It is indisputable – Bashar Assad is a villain who has committed heinous, mortal crimes with the use of chemical weapons against his own people.
What's debatable is America's policy on Syria and the broader Middle East. I have raised the issue of Syria with Administration officials in numerous hearings and briefings. I have worked locally with Syrian Christians in their search for two abducted Archbishops caught in the conflict. I have twice met with America's good friend, King Abdullah of Jordan on the issue.
Sadly, I have observed that the friends of the Syrian regime – Iran, Russia and Hezbollah – are far more committed to President Assad than the friends of the Syrian people – the West and the Arab League – are to the Free Syrian Army and other moderate opposition groups.
I asked former Secretary of State Clinton in February 2012 if the Administration was prepared to provide material support to moderate opposition forces. She said providing light arms would be of little help to the opposition in face of Assad's mighty military. In short, she didn't want to get too involved. There was no discussion of the benefits that weakening or toppling Assad would hold for America’s allies and interests.
It sometimes seemed as though President Obama was more interested in fostering his reputation as the anti-war, Nobel Peace Prize winner than actually developing a practical response to the situation in Syria. Inaction and indecision were and remain the order of the day. In the meantime, al-Nusra and other radical Islamist terrorist organizations have stepped into the void.
Unfortunately, today there are no good policy outcomes for the United States in Syria. The time for the United States to intervene in a constructive, efficacious manner has long passed. Over the past two and a half years, the Syrian Civil War has descended into both a sectarian and proxy conflict, and events have moved well beyond America’s ability to control, with Iran, Hezbollah and Russia fully committed to supporting Assad’s tyranny. A war weary American public will not support a half-measured, poorly thought-out military strike, which will only expose the United States and its friends to greater risks including the possibility of a broader regional conflagration. This could include more chemical weapons attacks against the Syrian people and possibly Israel, potential cyber-attacks on critical American infrastructure, an unleashed Hezbollah, and other unforeseen asymmetrical responses.
Let us not forget the broader context of the Middle East. Witness how President Obama turned his back on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011after two weeks of uprising. Whatever his faults, Mubarak was a loyal 30-year friend of the United States. Lesson learned for our long-time allies. Then there was the Green Revolution in Iran. The Obama Administration could barely utter words of support to the courageous Iranian people who stood up to Ahmadinejad’s rogue regime. And of course, who can forget leading from behind in Libya?
Fast forward to summer 2013. Are we shocked that Assad's police state launches chemical weapons attacks on his people in June and August – trampling President Obama’s redlines not once but twice?
With over 100,000 Syrians killed, what is the President’s strategy for Syria? He talks of shots across the bow, a military action of days not weeks, and no intent to topple Assad or degrade his ability to make war on his own people for that matter. A very limited airstrike to “punish” Assad will not alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war. What's the point or purpose? America’s national interest in Syria is two-fold: limiting Iranian influence in the region and making sure chemical weapons sites are secured. President Obama’s proposed action accomplishes neither.
Reacting to Parliament's rebuke of Prime Minister David Cameron and no United Nations authorization forthcoming, President Obama pauses again and pivots to Congress. More vacillation, indecision and delay. Of course, the President should consult with Congress prior to military action, but he does not need Congressional authorization in advance of a limited airstrike. But now that he's asked for it, I'm happy to engage in the debate. I owe the President fair consideration of his Syria policy, whatever it may be. Call me skeptical.
President Obama does not seem to have his heart in this impending military action. Those looking for Churchillian resolve will find none here. Our men and women in uniform deserve a Commander-in-Chief who is full-throated in the lead of what could spiral into a dangerous mission – and cognizant of its potential ramifications. So do the American people.
With Assad’s jubilant supporters celebrating in the Syrian streets and the corridors of power in Tehran and Moscow, America’s friends and allies watch this mystifying failure of presidential leadership unfold with dismay. Barack Obama has not only diminished his own presidency, but more problematically, America’s standing in the world among friend and foe alike.
The upcoming vote in Congress is not so much a vote to authorize military action on Syria – the stakes have grown beyond that. It's much more a vote of confidence on the President’s Syrian and broader Middle East policies. On that score, I have no confidence.