Obama Is Still in a Serious Syria Mess

The president's speech laid out some good options, but risks remain.

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President Barack Obama, shown here addressing the nation on Sept. 10, 2013, heads to New York Monday for the U.N. General Assembly.
President Barack Obama, shown here addressing the nation on Sept. 10, 2013, heads to New York Monday for the U.N. General Assembly.

President Obama's speech Tuesday night was a step in the right direction in responding to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, but there remain serious problems. On the plus side, it was good to hear him acknowledge again that it is unwise to intervene in the Syrian civil war or put troops on the ground. It was refreshing to hear that the continued use of chemical weapons must be deterred – even if the use itself showed that the international community failed to deter their use in the first place and that the red line he drew was not taken seriously in Damascus. Finally, it was reassuring to hear him say that we cannot let the use of the weapons stand, for the consequences could be to legitimize their use in the future, possibly on our own forces. He described targeting to stop further use of chemical weapons and to remove Assad's chemical weapons capability – though how that would be done safely without some sort of ground assistance is unclear. It appears that the U.S. is, at last, willing to act – maybe.

Still, we tread a dangerous line here. Obama wants to delay a vote and action to explore a "diplomatic solution" raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to a careless, offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry. Though it cannot be dismissed now, and we won't do so, it's not clear to me what surrendering the known chemical weapons offers in the larger picture. This is a matter of punishment and deterrence.

The immediate problem was not about Bashar Assad having chemical weapons, it was about Assad using chemical weapons. We never made possession an issue even after it was clear to the world he had them. The red line was a warning not to use these weapons, which the president argues Assad did, spelling out some of the evidence. But if Billy hits Timmy with a baseball bat, it isn't enough just to take the baseball bat away – at least not in my house. How does giving up the "known" stockpile (if we can even be sure) address the underlying issue of what happened or may? So we say: "now don't do it again or?" Or what? What is or was the goal here?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Declaring that we will delay and "explore" the diplomatic option only offers time, though that is itself useful. Obama found himself backed into a corner through a gaffe and is now trying to make the best of it. It may be that the diplomatic approach is not so much a solution as a way to buy time and cover to build the coalition and support we ought to have already had in place, time we squandered in the past year. In that case, set a deadline and get to work quickly, but prepare to act and prepare the public and Congress.

Even so, the "diplomatic solution" is a risk. Trying to put Assad's chemical stockpile in international hands is a bit of a silly idea to begin with and not easy. We have to find all his weapons, put them in one or a few places, secure them and guard them. Even in peacetime, it's not easy to verify where such weapons are or how many, let alone gather them. In the middle of a civil war? Do we really expect that someone will call "time out?" What is the international community going to do exactly, and in what time frame, and for how long? Why should we expect Assad to simply offer them up? Furthermore, chemical weapons are not that hard to produce. Do we really think that even if he gives up the stocks that's enough?

[Vote: Should Obama Support the U.N. Taking Control of Syria's Chemical Weapons?]

What if the diplomatic solution is successful in taking away his known chemical weapons? Do we just declare victory though the immediate central issue of their use was never addressed? What about what the president declared as a second objective, removing capability? There was a brief moment in 1991, as the deadline for Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait drew near, when the first President Bush waited half fearing Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze would strike a deal allowing Saddam to save his army to fight another day. The goals then had been similar: to both force him out of Kuwait (immediate) and to defang him as a regional threat (removing the capability). Then, as now, the diplomatic outcome may not have be the best outcome for the world.

The U.S. remains in a bad spot. That Putin was able to snatch options away from Obama underscores that the U.S. was never fully in control of the situation, and is less so now. Claims that Assad's acceptance of the Russian proposal is serious and due to fear of American strikes are creative. Assad knew Obama was caught off guard and was searching for a way out, or to at least minimize any strikes. It seemed increasingly probable that the administration would not bring Congress along, let alone the American public, and this would hamstring action. It was not as if Obama would order the strike anyway if he lost those votes. Assad could have waited for the no vote, put Obama in the worst of positions, and then, had Obama threatened to act anyway, accepted the Russian proposal as vague as it was and drag it out.

Instead, Putin protected his client, eclipsed Obama and will provide Assad cover in the next phase. Whether Obama can recapture leadership, and an outcome that meets the goals and principles he seemed to set in his speech, will depend on whether he can be more than a politician.

Elizabeth McCall is a national security and foreign policy consultant and writer specializing in strategic planning. She served in Policy Planning at the Department of Defense and is now the president of Delphium, LLC, in Alexandria, Va.

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