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Column: Can the U.S.'s limited military strike against Assad stay limited?

By Ian Bremmer

(Reuters) - After Secretary of State John Kerry's speech about Syria's chemical warfare on Monday, it's clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are "ready to go." Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces "could attack Syria within days," per Reuters.

But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, "The meaning of attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself." The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria's civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America's top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.

Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his "red line." But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It's only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large - and calls from the United States' allies too loud - for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it's clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama's one explicit red line - however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.

As I explained a few months back, the United States had two options that weren't quite as bad as the status quo of slowly slipping into the conflict: it could go big - establish a no-fly zone and do what is necessary to stem the violence - or go home: firmly stay on the sidelines. The Obama administration opted for the latter - that's why it dragged its feet responding to chemical weapons charges the first time around. The White House believes the best way to stay the course is to apply the minimum amount of force that will satisfy the mounting pressure for action without becoming further entangled: "The options we are considering are not about regime change," the White House said on Tuesday. Afterwards, it can return to its backseat role.

But it has only become more difficult to pull that off. If there were limited military actions that had no risk of dragging the U.S. deeper into the Syrian conflict, Obama would have opted for them in response to the first wave of chemical attacks. The irony is that the bar for what the international community will deem an acceptable response to Assad's chemical weapon use has risen substantially since that first instance a few months back. If this had been an Israeli red line that was breached, we would have seen an immediate, limited and surgical strike in response. The U.S. dithered, a much bigger atrocity occurred, and now the U.S. will need to engage in a broader response to maintain its credibility and satisfy its allies - just the sort of response that carries a higher risk of pulling the U.S. further into the quagmire.

So what will be deemed sufficient action? It's hard to say. But it seems clear that a cruise missile or two aimed at specific weapons sites in Damascus will likely no longer be sufficient. The situation demands bellicose words from America's top diplomats, and actions that can back them up - certainly a broader set of military targets, perhaps sustained aerial strikes as well. It demands just the sort of actions that always carry the potential to exceed their limited scope.

The other issue is that many members of the coalition calling for action want different outcomes, and would welcome deeper American involvement. When the United States responds to the chemical attack, allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey - the chief outside powers supporting the rebels - are likely to try and cast the intervention as a turning point in the war effort and interpret the United States' action as tacit support for the rebels in their bid to oust Assad.

Taking action could also cause problems for America in its diplomatic negotiations with Assad's allies. Unlike in Libya, where the U.S. last helped lead an international strike, the Syrian government has real support from foreign actors. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are all firmly in the Assad camp.

Washington's Iran policy is an overlooked and vital consideration in the Syria equation. The top American priority in the region is its upcoming nuclear discussions with Iran; expect this issue to drive headlines in the last few months of this year. If the United States' response to Assad's chemical weapons use is too bold, it could roil Iran and trigger tit-for-tat escalatory actions that leave the two countries unwilling or politically unable to engage in productive negotiations. If the United States' response is too meek or too muddled, it could undermine its credibility - and make the U.S.'s red lines on Iran's nuclear progress that much blurrier and difficult to uphold.

When Kerry said Assad's actions go "beyond the conflict in Syria itself," he was speaking from a moral perspective. But if you read between the lines, it's about American credibility. It's about upholding the U.S.'s regional priorities. And it's about distancing the U.S.'s imminent military response from the Syrian civil war itself.

The U.S. is right to act in Syria. Defending the international boycott on chemical weapons and backing up its red line are worth military action, within limits. Let's just hope its actions can stay limited.

(Ian Bremmer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(Ian Bremmer)

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