Syria: Five reasons why Obama hasn't intervened
White House in a fix as the Assad regime appears to call its bluff over 'red line' warning
PRESIDENT Barack Obama famously warned the Syrian regime against crossing the "red line" by using chemical weapons. But a year later, President Bashar al-Assad's forces appear to be calling his bluff. The regime has been accused of using chemical weapons to kill around 1,400 people in a rebel-held area of Damascus on Wednesday morning. The regime denies the claims – despite online video footage showing victims convulsing and choking, while rows of dead children are seen wrapped in shrouds. The attack has been described as the worst chemical weapons atrocity since thousands of Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein in Halabja in 1988.
Yet the Obama administration has been relatively inactive, calling first for an independent verification of the attack. So why the inertia? The Washington Post offers five possible explanations:
Domestic politics means high risk, low reward: Within Washington, Obama has "little to gain and lots to lose" for trying to help Syrian civilians. Recent history suggests that the same political figures who call for the White House to take big foreign policy risks appear quite willing to punish the administration if anything goes wrong. US efforts to reach out to Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia received criticism at home, while its leadership on Libya became a major political liability when US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi.
Danger of committing to the rebels: Washington is cautious about arming, funding or even vocally supporting a rebel movement that could potentially turn against the West. Extremists make up a growing share of the Syrian rebel movement, with some of the most prominent allied with al-Qaeda. The White House has seen what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s when it backed extremist militant groups against the Soviets. It did not pay off for the US in the long-term.
Stability, not escalation: The measures taken by the US so far appear to be aimed at maintaining a balance between the rebels and the regime. America does not want to see an outright Assad victory but equally it isn't thrilled about the idea of US-armed rebels pushing him out. The White House clearly fears what would happen if the country imploded into the chaos of a failed state.
Need for a negotiated settlement: With the aim of creating stability in Syria, the US has said it would like to see a peace deal between the rebels and the regime. This would mean leaving some elements of the government in place – though not Assad himself. Ostracising the president would make this harder.
Muddying the 'red line': Since issuing its 'red line' warning last year, the Obama administration has been softening its language when talking about where it should be drawn. It seems to be in a fix as it tries to uphold its condemnation of chemical weapons without forcing itself to intervene more forcefully in Syria. Squaring those two goals has led it into "some real contortions" – at times playing down the red line and at other times playing it up. Assuming the latest reports are true, says the Washington Post, this strategy is getting tougher as the Assad regime continues to call its bluff. ·