If initial U.S. intelligence reports turn out to be irrefutable, the Syrian government has now used chemical weapons in its brutal civil war against the nation's rebel forces. President Barack Obama has warned that such an action would cross "a red line" that would prompt Washington to intervene. How the Obama administration might respond has not been defined, but it is clear that Washington -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- will not rattle their sabers too recklessly.
Syria's civil war is a serious concern for Washington. It has taken tens of thousands of lives, spread the burden and unrest of refugees into surrounding Middle East countries, and fueled the spreading sectarian rift and violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims that haunts Iraq and destabilizes all its neighbors. It also mocks the notion that demonstrations to spur democratic reform can supplant political tyrants. Lastly, the use of chemical weapons raises the threat of further radicalization of Islamist extremists, bolstering the Al Qaeda-related groups that are already at work in Syria and that hope to steer its critical future.
Regardless, the Obama administration and Republicans (see related column by Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee) acknowledge that putting U.S. troops on the ground is not on the table. Nor, it seems certain, is a U.S.-led aerial blockade of Syria warplanes or commercial traffic.
There is ample reason for such restraint. The United States is still bogged down in an intractable war in Afghanistan. And for all of Washington's efforts to prop up and prettify the prospects of an Afghan government capable of taking charge against the Taliban and its fellow jihadists, the corrupt Afghan government isn't close to being able to stand on its own when, or if, NATO and U.S. forces pull out next year as promised.
Beyond that burden is the obstinate support of Syria by Russia and China. Both refuse to accede to the demands of the U.S. and other members of the United Nation's Security Council for economic or military blockades and sanctions against Syria. Without their support to derail Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, Washington is unlikely to call for a strategic blockade that would encounter Syria's modern air defense system. Even if China and Russia approved such intervention, there likely would be no takers to lead it -- or to follow.
Though Republicans hardly know what to do either, Corker and his GOP colleagues are not shy about criticizing Obama's "lead from behind" approach to the Syrian conflict. Speaking for the Republican opposition, Corker acknowledges all the reasons for restraint and immobility, yet he simply contends that Obama should do more than what he's already doing to jawbone against Assad and to quietly aid the rebels.
For example, Corker notes that "only Russia can convince Mr. Assad that he must step aside." But he goes on to urge the administration to "display a deeper understanding of Russia's regional interest (in the Middle East) and take advantage of our shared concerns about Islamic extremism." Well, yes, but isn't that already obvious? As Corker notes, "Russian leaders believe that Syria is becoming a safe haven for extremists."
He agrees that the U.S. should not put boots on the ground in another distant Middle East war. Yet he argues Obama "must act to affect the balance of power on the ground" to shift "momentum away from radical Islamist groups toward more moderate elements that we hope can lead Syria after Mr. Assad's fall." Unfortunately, Corker acknowledges, "the modern elements we must support are not the most formidable or the most cohesive of the forces fighting in Syria."
More than anything, Corker's back-and-forth just confirms the conundrum that any president in Obama's shoes would confront with regard to the present dilemma in Syria. With his bought-and-trained army, Assad's regime has slaughtered innocent women and children, shelled villages and towns without regard for unarmed civilians, and invoked a reign of terror and cruelty. A faction of Syria's minority Alawite Christians support Assad, as do some of the commercial and wealthy classes. But the "difficult decisions" that Corker says must be made by Washington will apparently be made in a bleeding Syria, drop by drop.