Questions About War with Syria

The Obama administration should clarify several matters before launching a war.

· What are the Obama Administration’s aims in Syria?

· Administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have stated in Senate hearings that U.S. military action will punish the Assad regime, degrade its ability to launch further chemical attacks, and deter future chemical attacks.

· Yet, as Senator John McCain has noted, the Syrian government has had a head start of at least ten days to disperse and conceal its military assets. Given that Secretary Kerry and other senior officials have insisted that the administration does not “want to go to war,” how will President Obama direct U.S. forces to accomplish the mission he has defined while limiting the tools available?

· Similarly, why does President Obama believe that military action will deter future chemical weapons attacks? If Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is sufficiently desperate to use chemical weapons, knowing the probable international reaction, he must fear for the survival of his regime. The only way to deter Assad from using chemical weapons when he believes his survival may be at stake would be to threaten to accelerate his downfall. The administration does not appear prepared to do this and the Congress does not appear prepared to support it. Moreover, as Senator Rand Paul has asked, if Assad is acting irrationally, why would we expect a rational response to a U.S. attack?

· What could be the consequences of a U.S. attack on Syria?

· To the extent that the Obama administration is successful in degrading the Syrian government’s military capabilities, its actions may help the most powerful rebel factions—meaning Syria’s Islamist extremists, whether affiliated with Al Qaeda or not. A rebel victory in the current environment could contribute to the marginalization of moderate opposition groups and could further destabilize the region. Why does the administration believe that degrading Syria’s military capabilities will serve U.S. national interests?

· If U.S. action does not deter future chemical-weapons attacks, or other large-scale and high-profile violence against civilians, the Obama administration will face greater pressure from to do more in Syria—possibly drawing the United States into a costly and open-ended civil war with no clear resolution in sight. How does President Obama plan to respond if Syria does not change its conduct? What if Syria retaliates against the United States directly or indirectly, through terrorist proxies?

· Will a U.S. attack on Syria strengthen U.S. credibility in dealing with Iran and North Korea?

· U.S. officials have argued that failing to take military action against Syria’s chemical weapons attack weakens our credibility in confronting Iran over its nuclear program. Nuclear weapons can be far more destructive than chemical weapons. Also, there is a considerable difference between developing nuclear weapons that may threaten the United States or its allies and using chemical weapons in an internal conflict inside a country hostile to America. Why do administration officials believe that U.S. action in Syria will reinforce U.S. credibility in dealing with Iran?

· What matters most is not our credibility today, but our credibility over time. Limited strikes that do little to punish, degrade or deter might contribute only marginally to U.S. credibility and could actually undermine it if the Syrian regime is not actually deterred from future chemical weapons use or large-scale violence against civilians. How do administration officials believe the conflict in Syria will evolve and why do they believe that U.S. action now will increase U.S. credibility not only at this time, but in the future?

· Paradoxically, efforts to strengthen U.S. credibility by attacking Syria may actually backfire by encouraging Iran accelerate efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, which many in Iran may view as their country’s only reliable means to deter a U.S. attack, and by provoking counterproductive responses from others. Why does President Obama believe that this will not happen? Do administration officials believe that China and Russia will continue to assist in applying pressure on Iran after an attack on Syria? Will derailing international cooperation on Iran increase U.S. credibility? What if Russia decides in response to a U.S. attack in Syria to provide Iran with sophisticated air-defense systems? Would that not reduce the credibility of a U.S. military option in Iran?

· Why has President Obama sought Congressional debate on military action in Syria?

· Politically, President Obama has created a no-lose scenario in which he can escape blame for inaction (if the Congress opposes action) or for failure (if the Congress imposes conditions on it) while taking credit for any appearance of success.

· Diplomatically, Mr. Obama has found a plausible reason to delay any possible attacks until after the September 5-6 G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, avoiding potential high-visibility condemnations from Chinese, Russian, or other world leaders at the summit.

· Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand how President Obama’s decision is consistent with his other foreign-policy choices. If Mr. Obama believes that Congressional authorization is important to U.S. military action in Syria, why did he avoid seeking Congressional support before attacking Libya?