular, there are reports circulating on the internet, in particular that the materials of the incident and accusation against government troops had been posted for several hours before the so-called attack. Thus, it was a pre-planned action.”

This is a firm indication that UN Security Council blessing for military intervention remains remote. Indeed, according to website DebkaFile, Russia has placed its fleets in the Mediterranean and Black Sea on war alert and is positioning troops. Moscow has a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus and is alleged to have experts in country advising the Syrian military.

Obama’s verbal response has been low key. He has characterised the massacre as “troublesome”. Obama is faced with, arguably the greatest dilemma of his presidency. Embroiling the US in yet another Middle East war with the potential of involving Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, could fuel a regional conflagration, impacting Lebanon and Israel. It won’t go down well with the American public eying next year’s Senate elections. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll reveals that 60 per cent of respondents are against US intervention with only 9 per cent expressing their belief that Obama must act.

The White House is fairly tight-lipped on Syria, but appears to be gearing-up to strike Syrian military targets and/or the imposition of a Libyan-style ‘No-fly zone’. Western military commanders held an emergency meeting on Sunday, in the Jordanian capital to coordinate a response, even as US destroyers, equipped with Tomahawk missiles, head closer to Syria’s shores.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Pentagon is providing the President with options for all contingencies. On Sunday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was “poised and ready’ to defend itself.

Syria’s Information Minister has warned that “a mass of flames will ignite the Middle East” should Syria come under attack. Israel would be the likeliest target for Syrian/Hezbollah retaliation leaving Lebanon - currently burdened with widening sectarian divisions over the Syrian conflict that could ignite a full blown civil war - the most vulnerable among Syria’s neighbours.

Massive attacks by a US-led coalition of the willing could certainly do the job, but at what price? Strikes on chemical weapons depots could unleash deadly toxins through the atmosphere. And would Russia stand impassive if its in-country advisors were killed?

Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If he ignores his own red lines, the super power will bleed credibility. If he gives a green light for military action, he will be blamed for any unintended consequences. He has to be the loneliest man in the world!

 

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com

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