President Obama’s assertion that “core national interests” are now on the line following what looks increasingly to have been large-scale use of chemical weapons this week against rebel strongholds outside Damascus suggests the US is moving closer to some form of intervention in Syria.
Until now, Mr. Obama has kept the United States largely aloof from Syria’s civil war since it was sparked by repression of antigovernment protests in March 2011.
But White House references to the vital national interests that would be threatened by the use or spread of chemical weapons in the volatile Middle East could be a sign that some decision on US action in Syria is closer than just a week ago, when the conflict had largely retreated to the background.
Obama acknowledged as much in an interview Friday on CNN’s “New Day,” when he said the alleged attacks had shortened the time frame for decisions on any US and international intervention in the conflict.
Yet as he has in the past, Obama placed those decisions in the context of “what’s going to be in our long-term national interests,” and he enumerated some of the “core national interests” he’ll be weighing, including “making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”
Those interests are the same ones that have been cited since the outset of a civil war in a country thought to have one of the most extensive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the region – and in a country with allies, including the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iran, that the US lists as sponsors of terrorism. But proof of a resort to chemical weapons would make those interests all the more urgent.
The prospect of “loose” WMDs in the Middle East has been a top concern not just of the US, but of Israel in particular. As recently as July top Israeli military officials reiterated their assessment that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was keeping tight control of the country’s stockpiles of chemical weapons.
But Israel also gave a hint last month of how it would almost certainly react to any loosening of the reins – intentional or not – on the stockpiles when it bombed a suspected shipment of missiles from Syria to Hezbollah, which is aiding Mr. Assad in his battle with rebels.
Israel has all along placed the security of Syria’s WMDs at the top of its list of reasons to worry about Syria, and its zero tolerance of any transfer or use of sophisticated weaponry against it was on display again Friday when it launched airstrikes against Lebanon in response to the firing of rockets this week into northern Israel.
Yet while Obama emphasizes the US interest in stopping any proliferation of chemical weapons, he is also mindful, he says, that rushing to judgment on something like WMD use in Syria could draw the US into “very expensive, difficult, costly interventions” when it might not be warranted.
Such references suggest the president aims to avoid the kind of sequence of events that led to the Iraq war.
Israel is the closest US ally in the region, but both Jordan and Turkey are close US partners that support Assad’s departure from power, have long borders with Syria, and have taken in large numbers of Syrian refugees. Turkey, a member of NATO, has already seen its border region hit by Syrian bombs.
Iraq is another US partner in the region – albeit a problematic one – that could be among the first affected by any spreading of Syria’s chemical weapons. Iraq has experienced an accelerating going-and-coming of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria, and one result has been an uptick in recent months in attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Keeping any chemical or biological weapons out of its hands – or those of other Islamist militants fighting in Syria – is clearly a vital US national interest.
Obama recognizes that it is in the interest of other US allies not sitting on Syria’s borders to keep a lid on chemical weapons, and he is calling for any response to proven use in Syria to come from the “international community.” But analysts are already warning that such a desirable scenario cannot be allowed to become the excuse for not taking action.
“The international community should act quickly [but] its response should certainly not be made subject to a … Russian veto,” says Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Russia has so far vetoed efforts in the UN Security Council to sanction Assad for his brutal repression of the opposition, but Russia hinted Friday that it might be changing its tune: The Russian government called on Assad to cooperate with UN investigators seeking to visit the sites of this week’s suspected chemical attacks.
US forces in the region
It’s less clear what Obama is referring to when he speaks of US “bases” in the region, as he did in the CNN interview. In recent years the US has largely shifted from land-based forces to an aircraft carrier presence, to the point where the Brookings Institution’s military scholar Michael O’Hanlon says the US “permanent onshore combat power in the region is very limited.”
The US does base the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and maintains other facilities in a few other countries, such as a drone base in Saudi Arabia. The US is also known to have a certain number of CIA and special operations personnel in Jordan and Turkey training and advising Syrian rebels.
As the investigation of the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria proceeds, it may eventually confront Obama with having to make a choice among the “core interests” he says are at stake.
The president suggests that America’s “values and ideals” would be offended and challenged by any recourse to chemical weapons, and many foreign policy experts are exhorting Obama to act resolutely to maintain the international taboo on chemical weapons.
Obama says it is in the US national interest to “do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians,” but he also suggests the US would think hard about attacking another country “without a UN mandate and without clear evidence [of chemical weapns use] that can be presented.”
At some point, it may come down to a choice between one or the other.