In the wake of last week's use of chemical weapons in Syria, purportedly by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Obama administration is now said to be seriously considering intervention in the two-and-a-half year old civil war there.
But to what end, exactly? The objective of the air strikes, if and when they do come, won't be to alleviate humanitarian suffering. Notwithstanding the concept of "responsibility to protect" championed by Administration officials like current UN envoy Samantha Power, the Obama administration has been notoriously absent from the Syria front until quite recently.
The cost of this inaction has been immense. More than 100,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to the most recent UN estimates. Some one-and-a-half million more have been displaced, fleeing the bloodshed for safe harbor in neighboring states like Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. But these stark statistics didn't succeed in mobilizing official Washington before, and they're not the reason for American action now.
Rather, the strikes are intended, first and foremost, to restore U.S. standing. Having waffled the first instance of Syrian chemical weapons usage back in April, the White House is now contemplating a face-saving bit of political theater designed to reestablish America's tattered credibility in the region regarding "red lines" and its commitment to enforcing global order. As such, military action against Syria, if and when it does take place, will almost assuredly be tactical, rather than strategic, in nature.
Indeed, if the copious leaks out of the Administration are accurate, the objective currently being contemplated by the U.S. and its allies is to belatedly punish Assad and his regime solely for the use of weapons of mass destruction. "The purpose is a response to the use of chemical weapons," one Administration official has confirmed to the Jerusalem Post. "We are not contemplating any action aimed at regime change."
There's good reason for this, of course. According to the most recent polling on the subject, just 9 percent of Americans support intervention in Syria at all. That means the White House is on a very short public opinion leash, and could face significant resistance from Congress and the general public in response to any major, sustained military initiative in Syria.
That brings to mind two famous sayings. The first is the old military dictum—familiar to soldiers and generals the world over—that in warfare the enemy also gets a vote. Washington may intend for the conflict to remain limited, but Syria and its allies (most directly Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia), have both the means and the opportunity to escalate the situation in significant and destabilizing ways, from attacking U.S. allies (such as Israel) to further use of WMD against targets both foreign and domestic. That means what is intended to be a limited intervention in Syria might end up as something much, much bigger.
The second is the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson's historic admonition that, "when you strike at a king, you must kill him." Western military action might indeed succeed in tipping the balance of power decisively in favor of Syria's rebels (a development that would create its own distinct set of problems), leading to Assad's eventual ouster. However, it might not, and Assad—having received a much-needed political reprieve—will have every reason to pursue a scorched earth strategy at home and retaliation against the West abroad.
Astute observers of regional politics, like the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens, understand these complexities, and as a result have counseled the White House to either go big or go home. But will President Obama do so? It looks as though we are about to find out.