Insiders: Syrian Chemical Weapons Use Does Not Yet Justify U.S. Military Intervention

Sara Sorcher

Even though President Obama acknowledged chemical weapons use in Syria, nearly two-thirds of National Journal's National Security Insiders believe the American military should not yet intervene in the bloody fight against Bashar al-Assad.

The argument for military intervention, one Insider said, "has been appallingly astrategic, even by Washington standards.  

'"Assad is a bad guy and should go' is a dumb argument for war," the Insider continued. "The idea that detection of chemical weapons is/should be a trigger is also moronic. It's not like we didn't have two medium-sized wars that turned into nightmares because we didn't think them through recently. We haven't even had a discussion about what political outcome we're seeking and how aiding the rebels/intervening is supposed to produce the outcome." The war-weary American public is not going to tolerate a full-scale military intervention in the volatile country, which would likely come with heavy casualties, others said.

A 37 percent faction of Insiders, however, said now is the time for the U.S. military to get involved. "Earlier, there was insufficient regional and international support for U.S. military intervention. Now there is, plus Islamic radical involvement is mushrooming and the Syrians are testing the West by beginning to employ lethal chemical weapons (sarin). Moreover, let's remember that defeating the Assad regime will help isolate Iran and weaken Hezbollah and Hamas."

Many had different ideas about how best to proceed. "Military intervention yes, troops on the ground no," one Insider said, calling for "intelligence, sensors, air space control, drone strikes where appropriate, and material support to the opposition forces." Another added: "Military intervention ... could take the form of a no-fly zone or limited operations to secure chemical weapons sites."

One Insider insisted President Obama must back up his words with actions. "The president said that chemical weapons would be a game changer. He must do something to back that up now, in order to preserve U.S. credibility," the Insider said. "That need not be military but it must be qualitatively different from the policy to date. He should have never drawn that red line. But having done so, he cannot just ignore it."

Separately, 88 percent of Insiders were pessimistic about Obama's success in closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, a campaign promise four years ago that Congress blocked. "He will fail, as he has for the past four years. And he deserves to fail. If we didn't have the prison at Guantanamo we would have to stand up one just like it somewhere else. In fact, isn't that Obama's plan? What sense does that make?" one Insider said. "Who really thinks the critics of U.S. detention policy (his and Bush's) are going to be less critical of a prison for terrorists in Illinois than a prison for them in Guantanamo? Does anyone think the critics are that stupid?"

The failure to close Guantanamo during the president's first term has essentially put this question to rest, another Insider said. "There are 50 or so violent extremists at Gitmo who will remain there for the indefinite future, including [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed]." The question "assumes that we take him at his word that he will try to close it," another Insider said. "It would require compromise and arm-twisting with Congress when there are many other pressing issues on the agenda. Not gonna happen."

National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:

Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

1. Now that the U.S. acknowledges chemical weapons use in Syria, should it intervene militarily in the conflict?

(60 votes)

  • No  63%
  • Yes 37%


"Conditions on the ground remain unclear and uncertain, which makes military intervention more unlikely to succeed."

"Depends on how you define intervention militarily. Should we send arms to the opposition? Yes. Should we establish a no-fly zone? No. Should we send ground forces? No."

"Intervening in the middle of a religious/sectarian civil war will be a disaster for all sides. Sometimes it takes more courage to stay out of a conflict than to enter one; think Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan."

"Let's get past 'tripwires' for impulsive intervention. Decisions to go in with military force should turn on a complex set of factors, of which chemical use is just one. If we intervene, we should do so decisively. Who is really ready for that now?"

"If we define 'intervening militarily' as U.S. combat units, it's not time yet."

"What's the end game? President doesn't have one."

"Whether chemical weapons were used or not says almost nothing about how intervention would affect the course of the conflict and thus whether intervention is a good idea or a bad one."

"Not our problem. Down chicken hawks, down."

"The U.S. needs to take more active steps to contain the impact of the conflict on the neighborhood--but direct intervention would not advance this goal."

"Intervene on whose behalf? There are no 'good guys' in this conflict."

"... Despite the opinion of the people who brought us Iraq."

"Give them the tools, but remember T.E. Lawrence: 'Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.' "

"Intervention might be required at some point, but the administration needs both a rationale and a strategy that actually improves upon the status quo. As of now, it only has the rationale."

"Given our experience with Iraq WMD we must be pretty darn sure they were used before we put boots on the ground."


"Punitive strikes on military targets would be appropriate but not full-scale intervention."

"Any intervention would have been far more effective had it occurred two years ago. The administration missed a golden opportunity to get rid of the butcher Assad then. Now we have to carefully weigh what comes next before we intervene militarily."

"Create a no-fly zone of sorts along the Turkish and Syrian borders with Patriot missile batteries to give the opposition some consolidated geography within which they (perhaps) can build some needed institutions and unity."

"According to the press, the president is inexorably moving to intervene by providing lethal support to Syrian forces that are non-Islamist."

"Yes, if one includes establishing a no-fly zone and arming the secular opposition within the definition of 'intervene militarily.' There is, as of now, no need or reason to deploy U.S. ground forces in Syria."

"Only to the extent of providing arms to the moderates among the rebels; something we should have done weeks, if not months, ago."

"It is a year and a half late, and the options are limited, but at least imposing a no-fly zone would show some active support and appear to meet the president's commitment since the 'red line' has been crossed. I also would hope that the president would use covert action, which could make a real difference."

"But not boots on the ground--military assistance in weapons, logistics, etc."

2. President Obama said this week he would try again to close the Guantánamo Bay prison. Will he succeed?

(60 votes)

  • No  88%
  • Yes 12%


"The political resistance to housing prisoners in the U.S. is too strong."

"He has no intention of alienating his supporters on the right and will simply let the issue slide, as he has done since taking office. To do more would require putting moral courage over political expediency, something he avoids doing whenever possible."

"There are too many folks who still want the country to have this offshore option for enemy combatants. It will take a lot more years, I think."

"Congress is playing the populist card by refusing to allow transfer of dangerous prisoners to the U.S., but they cannot be released. The alternative is to transfer them to states that likely would torture them."

"Without a clear plan that replaces the functions of Guantanamo, it won't close."

"Congress will block that."

"The only way out is civil trial, and that is not the right legal framework to address these crimes. Reduce the population to those crimes fitting that framework and proceed."

"He talks the talk, but does not walk the walk."

"We should wish him success, but the primitive attitudes on this subject in Congress seem too firmly entrenched."

"The president will have great difficulty closing Guantánamo given the recent activities in Benghazi and Boston. I would hope that he will recognize that holding deadly terrorists where the required international standard of care is met yet the detainees are required to give information can be helpful in preventing attacks."

"A nation at war has the right to hold enemy combatants as long as they continue to represent a danger."

"He fears domestic political consequence of prospect that someone released from Gitmo will commit terrorism or, worse, demonstrably participate in killing Americans. The blowback would be intense. Worries about this trump everything."

"Not in a way that makes us any safer."

"He has no better options than Bush did, and even less interest."

"The Camp Seven high-value targets are enemy combatants. Bringing them to the U.S. will cause sticky legal implications Obama doesn't need right now."

"Hope over experience. A lot of legislators are intent on demagoguing the issue, and the public seem happy to see everyone who is there rot and die."

"Post-Boston, there is no way that Obama gets this through Congress."

"Transferring terrorists into the U.S. is not a winning strategy for the midterms."


"It's more a matter of time and our lack of patience with the legal limbo we put the Gitmo detainees in than anything the president does to close the prison. We really need to reform our laws so cases like these can be handled expeditiously by whatever tribunal is selected to hear the case."