In Syria, the US ‘red line’ continues to shift

08 May 2013

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It takes more than rising civilian death tolls to prompt Western intervention in Syria writes Jennifer Welsh.

Israeli air strikes on Syria in recent days have brought the varying interests of outside actors in this long-simmering conflict into sharp relief. While in Washington Obama administration officials continue to weigh options and assess the risks of intervention in a civil war, in Tel Aviv policy makers have acted swiftly and decisively to safeguard Israeli security. Indeed, sources in the U.S. claim that the Obama administration was not warned about impending Israeli attacks and learned of them after the fact. The powerful air assault of May 3 – the most significant since the violence began two years ago – was described by those on the ground as akin to a massive earthquake.

There are short- and medium-term objectives behind the Israeli action. Most immediately, the strikes seek to prevent the Syrian government from transferring Iranian-made missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon (missiles which have the capacity to hit Israeli population centres). The movement of these weapons to airport warehouses near Damascus constituted, for Israel, the “crossing of a red line” that demanded a response. More broadly, Tel Aviv is sending a strong message to Iran that, despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued survival in power, the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will not succeed in its desire to crush Israel. This is likely why the strikes went beyond the specific consignment of missiles, and also attacked a military research centre.

With such direct interests at stake, maintaining the credibility of its threats is crucially important for Israel. The country’s leaders have been privately grumbling that they wish the United States was equally as concerned about its credibility with respect to both Syria and the wider Middle East.

But the U.S. is haunted by the apparent ‘lessons’ of Iraq, and intervention in Syria has become a spectre it wishes to avoid confronting at all costs. There have been reports that Washington, in collaboration with French and British allies, is secretly planning air strikes and other scenarios involving military force. But for the moment, the Obama administration is dissuaded from those options due to concerns about the strength of Syria’s air defence forces (which recent Israeli actions may have called into question), and about the level of jihadist involvement in the Syrian opposition.

Chemical weapons and the shifting ‘red line’

As a result, U.S. President Barack Obama has been forced to develop an elaborate rejoinder to questions about why the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria has not constituted the ‘game changer’ he previously indicated (in August, 2012) that it would. Last summer, the president claimed – in comments that apparently were unscripted – that the resort to chemical attacks by the Assad regime would cross a “red line” and change his decision-making calculus. Now, however, Obama officials are insisting that the use of chemical weapons must be “systematic” in order to justify an American counter-response. In addition, they are demanding much stronger proof that it is indeed Syrian government officials who are behind the chemical weapons attacks (the letter sent by the administration to Congress in late April suggested only that it had “varying degrees of confidence”).

It is surely right for the United States to do all it can to gather more definitive evidence – particularly given the incomplete and inaccurate information about weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify war against Iraq. Moreover, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has recently indicated that it has heard testimony from victims of the conflict which suggests Syrian rebels have used the nerve agent sarin. (Carla del Ponte, an official with the Commission, claims there is “not yet incontrovertible proof” that would back up these claims.)

However, through its CSI-like efforts to gather soil and human samples for testing, the Obama administration needs to be careful that it doesn’t establish an unrealistic standard for evidence – either for this case, or for future ones. More significantly, it needs to protect its image and the credibility of its threats. Even though the U.S. has not military intervened in Syria, every statement it makes, and every lesser action it takes (such as non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition) is an intervention of sorts. It changes the calculus on the ground, for both sides. This is the reality for external parties to a civil war.

What prompts intervention?

The key difference between Israel as an external party, and the U.S. as an external party, is that the latter does not yet see the violence and instability in Syria as a vital threat to its security. Yes, it sees the potential for regional instability that comes with the crumbling of the Syrian state. And yes, it sees the strain being felt by its ally, Jordan (where Syrian refugee camps now constitute more than 10 per cent of the Jordanian population). But these facts alone do not (yet) outweigh the counter-arguments that predict negative repercussions from U.S. military intervention.

And so Washington will continue to pursue other alternatives. This demonstrates that as powerful as the humanitarian rationale for action may be, it is very rarely the determinant for Western action. In fact, it is rarely one incident or event that tips the balance in favour of outside intervention; instead, the evidence shows that decision-makers continually assess costs and benefits – and are heavily persuaded by historical precedents. We have seen very few ‘humanitarian interventions’ over the past three decades where there weren’t additional concerns at play. Humanitarian causes for action have often been present, but for intervention to occur, other ‘stars’ have to be aligned – particularly the belief by a ‘lead’ state that regional or national interests are calling for action, and the perception in that state that the domestic impact will be at least neutral or positive. That alignment occurred in Haiti and East Timor in the 1990s (when the U.S. and Australia respectively saw the benefits of intervention to outweigh the costs), and in Libya in 2011 (when intervention for French president Nicolas Sarkozy was perceived as both an opportunity to get rid of Qaddafi for the Libyan people and a potential boon for his own domestic popularity).

Thus, in the end, what will prompt Western intervention in Syria will not be the rising civilian death toll – as shocking as roughly 70,000 deaths are – but the mounting of ever-more serious threats to regional and international security. The days when the U.S., and its allies, could engage in ‘wars of choice’ are long gone.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, officials are calculating whether Hezbollah will retaliate for the recent air strikes, potentially escalating the conflict, and whether the Syrian President will continue to allow his territory to be used as a transit route for weapons and militants by Hezbollah and Iran. In Damascus, Mr. Assad is no doubt assessing the value of Hezbollah support. On the one hand, he knows that if the rebels grow stronger and he is forced to flee the Syrian capital, he would need Hezbollah to help him set up and defend some kind of smaller Alawite enclave on the coast. On the other hand, if Mr. Assad and his entourage survive intact in Damascus, they may soon find themselves stuck with a strong Hezbollah whose hostile actions risk transforming the Syrian crisis into a wider regional war.

If ever there were a moment for nimble and skilled diplomacy – to somehow manipulate the dilemmas all sides face – it is now.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.