Under what circumstances would President Barack Obama unleash U.S. military might into Syria’s civil war?
Obama and senior aides set a high bar even higher in recent days. The same president who widened America’s drone war, ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and led NATO into the conflict in Libya without congressional authorization isn’t likely to go to war against strongman Bashar Assad anytime soon.
Sure, recent media reports have described the Obama administration as almost-but-not-quite-there on sending deadly weaponry to rebels fighting to oust Assad. Obama has said the Syrian leader's use of chemical weapons in the conflict would be a "game changer," and White House officials have said the likelihood of providing U.S. aid to the opposition has been “on an upward trajectory.”
Obama himself redrew his "red line" for action in a White House press conference on Tuesday.
He had previously said proof that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons against the rebels would be a "game changer" that might lead him to consider the use of force. On Tuesday, he changed that standard, saying: "If I can establish in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game changer."
Would that mean U.S. military action, a reporter asked. "I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us," Obama replied.
Put differently: To reshuffle the deck, Obama would need to somehow convince skeptical Russian leaders—who've historically had close ties to Assad—to affirm that the Syrian strongman had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.
The questions persisted Wednesday. Would Obama arm the rebels, a reporter asked White House press secretary Jay Carney. "I’m not ruling that out, I’m just not ruling it in, either," Carney said. Not exactly a clarion call for action.
So what is the president thinking?
First, Obama has what supporters call a pragmatic (detractors might call it cold-blooded) assessment of core American interests in the conflict.
Current and former aides told Yahoo News that the president has been personally affected by the rising death toll in Syria, now estimated to run over 70,000. "The human cost is not lost on the president," former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Yahoo. "He wants to do more and he wants to prevent an escalating humanitarian disaster."
But Obama's top national security concerns in the conflict with Syria, two administration officials confirmed privately, are ensuring Israel's security, preventing the Assad regime from handing its chemical weapons arsenal to terrorists, and safeguarding the stability of other allies like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. If Assad's forces—or events in Syria generally—posed a threat to those priorities, the president might order a unilateral military response, a senior administration official told Yahoo.
"Those are absolutely red lines," said Vietor.
A second thing holding Obama back is that American intervention might not achieve the goal of halting violence and toppling Assad, while trapping the U.S. in a protracted conflict. "There is the very real possibility that we could still have 70,000 or more Syrians dead, but now also have some number of American men and women alongside them, and still no resolution," a senior administration official told Yahoo.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, the nation's highest ranking uniformed officer, made a similar argument on Tuesday. Dempsey told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, as called for by Republican Sen. John McCain and others, won't be easy. And it might encourage Syria and its allies to strike at U.S. interests far from the regional battlefield. And it might pull the U.S. further into the conflict. And it might ... not work.
"Whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire—which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria—that’s the reason I’ve been cautious, is the right word, about the application of the military instrument of power: Because it’s not clear to me that it would produce that outcome,” Dempsey said.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has served under Democratic and Republican presidents, described Syria as a trap.
"Despite the moral, humanitarian and strategic arguments for intervention, Syria is a trap that threatens to suck external powers in and shackle them with responsibility for war-making, peacekeeping and a reconstruction effort that could eventually involve thousands of boots on the ground and billions of dollars in assistance," Miller wrote on CNN. "And it's been clear from the beginning that Obama has no intention of getting stuck with the check."
Or, in Vietor's more pithy formulation: "The risk of dipping your toe in the water and being yanked under is enormous."
Third problem: The international community is more divided on Syria than it was on Libya. Obama has sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Russia, but officials don't expect a major breakthrough. Obama's style has been to act with allies when possible (Libya) and alone when necessary (bin Laden). But aides point to shrinking military resources, a possible looming conflict with Iran over its nuclear program and potential regional repercussions as reasons to act only if other world powers agree.
Close allies Britain and France have pressed Obama to arm the rebels, as have Gulf states. But American and Israeli concerns that deadly weapons might find their way into the hands of extremists—possibly even al-Qaida-affiliated fighters—have held back that approach.
Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that, when it comes to telling moderate rebel military groups apart from radicals, it’s “actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago.”
Carney concurred. "The general's comments are certainly correct, that this is one of the reasons why we need to make very careful evaluations about the opposition," the spokesman said Wednesday.
Obama, whose opposition to that war was one of the central tenets of his 2008 presidential campaign, doesn't want to repeat what he sees as his predecessor's errors. Aides worry about nailing down the intelligence. They point to sectarian violence that still tears at the fabric of Iraq. And they say the war highlighted the need to build more effective international coalitions."
The question the president may be forced to address, soon, is whether those concerns can withstand the certain tide of outrage if it turns out that Assad's forces truly did use chemical weapons—weapons of mass destruction—against the opposition.