Saturday, August 31, 2013

Obama & Syria: A Rehearsal for Iran?

After Prime Minister David Cameron's failure to bring along with him a majority of the MPs in the British Parliament, America has been reduced to vocal support from Germany (but no fighting Germans) and vocal and forceful support from France, in his attempts to put together a coalition to punish Syria for what the US claims is a breach of an international treaty on the use of weapons of mass destruction.

And now President Obama has stunned the chattering classes in the USA by stating today that he has the power as President to unilaterally decide to take limited steps against Syria for breaching the WMD international law, but will also seek Congressional and Senate approval of his decision to do so.

What is going on?

There are two things that we have to consider in weighing up Obama's decision. The first is that there are those who say he should do nothing, and those who say he should do more.

Obama has been opposed for different reasons:

At home, Mr. Obama had come under criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Some lawmakers had maintained that the United States should stay out of a civil war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives, or at least should wait for Congressional or United Nations backing. Others complained that the limited strike envisioned by the president would be ineffectual, especially after days of virtually laying out the plan of attack in public.

The second is that Obama is getting ready for a strike by the USA on Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.

The key, in my view, to Obama's current behaviour on Syria is that this is a president who is acutely aware of the rights and obligations of the US, as a member of an international collective of nations,  under international law.

Obama believes that Syria has breached international law relating to WMD. He tried, along with Cameron, to get the Security Council to agree to a UN-approved use of force by UN members to punish Syria for this breach, but failed due to Russia's disagreement on who did what. Such a UN resolution would have made possible an international coalition of states willing to take whatever steps were needed to punish the transgression. Even Turkey was prepared to join in using force against Syria if the UN agreed.

This left a UN-side step via a decision by NATO, along the lines of the Kosovo steps. But Germany's reluctance to join in armed action against Syria, while advocating punishment of Syria for breaching the anti-WMD law, meant that such a NATO-sidestep was very unlikely.

So Obama was left to a coalition of the willing. The UK is out. Canada favours force against Syria but has declined to adopt a "robust foreign policy" by sending Canadian troops to help punish Syria. France is in, boots and all. Germany is on the sidelines. Other NATO members are wringing their hands but not offering soldiers.

This narrowed Obama's choices down to action by US and French forces.

Whose decision is it, anyway?

And that opened up the troublesome question of whether the President of the USA has the power under the US Constitution to unilaterally commit US forces to attack another nation. The legal justification seems to  be that the President can do so unilaterally if the US is under threat itself, and therefore is really acting in self defence.

Any other set of circumstances requires approval to go to war by the House and Senate, each acting independently.

That's why we have seen the Obama Administration framing the threat by Syria in broader terms. Not only have they made a case that Syria itself is a possible threat to US forces in the region (using those and other WMD), but Syria could also attack US allies in the region with those WMD (such as Turkey, whose PM has openly called for regime change, and of course Israel).

They have also widened it to claim that not taking action against Syria now would encourage other rogue states to use WMD with impunity, including nuclear weapons; and that allowing this encouragement is in itself a threat to the US itself.

Such is the legal case of this President of intervention using force in Syria, by the US, acting if necessary own its own.

The Iran question

Now, let's turn to Iran.

If the President decides at some time, based on whatever evidence the US has at the time, that Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, Obama has stated that he will prevent Iran from doing that. He has also been clear that such a step would be a breach by Iran of the anti-WMD laws.

The problem is that taking such a step against Iran might encourage the Iranian government to retaliate – against Western interests (sinking – or trying to sink – shipping in the Straits), against Israel, and directly itself and  through its proxies, against the US and Americans throughout the world.

How to contain the reaction of Iran to a strike on its nuclear facilities?  That is the problem that Obama is worrying about.

His decision on Syria is a message both to Syria, to others in the world, and especially to Iran: the US will enforce the anti-WMD laws but go no further. That is what all the talk about limited strikes is about.

The hope is that both Syria and Iran will absorb the anti-WMD strikes and not retaliate in any meaningful way, so as to avoid further reaction by the US and/or others in the region (Israel?) which might endanger the regimes now in power in those two states.

Punish the transgression but avoid widening the use of force to include regime change, is Obama's assessment of just how big the stick is that he should carry.

Now the interesting thing to watch is whether the Republican-controlled House will try to force Obama to widen the strikes so as to change the power equation on the ground in Syria (that is, use force to achieve regime change).

My guess is the House will tie its approval of the Obama limited strike against Syria to the US taking further steps with the view to weakening the Syrian government. Steps such as taking out the Syrian air force; taking out tanks and armoured carriers; imposing no flight zones etc.

And if they do this, Obama will take their motion as agreement for his limited anti-WMD strike, and simply disregard the rest of the motion.  No matter how indignant the Republicans (and some Democratic members of Congress) are by his cherry-picking.

After all, nothing Obama said precluded him exercising his Presidential power to carry out his decision for a limited strike, even if the House disagrees.

Interesting few days lie ahead.


  1. The only thing Harper done right (and I mean the only thing) was to stay away from Syria. For that I commend him. But it's still not enough. We should give more financial support the U.N. and open our doors to all the refugees that have been displaced due to the worlds government failing to respond in a diplomatic manner to Syria.

  2. Thanks, Jeremy. Harper tries to get the best of both worlds, sometimes, a "fault" he delighted in accusing the Liberal government of doing: leave the heavy lifting up to the US while talking support. His approach on Syria is similar: a "reluctant convert" to the use of force, but no overt assistance to the USA. Western nations cannot have it both ways: if international treaties restricting the use of certain weapons of mass destruction were willingly entered into by countries, then surely the legal obligations of such treaties should be carried out?

    That is Obama's point. And his stance is dramatically different from the ethically and legally questionable Junior Bush venture into Iraq. And that is why Obama is insisting on taking steps (his so-called limited steps) to enforce the treaty against WMD.

    The unwillingness and seeming inability of nations to intervene in some way or another in civil was such as the Syrian one, and guide the parties (through a mix of carrots (aid - money and negotiation advice and assistance) and sticks (trade sanctions, other) to a negotiated solution is a major unresolved problem.

    The European Union has resulted in agreements by nations what over the past 200 years were constantly at each others' throats, to sit down and negotiate issues rather than kill each other.

    Imagine a world where that is common, and not so rare!


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