Does Assad think Obama is bluffing?

Does Assad think Obama is bluffing?

If you were Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, how worried would you be about President Obama’s threats regarding a U.S. response to any use of Syrian’s chemical weapons? A series of recent news pieces (here, here, and here) seem to suggest a depressing answer: not very much.

Ever since the civil war started, the nightmare scenario has been the prospect that the conflict would escalate to a point where Syria’s vast chemical arsenal was in play — either through a deliberate use or through a loss of custody. That nightmare seems ever more plausible as the civil war grinds on, particularly as the tide seems to be favoring the rebels. It is not impossible to imagine a rapid collapse of the Assad regime and, for that very reason, it is not impossible to imagine circumstances under which Assad would be tempted to gamble with a game-changer like chemical weapons.

President Obama has consistently warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer for American involvement, as well. The Administration has hitherto resisted calls to intervene more directly in the conflict, but it has also indicated that the United States would act militarily if chemical weapons were used.

How might Assad interpret that vague threat?

One can divide up the continuum of military response into five main categories, listed below in order of escalating involvement:

1. Symbolic punitive strike: a military response designed to indicate sharp disapproval, but otherwise not tilting the balance in the civil-war and not securing the WMD.

2. Game-changing military operation that topples Assad regime: some combination of sustained strikes and other action (e.g., no fly zones) that tilts the military balance decisively in the rebels favor, hastening the fall of the Assad regime.

3. Destroying the chemical arsenal: conducting enough airstrikes to render the arsenal unusable by Assad or by terrorists and militia groups.

4. Invading to secure the WMD arsenal: deploying enough ground troops to secure the many chemical depots and to hunt down any weapons that may have slipped away.

5. Invading to guarantee a favorable political transition: deploying enough ground troops to guarantee the toppling of the Assad regime and assure a transition to a new political order more favorable to U.S. interests. 

None of these is an attractive option.

Option 1 is trivially easy to do but will not accomplish much beyond its symbolism — even its symbolic message may be undone, since a response like this signals weakness as loudly as it signals disapproval.

Option 2 is a bit more challenging — but compared to the other options quite doable. However, it will not address our biggest concern about the chemical weapons. It will implicate the United States in the civil war without giving us much leverage over the political outcome or the disposition of the chemical weapons.

Option 3 may not be doable and would involve tremendous collateral damage. The arsenal is vast, and widely dispersed, and destroying all of it from air would require a very lengthy sustained bombardment. In the process, the air strikes would result in extensive contamination and casualties in communities near the depots. Even then we could not be certain that all of the weapons were destroyed before terrorists got their hands on some.

Option 4 would be a daunting military operation, and depending on the state of Syrian forces could approximate another Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Once in Syria, the pressure for mission-creep to expand to policing a political resolution to the civil war would be nearly irresistible. Also, this would take a long time to assemble (think how long it took to build up to OIF) and some chemical weapons could go missing in the delay.

Option 5 would be tantamount to another OIF — all of the downsides of Option 4 plus an indefinite commitment to a hostile occupation.

The Obama Administration has assiduously avoided spelling out with any clarity what the President might be contemplating, but some things are clear. Obama has built his entire regional strategy around the "no more Iraqs" objective. There is a double meaning: "no more Iraq" in the sense of leaving Iraq regardless of consequences and taking a hands-off approach to the unraveling situation there, and "no more Iraqs" in the sense of not making any military commitments that involve substantial U.S. ground troops.

Perhaps the prospect of Syrian chemical weapons landing in the hands of terrorist groups would cause the President to change his regional strategy, but a change of that magnitude would require substantial political preparation of the American public. The uncertain and vague comments so far from the Administration are far from adequate to the task. My inference, and likely the inference of Assad, too, is that Options 4 and 5 are effectively off the table.

I can well imagine that the Administration would be tempted to try Option 3, but it is far from clear that it is militarily feasible. And is there anything in the past four years that would suggest this Administration is willing to risk the substantial collateral damage that would ensue?

Option 2 is more likely and, given the fecklessness that would be signaled in Option 1, might be where the Administration ends up. But the Administration has been very wary about getting on other slippery slopes and, despite its boasts about leading from behind in Libya, the Administration understands that doing "another Libya" is a dangerous business. Indeed, the Administration has resisted pressure to do just that up until now when there was more upside potential and so why would they change their mind now when the upside looks far more bleak. It is not at all clear that the use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebel groups would be enough to change Obama’s calculus.

If Assad reasons the same way I have just done, he may conclude that what Obama means by military warnings about chemical red lines is simply Option 1: punitive strikes that don’t otherwise change the game. In other words, Assad may conclude that Obama’s threats are the least of his worries, given how desperate his situation is.

Ironically, then, if the Obama administration really does want to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, it may have to threaten more credibly than it has so far a level of military intervention the President manifestly wants to avoid.