Obama’s “Credible Threat” of Military Action Against Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

In his speech yesterday, Obama predictably took credit for the latest developments regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons:

In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.

Such shameless credit-mongering is more than a little difficult to swallow. Had Syria’s new willingness to give up its chemical weapons materialized two weeks ago, when Obama was still rattling his sabre and promising to attack Syria without congressional authorization, it would have been reasonable to conclude that the “credible threat of US military action” was the decisive factor in Assad’s capitulation. But now? Just days after Obama acknowledged that it would be very difficult for him to attack Syria against the will of both Congress and a large majority of the American people? Sure, he hedged a bit, insisting that he has the authority to attack Syria anyway. But I doubt many people (especially Assad) take Obama’s hedge seriously — defying the will of Congress would at a minimum lead to the extremist House holding him in contempt, and it could well lead to a foolish and ultimately doomed attempt to impeach him. The last thing Obama needs is to spend the final few years of his presidency dealing with either possibility — especially given that attacking Syria would accomplish next to nothing from a military standpoint and runs the risk of dragging the US far more deeply into the Syrian civil war than Obama wants.

The idea that the latest diplomatic developments are attributable to the US’s “credible threat” of military action in Syria, then, is anything but credible. Indeed, I’d like to suggest an alternative explanation, one that leads me to be relatively optimistic about the fate of the Russian proposal: this is a diplomatic dream come true for Assad. (And Russia, for that matter.) Although I think there is little doubt left that Syria’s military used chemical weapons against civilians, there is still no evidence that Assad ordered their use. The new Human Rights Watch report specifically concludes that the Syrian government is responsible for the Damascus attack, but it does not claim that Assad himself was responsible for them. And a German newspaper has claimed that “high level national security sources” in the German government believe that Assad “did not personally order last month’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus… and blocked numerous requests from his military commanders to use chemical weapons against regime opponents in recent months.”

I have no idea whether the German report is true, and I’m skeptical of the claim that Assad actively blocked the use of chemical weapons. But I find it very difficult to imagine that Assad was behind the Damascus attack. Had the attack occurred last year, when it looked (at least for a time) like the rebels might actually be able to overthrow the government, I would have had no problem believing that Assad was behind it. He’s clearly a monster, and I’m sure he would use any weapon in his arsenal as a last resort. But why now? Why would Assad use a weapon that has very little tactical military use when it seems clear that the rebels are slowly losing the war? Assad may be a monster, but he’s not an irrational one. He had to have known that using chemical weapons so openly would be of little military benefit and would run the risk of international condemnation and even military intervention. So I find it unimaginable that he would have used them anyway.

If Assad was not responsible for the attack, and if he thinks he is going to win the civil war, the Russian proposal for avoiding US military intervention is a fantastic solution to his international problems. Assad gives up weapons he has no intention of using anyway, and in exchange he reaps the diplomatic benefits of giving them up and avoids being attacked by the US. And, of course, he remains free to keep on killing innocent civilians with conventional weapons, which the US has made clear it has no intention of using force to stop. As I said, a dream come true for Assad.

Obama can claim all he wants that he’s responsible for the possibility of Syria giving up its chemical weapons. In reality, it’s just as plausible that Assad has played him like a fiddle.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/09/12/obamas-credible-threat-military-action-syria/

One Response

  1. This is an interesting post, as always.  I think it raises a number of questions, though.  To highlight a few excerpts:
    “The idea that the latest diplomatic developments are attributable to the US’s “credible threat” of military action in Syria, then, is anything but credible.”
    “He had to have known that using chemical weapons so openly would be of little military benefit and would run the risk of international condemnation and even military intervention. So I find it unimaginable that he would have used them anyway.”
    “Assad gives up weapons he has no intention of using anyway, and in exchange he reaps the diplomatic benefits of giving them up and avoids being attacked by the US.”
     
    I understand the desire to deny any positive result, however inadvertent, to the threat of force.  Nonetheless, I think there are some overstatements and contradictions in this post.  
    Is it entirely consistent to say there was no credible risk of US attack and also that avoiding a US attack was a driving force behind giving up chemical weapons?
    Is it really “unimaginable” that President Assad would have permitted an escalating use of chemical weapons after (reportedly) using chemical weapons with impunity previously, but that the escalation got out of hand due to poor command, control, and communications within the Syrian military, as well as the inherently uncontrolled nature of chemical weapons attacks?
    Is it really on point to assess President Assad’s individual responsibility for ordering the attack when discussing the effectiveness of the US threat of force to reduce the likelihood of future use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government?
    Is it simply a coincidence that the Syrian government is (purportedly) giving up its chemical weapons after being threatened by the US?
    Technical point: Under Nicaragua v. U.S., doesn’t the arming and training of rebels count as the use of force (albeit short of armed attack), presumably employed in part to reduce the killing of innocent civilians with conventional weapons by the Syrian military?
    More constructively, perhaps:
    I think the chances of successful chemical weapons disarmament in the short term may be small, but it seems worthy of serious treatment.  I think concrete suggestions as to how the long range risk could be reduced by short term actions are really needed at this point.  There may be a great deal of despair and cynicism as to destroying (a reported) 1000 tons of widely dispersed chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war, but given the downside of having them out there… this seems like an opportunity to be focused on and exploited.  
    Perhaps the bulk of them could be loaded onto Russian ships and eventually brought to Gorny or Kambarka, where the chemical weapons destruction facilities have completed their work?  If there’s a limited window here, how could as many chemical weapons be placed beyond use as possible?
    What would a best case scenario for chemical weapons disarmament in Syria look like?  What could be done to increase the chance of it happen?

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