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In Case You Missed It, Syria Used Sarin Gas
Sarin was discovered in 1938 by German scientists looking for a better pesticide. It was manufactured for war by Nazi Germany--but apparently not used. It was adopted by the USSR and USA in the 50's but quickly phased out.
We have known for some time that forces in Syria might use Sarin and have had tissue samples showing evidence of Sarin gas. It was not known, however, who used it (maybe the rebels?) and so Obama had done what he has thus far always done in these situations: proceeded cautiously (some would say timidly) gathering evidence to make his case prior to actually getting skin in the game.
At this point he's ready to commit. Thus far the commitment has been vague--sending better arms to the rebels--but nothing is certain and John McCain says that just sending arms ... cautiously ... isn't enough. He might be right about that.
So What Now?
Let's keep a few things in mind:
- The Rebels want what Libya got: air support, anti-aircraft missiles, intelligence, trainers, etc. The problem with giving them state of the art stinger missiles is that when last we handed those out like party favors in Afghanistan we deeply regretted it. Those things last a while and there are plenty of Islamic forces in Syria who have stated their wish to continue the war against the west. We don't want those guys to have handy, portable Jumbo Jet killers. As has been pointed out: there is really no good way to arm "just the good guys." There are no good guys.
- Obama has to do something. He's put our credibility on the line and, even more so, we have a real stake in making sure that chemical weapons use--and therefore proliferation--is punished. Chemical weapons technology is not as scary as many people imagine it to be--but it is (a) still very, very scary and (b) one of the weapon-types that amplifies terrorist events: an attack with explosives is horrific. The Boston Bombings with Sarin gas would be unthinkable.
- Unlike Libya where there was broad and deep support due the fact that Kadaffi had strategically alienated everyone the Russians still back Assad. That makes things a little tougher than they might be.
- Anything Obama does or does not do will be used against him. We would hope he is not weighing the political implications of his electoral enemies but we would be naive to think that he will not act to minimize blowback to his administration.
So What Do We Do?
The one thing Obama is probably absolutely committed to NOT doing is sending in conventional ground forces. Although it would solve some problems (handing out weapons to rebels) it would be a costly intervention in blood, treasure, and political credibility. He has been working for his entire term to get us out of Middle Eastern wars--he will not start another one.
So what's on the table?
- No-Fly. This is harder in Syria than Libya as they have better air defenses but we can still do it. This will be useful to the Rebels.
- Arm them with stuff other than Stingers. We can give them a lot of goodies that will make a difference that aren't as directly useful against us.
- Drone War. Here we see the true promise of drone warfare: Obama can inflict highly targeted damage without committing a single American life--or even risking it. If air defenses take out a drone it's expensive--but that's it. I'd be shocked if the skies were not a-buzz with musical sounds of raptors and predators.
Could we go even further? Yes.
- Special Operators. These forces are committed in secret and so don't constitute "boots on the ground." They can help with a very few high-wire act operations and can use capabilities we would NOT give the rebels.
- Directly Target Assad. I don't think we'll see this--but if Obama were willing to go "all out" we could see sea-launched cruise missiles used against bases where we think Assad might be located. Dictators have gotten moving and hiding down to an art--but we've gotten high altitude intelligence down to a science. We can also bribe the hell out of people to hand over intel on Assad's location. The main problem with this is that we generally try not to make warfare personal--but the Chemical Weapons thing tends to lean in the direction of 'serious war crimes' which could mean the gloves come off. Use/Develop chemical weapons and the US will go after you is a message we might just want to send.
- Use saturation bombing or other WMD-Style attacks. The general contract is "use WMD against us and we use it against you." In that case the gloves aren't just off-they're off, thrown away, and the garbage truck has come. The only problem here is that Assad has not used WMD against us--so doing something over-the-top like flattening Damascus would be its own special brand of war-crime on our part.
Was Obama A Pussy?
No less than Bill Clinton weighed in that people might think Obama was a weakling if he didn't do something and, 'lo, a day or so later: SOMETHING. Was Obama being a wimp? I think the answer is "No." Here's why: Obama knows that at the end of the day people both at home and abroad will care more about the end-results of this than the time-table to get involved. The exception is the next Syrian regime who will probably count every day against us--but if we rolling-thunder Assad we probably won't come off looking too wimpy to them either.
The one thing Obama could do that would make him look really weak is get played. One of our major intel sources for Iraq was a former general who lied his ass off to get us to go in. While I don't totally blame our intelligence arms (and I don't blame Bush) for making the mistake (I am in the camp that thinks Saddam was perpetrating that he really might have some WMD for regional cred and counting on the US to bluster--until it was too late) I think that we've learned that opposition forces will definitely try to manipulate us.
Obama would rather be able to stand in the spotlight of history and say "I waited until I was sure to go in than look like Marty McFly who would (at least by movie 3) do any stupid thing because he was afraid of being called 'chicken.'
That said, if we really want Assad out of there we're going to have to do more than send them some old fashioned M16s with a 10 round magazine for each.