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Obama’s Syria Poker Game is Weak

Posted by Steve Markowitz on August 27, 2013

The carnage in Syria has been ongoing for two years and is a human tragedy that has been the subject of this Blog’s postings previously.  What began as protests, part of the “Arab Spring”, has devolved into a complex civil war.

While civil wars are horrific events, their resolution is more difficult when more than two parties are involved.  In the case of Syria, on one side there are the Assad government and its minority Alawite sect trying to cling to power.  They will be ruthless and fight to the end since their defeat would likely lead to a massacre of the Alawite minority.  On the other side is a mixture of some secularists and various radical Islamic groups.  There is significant infighting amongst the rebel fighters and it is likely that should the anti-American Assad government fall, its replacement will be at least as virulent to US interests.

The complexity of the Syrian Civil War has not been lost on President Obama.  This is led to the President being cautious to the point of timidity.  Had Obama backed the protesters while the group was still run by secularists, there is a chance that the outcome could have been favorable to American interests.  Given that the strongest rebel forces are reported to be militant Islamists that opportunity has long since passed.

In an effort to take a middle ground that placated those concerned with the carnage in Syria, President Obama one year ago created a “red line” for Assad.  Direct American intervention would occur should chemical weapons be used in the conflict.  The President announced this red line believing that it would be enough to discourage Assad from using chemical weapons.  Last week evidence went public that the Syrian government did indeed use these weapons on civilians resulting in the deaths of hundreds.  The President guessed wrong.

Now Obama finds himself in the dilemma.  On the one hand, he does not want to be involved in Syria understanding that it would create casualties.  In addition, should the Assad regime fall, its replacement could be worse for American interests.  However, if Syria did cross Obama’s red line, should the United States not respond, our enemies including Iran and North Korea will be emboldened to the point where they would not respect current or future red lines.  That could lead to miscalculations and more serious conflicts for the United States.

President Obama has said that he will now take the Syrian matter of United Nations in an attempt to get international backing for any military response to the gas attacks.  This move has no credibility since neither Russia nor China will allow any military action against the Assad regime with UN approval.

As George Friedman of Stratfor.com has written in Obama’s Bluff,this is no longer simply about Syria”.  He further correctly concludes that “when Obama proclaimed his red line on Syria and chemical weapons, he assumed the issue would not come up”.  Obama has clearly boxed himself and the country into a corner.  Once again the President has shown a total lack of foreign policy skills.

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