Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > Military Strike on Syria could be Obama’s Waterloo

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 39, September 14, 2013

Military Strike on Syria could be Obama’s Waterloo

Sunday 15 September 2013, by Rajaram Panda

The Western (read US) military strike on Syria looks imminent. The plans for a “significantly larger” strike could include use of the long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers flying from bases in the US. President Barack Obama believes that such a strike “could do more damage to Assad’s forces in 48 hours than the Syrian rebels have done in nearly two years of civil war”. According to a report by The New York Times, Obama had ordered military planners to expand the list of potential targets in Syria in response to the intelligence showing the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad were moving troops and equipment “used to employ chemical weapons”. It further added: “For the first time, the Administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.” At the moment, Obama does not envision pushing to get other NATO forces involved.

Why Strike?

Why does Obama want to strike Syria militarily? His Administration seems convinced that the attacks in Syria on August 21 with the apparent use of chemical weapons were perpetrated by forces loyal to Assad and therefore has argued that a military strike against Assad’s forces is required as a response. Assad has denied that Syrian troops have used chemical weapons and Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that the attack in August and another one in early 2013 also involving chemical weapons were carried out by anti-Assad rebel forces as a “provocation” to draw Washington into the conflict.

Obama wants to seek Congressional approval for a strike against Syria. He also wants any military action to be “limited” and would probably be confined to Tomahawk missile strikes from naval vessels that have been sent to the area. As the Congress votes whether to approve a strike on Syria, it must also decide the “just” means of a US operation because a war should be conducted in proportion to its goals. While the Congress is debating “whether” to strike and, if so, “how” to strike, the world will dissect the US decision if its military conduct is “just” and “right”.

Will a blow on Syria be a blow for justice? In the “just war” theory, the means of war must be in proportion to the actual threat and to political ends. A strike on the Syrian military, for example, would not be just if a mistargeted cruise missile harms as many civilians as were killed in August in a poison gas attack. Nor should the use of force go beyond the goal of deterring further use of chemical weapons. A strike should also not broaden violence in unexpected ways, such as drawing in Iran or Israel.

While lawmakers are struggling with these issues of “just war”, the issue of authorising a strike and set limits on the timing and extent of operations emerge contentious in voting a resolution. While the Congress is trying hard to make the unknown known soon enough, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey warns that if the Congress’ authorisation is not forthcoming, the US would inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons that it seeks to control.

At times Obama appears ambivalent and confused in articulating what his exact strategy is. This makes the task for the Congress difficult. First, he promised a “limited and proportional” attack; later he spoke of a “broader strategy” to strengthen the Syrian opposition and bring peace to the region. Such an escalation of goals does not help the Congress reach a consensus on the means. For example, in his 2011 military intervention in Libya, Obama did not seek approval from the Congress, and later changed that campaign’s goal from protecting endangered civilians to one of regime change. The airstrikes were sent on new missions. The Congress cites the Libyan example and now rightly questions his intentions as the commander-in-chief in a Syrian campaign.

Not only does Libya serve as a lesson; some lawmakers ask: after the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war there, can the Obama Adminis-tration guarantee that military actions will be limited? Others question Obama’s claim that his dramatic increase in the use of drones against the Al Qaeda was both proportional to the threat and a just use of violence for the purpose of self-defence. Some lawmakers want to limit any operation in Syria to 60 days. Others seek to prevent a second wave of strikes unless President Bashar al-Assad orders another gas attack. A few hawkish lawmakers say the only way to uphold the international ban on the use of chemical weapons is for the US to end Syria’s civil war with American boots on the ground. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Congress he wants to retain the option of using combat troops.

Lawmakers are caught between the moral dimensions of how to wage a war even before it starts and Obama’s “inept” handling of the Syrian situation. They are dealing with probabilities of its success as well as the principle of proportionality in how the war is conducted. Even if they affirm America’s role as a military superpower in striking Syria from afar, they must do so as a moral superpower. While the world waits to see what actions Obama will finally take, the risk of a regional war looms large if the US strikes Syria.

Issue of Chemical Attacks

While in St. Petersburg, Russia for the G-20 summit, Obama said that chemical weapons attacks in Syria are not just a tragedy in that country, but also pose a threat to regional and global peace and stability. He said the Syrian regime’s chemical attack on its own people threatens to unravel the almost century-old ban against using such weapons. He accused the Syrian Government for the attack that killed civilians, while over 1400 people were gassed and among them were 400 children. The President said the Syrian attack endangers Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, and threatens to further destabilise the Middle East. Obama feared that such actions also increase the likelihood that these weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terror groups.

If Obama’s charges are correct, Syria’s breach of this international norm would send a signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes and terrorist organisations which can develop and use weapons of mass destruction. This makes the world an unsafe place. The G-20 leaders were unanimous that there was a chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21, and also were unanimous that the chemical weapons ban is important. In a joint statement released in St. Petersburg, the leaders of Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom joined the US in calling for “a strong inter-national response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience that will send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated. Those who perpetrated these crimes must be held accountable.”

However, the US must wait for the UN Secretary-General’s chemical weapons report before acting on Syria. Though no nation will be bound by the report, it can confer legitimacy on strikes against Bashar al-Assad and weaken the legitimacy of those shielding him. It seems unlikely however that Obama would wait for the UN report. Russian intransigence makes a Security Council resolution impossible. Though Obama would like to see beyond the UN in view of the Security Council’s paralysis, particularly the office of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, acting unilaterally would give Obama the tag of behaving as the world’s policeman and could arouse international opprobrium. At least, Obama and the Congress should wait for the Secretary-General’s report on its investi-gation into the chemical weapons used by Damascus before employing military force in Syria.

The rush to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 without a stamp of approval from the UN cost the US the support of military allies and tarnished its claim to be a restrained and benevolent superpower. Now, Obama claims Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, thereby justifying his planned military strikes in response. It is crucial for Obama to ascertain the truth of that claim on his own. It is also crucial to have the US report on the use of chemical weapons verified by the evidence of the UN. Else, the US will once again risk going it alone.

Since the tenure of former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in the 1950s, proactive Secretaries-General have carved out an important role in crisis diplomacy. Governments and citizens have often turned to the Secretary-General to verify claims that a government’s behaviour has transgressed a limit that the international community should defend—including violations of a widely valued legal taboo against the use of chemical weapons. The UN General Assembly and Security Council have previously endorsed the Secretary-General’s role in investigating allegations of chemical weapons attacks. This time, the question remains if Obama has the patience to wait for an UN endorsement or act on his own. In the latter possibility, international politics would get dirtier than before, tarnishing the US image as a result.

Risk of Regional War

Notwithstanding the hyperbole and threat coming from the US and some of its allies endorsing US claims by substantiating with intelligence report alleging that chemical weapons were used by Syria’s regime, the situation has become grave when President Assad, in response to the US threat, warned that any military strike against his country would spark an uncontrollable regional war and spread “chaos and extremism”. The verbal crossfire, including the rejection of Western allegations by longtime Syrian ally Russia, was part of frenzied efforts on both sides to court international public opinion after Obama said he would seek authorisation from the Congress before launching any military action against Syria.

Assad is asking the US and France to provide proof to support their allegations, and says that their leaders “have been incapable of doing that, including before their own peoples”. He sees Obama not as a strong man as a strong man prevents war, not one who inflames it. French President Francois Hollande and Obama have been the two world leaders most vocally calling for action against Assad’s regime for carrying out a deadly chemical attack against the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21.

The US charges that the intolerable escalation in the two-year civil war in Syria has left more than 100,000 people dead. The Syrian Government denies the allegations, and blames the opposition fighters. If the US and France strike, warns Assad, “everyone will lose control of the situation. . . . Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists.”

However, to back up its case, the French Government published a nine-page intelligence synopsis that concluded that Assad’s regime launched an attack on August 21 involving a “massive use of chemical agents” that killed at least 281, and could carry out similar strikes in future. The synopsis also said French intelligence services had collected urine, blood, soil and munitions samples from two attacks in April—in Saraqeb and Jobar—that confirmed the use of sarin gas.

Russia, which along with Iran has been a staunch supporter of Assad through the conflict, brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role. Russia is unconvinced of the allegations by the US, UK and France. Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the US to discuss the situation in Syria with members of the Congress.

But Obama remains stubborn. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, claims to have received new physical evidence in the form of blood and hair samples that show sarin gas was used in the attack. No one knows if that evidence was shared with Russia. Obama argues that UN chemical inspectors toured the stricken areas, collecting biological and soil samples and “worked around the clock” to finalise preparations of the samples, which were shipped from The Hague to their designated laboratories “within hours”. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is examining these claims.

President Obama has failed to bring together a broad international coalition in support of military action. He has only secured the support of France. The UK lawmakers narrowly voted against Britain’s participation in any military strike, despite appeals by Prime Minister David Cameron. The Arab League has stopped short of endorsing a Western strike against Syria. In an emergency meeting, the 22-state Arab League urged the UN and international community to take “deterrent” measures under international law to stop the Syrian regime’s crimes. Russia or China would likely veto any UN Security Council resolution sanctioning a Western strike against Syria.

Russia’s Stance

Russia’s stance remains baffling. From Russia’s response, one can infer that Russia does not want a conflict breaking out in the Middle East and would act if the situation deteriorates. In response, Russia decided to send three warships to the east Mediterranean, though Moscow denied this meant it was beefing up its naval force there as Western powers prepare for military action against Syria.

One should keep in mind that Russia is Syria’s most powerful ally and would act to defend it if the need arises. Russia’s decision to send two warships to the Mediterranean could fuel tensions, especially when the US is repositioning naval forces in the Mediterranean following an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian Government forces. Russia claims it is forced to make some adjustments to the naval force in response to the deteriorating situation in eastern Mediterranean. It was not clear when the vessels would arrive but the Moskva missile cruiser was currently in the North Atlantic and would set sail soon. President Vladimir Putin has said the naval presence was needed to protect Russia’s national security interests and this was not a threat to any nation. Russia cooperates with the NATO Navies against piracy and its ships call at Western ports. The Navy later indicated a deployment was imminent in the Mediterranean and said it would be part of a long-planned rotation while suggesting it would not increase the size of the Russian forces there.

Russia is one of Assad’s biggest arms suppliers. It opposes any military intervention in Syria and has shielded Damascus against further sanctions at the UN Security Council. The deployment of the three warships could give Assad early warning of cruise missile launches, particularly by submarine, or jam radars or navigation systems although they might never be used for this. This could be an example of gunboat diplomacy rather than a deliberate attempt to interfere directly in any military strike by the coalition. The simple presence of any ships will have an impact politically, and that seems to be the primary intent. According to the remarks made by Russia’s Chief of Staff in June, the Navy had stationed 16 warships and three ship-based helicopters in the Mediterranean, its first permanent naval deployment there since Soviet times.

Though Russia says its warships are a means for Russian civilians to escape Syria in the event of US airstrikes, the ships can do much more. The three warships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet sailed through Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait: the SSV-201 intelligence-gathering ship Priazovye, and the landing ships Minsk and Novocherkassk. More might be on the way. A frigate and another landing ship are ready to head to the eastern Mediterranean from their Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol.

Why is Moscow ordering so much sea power into the region? Though the reason given by Moscow is to “primarily” evacuate Russians from Syria if a looming US air attack makes that necessary, it is almost certain that the ships are also supposed to keep an eye on the five US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cruising off Syria’s shores. The Priazovye carries both active (radar) and passive (sonar) sensors that would enable it to possibly determine the location of the US ships. The Russian spy ship and its supporting cast could easily detect any US cruise missile launch if they are in the general area of the American destroyers. Tomahawk cruise missiles fire vertically out of Navy ships, powered by rockets. Several hundred feet up their wings unfold, their turbofans ignite, and they turn to cruise toward land.

It is very unlikely the Russians would do anything to physically interfere with this process. But the presence of a Russian fleet might enable Moscow to give Syria’s Bashar al-Assad a few minutes’ warning of an imminent attack.

The US and Russian warships are not the only military assets now gathering in the region. American and allied aircraft are assembling at bases near Syria as well. US cargo aircraft are flying into Incirlik in southern Turkey. France has moved two Atlantique reconnaissance and signal intelligence aircraft to a base on Cyprus. In late August, a US WC-135C atmospheric collection aircraft was spotted flying east south of Great Britain. Generally considered a radiation monitoring asset, the WC-135C might be able to detect release of chemical weapons. If the US Congress authorises limited Syrian action, bombers as well as cruise missiles may then be needed to carry out US plans. In that case, tanker aircraft would also have to preposition along attack routes. A B-2 stealth bomber would require five refuelling to reach Syria from the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

Role of US Congress

Can the US Congress limit the US President’s determination to strike? Even if the Congress and Senate try to limit the President’s resolve, a determined chief executive can always interpret the Congress and Senate resolutions to justify whatever he wants to justify. Broadening the authority granted by the Congress in matters of war and peace has always been possible in the past. A determined Obama can always go by that precedent.

For example, shortly before the US entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order creating an extensive system of classification of defence information. In 1945, the Congress passed a law prohibiting the use of appropriated funds for agencies created without legislative approval. In 1946, President Harry Truman used an executive order to establish the Central Intelligence Group, avoiding the word “agency” to get around the statute. Past experiences suggest that in a war situation when the use of military force has to receive the Congressional nod, there is a tradition called bifurcated grants of war power, in which the Congress in one clause circumscribes the President’s authority and, in the next, grants him the discretion to do what the circumstances demand.

The Japan Times published a recent article citing the following example. It reads: “The bifurcated war resolution has a long history. In 1802, for example, President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress for authorisation to use naval forces to stop the Barbary States from holding US merchant ships for ransom and enslaving their crews. Congress responded with alacrity, adopting legislation that permitted the President to take measures ‘as may be judged requisite … for protecting effectually the commerce and Seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.’ But the resolution didn’t stop there. Congress also authorised Jefferson to take Barbary ships and other goods in retaliation, and ‘to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify, and may, in his opinion, require’. This last clause is in effect an unfettered grant of discretion, all but revoking the seeming limits created by the previous clause. The bifurcated resolution has become a model in the transfer of war powers from Congress to the President. One finds similar language, for example, in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 (‘all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression’) and the 2002 joint resolution authorising the use of force in Iraq (“necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organisations”).”

This time around, the Senate’s Syria resolution looked avoiding a broad grant of authority to the President. The language read as follows: “The President is authorised … to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and specified manner against legitimate military targets in Syria, only to: (1) respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the government of Syria in the conflict in Syria; (2) deter Syria’s use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect United States allies and partners against the use of such weapons; (3) degrade Syria’s capacity to use such weapons in the future; and (4) prevent the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors within Syria of any weapons of mass destruction.” Yet, the President can interpret clauses in the resolution as he deems necessary to achieve his objective. In Syria’s case, President Obama is being seen walking a tight rope.

Legality Issue of a Possible US Strike

Would a US military strike on Syria pass legal scrutiny? As the President of a country in possession of the most lethal firepower of any society in history, Obama does have the ability to start a war if he wants, notwithstanding the stance of the Congress in favour or against. His past decisions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Pakistan will embolden Obama to fire cruise missile at Syria. But would such an action be legal? The answer has to be in the negative as in the US Constitution the separation of powers is clearly defined. Regrettably, the US political leadership is brushing off the basic legal underpinnings of the political culture with impunity.

Nonetheless, even if Obama and his allies violate law, their action would not arouse public protest. Attacking Syria would be illegal and Obama cannot arrogate to himself power to act as a global policeman. Under the US Constitution, the President’s only military role is to repel an invasion after it has occurred, pending action by the Congress. The President could act without a Congressional declaration of war to repel an invasion but only the Congress could authorise the deployment of forces outside the nation’s territory in combat against foreign troops. Therefore Obama has no right to attack Syria or any other country.

The US is subject to treaty obligations that clearly block it from attacking Syria under the present circumstances. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which the US Senate ratified by an
85-1 vote, bans all acts of military aggression. Many of the Nazi leaders executed and imprisoned at Nuremberg were convicted for violating this pact. It remains in force as international law. The UN Charter also man-dates all UN member-states to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. The Charter does not make exceptions for the three principal arguments Obama makes in favour of attacking Syria: punishment, pre-emption, and deterrence. On the contrary, the Fourth Geneva Convention outlaws “collective punishment” in which civilians are targeted to suffer for the offences of their government.

Impact on Iran and North Korea

President Obama’s argument for a military strike against Syria stems from a perceived threat to broader US security concerns in the Middle East and Asia. Secretary of State John Kerry says acting against Syria’s use of chemical weapons matters far beyond its borders. Obama argues that Iran, which also has been a victim of chemical weapon attacks, will now feel emboldened, in the absence of action, to obtain nuclear weapons. The US fears that the Hezbollah, North Korea, and every other terrorist group or dictator in the world might contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction if no action is taken against Syria.

Analysts like Michael O’Hanlon argue that acting in Syria would not only check President Assad, it would show President Obama’s seriousness to Iran and North Korea. He argues that several dozen cruise missiles, and a day or two of strikes is “probably enough to achieve the immediate purpose of restoring deterrents of weapons of mass destruction use and hopefully getting countries like Iran and North Korea to notice as they pursue, or consider pursuing nuclear ambitions that President Obama’s red lines to them still mean something”. Another analyst, Michael Auslin, argues that Obama must not lose sight of Pyongyang while confronting Damascus as the former defied the world by conducting three nuclear tests and a series of long-range missiles launched recently since international talks on its nuclear programme stalled nearly five years ago. Auslin thinks that Pyongyang might take advantage of the Syrian imbroglio where the US is concentrating its attention right now and do something unexpected.

There is a contrarian view in the academic circles. For example, analyst Doug Bandow says using Syria to send a message to Iran may not work as President Obama intends. He says that so long as Iran feels isolated and threatened, it is more likely to pursue a nuclear weapons programme. According to him, attacking Syria could further convince Iran of its need for a nuclear deterrent. The view that breaking Syria weakens Iran would aim a short-term goal but would not advance the larger objective, which is to encourage Iran to be less defensive and come into the international community and set aside any nuclear ambition.

Obama argues that chemical weapons in Syria also threaten US allies in the region. Secretary of State John Kerry argues that it matters to Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, all of whom live close to Damascus. Though Israel has deployed missile defences against a possible Syrian attack, striking Israel would be too big a gamble for President Assad and that is unlikely.

As the Syrian Government is engaged at present in a battle for the regime’s life, it cannot afford to open a second front with Israel. Assad knows that Israel possesses an overwhelming military force and thus would not dare take on Israel. The US fear is thus misplaced. If the rebels in Syria win their war with the government, that would be a bigger threat to Israel as those divided opponents would have a far harder time managing state arsenals including chemical weapons.


Obama is wrong in his approach in dealing with Syria. If he decides for a military strike at Syria, that would be violation of international law. Even in the well-accepted definition of pre-emptive war in international law, a pre-emptive war is justified by an imminent threat of attack, a clear and present danger that the country in question is about to attack. In such a case a pre-emptive attack is recognised as justifiable. That puts the bar pretty high and Syria does not fall in that category. Even troops massed on the border of a country do not automatically qualify as an imminent threat under international law. The enemy must hit first, or there must be strong reasons to believe they are about to do so, before the other party responds. If Obama takes the position that Geneva, Kellogg-Briand, the UN Charter, and even the US Constitution are outdated relics and irrelevant today, he should convince the world to amend or annul them. As long as these laws remain in force, any act by Obama or for that matter any leader contrary to these laws would be illegal and thus subject to legal scrutiny.

With the global economy in recession, a turbulent situation in the Middle East caused by the proposed US action would plunge the world into a worse situation than before. Obama should concentrate his efforts to resuscitate the US and European economy and not indulge in mindless drainage of resources in war fighting and leave Syrian leaders to deal with their country’s situation by themselves. Or else Obama will lose the respect of being the leader of the world’s sole superpower.

Dr Panda is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. His e-mail ID is:

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.