This, of course, is not a new problem. From the time of antiquity, when Herodotus and Thucydides detailed the great histories of Greek campaigns to present day battlefields, warfare has been perpetually fought on a landscape of imperfect information. The conflict in Syria is just the latest chapter – but possibly one of the most complicated. A brutal autocratic regime, an immense deadly chemical weapons stockpile, warring tribe-like rebel forces and growing instability in Egypt and the broader Middle East are all variables weighed in the complex calculus of U.S. action. There are no simple solutions— and finding basic facts takes time.
In June, after weeks of careful review, the Obama administration concluded that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on a small scale. Administration officials had publicly warned the Assad regime that crossing the chemical weapons “red line” would precipitate significant consequences. Yet the U.S.’ response remains purposefully absent of any significant military actions aimed at empowering opposition forces battling to topple the Assad regime. Two central challenges make it likely that this policy, largely characterized by the glacial movement to arm opposition groups, will continue for some time.
First, the Obama administration must contend with the nebulous realties of “proving” that the Assad regime has in fact used chemical weapons. UN inspectors can determine if an area has or has not been exposed to chemical warfare agents, but they are neither tasked with nor capable of determining who delivered any agent proven to have been used.
The White House acknowledged this critical caveat in its June 13 communique declaring the red line crossed. Despite evidence of the use of sarin in Syria, the communique notes, the test results do “not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination.”
Determining culpability is essential in the Syrian conflict because opposition forces likely possess strong incentives to use chemical weapons as a ruse to incriminate Assad and generate the U.S. military support they need to topple his regime. Such ambiguities will empower key supporters of the Assad regime – most notably Russia and China – to maintain their strong opposition to U.S. military activities in Syria.
Even if the Obama administration decides to act against Russian and Chinese demands for non-intervention, there is a second hurdle to action: arming only specific opposition forces is an essential yet nearly impossible mission. Disentangling the multitude of opposition forces that collude with the Free Syrian Army – the sole opposition force that is supported by the United States – is absolutely critical because some of their confederates are Islamists fighting for an Islamist state in Syria.
Indeed, some of the most militarily effective opposition forces in Syria are jihadists committed to establishing global Islamist rule. In April al-Nusra, the best known of these groups, made “promises to follow every order from [al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al] Zawahiri as long as this does not contravene sharia law.” While moderate opposition groups are present in the Syrian theatre, arming them inherently runs the risk of the U.S. military supplies falling into the hands of groups that adhere to an extreme religious ideology. Significantly, religious terrorists are more likely to engage in mass casualty attacks using unconventional means – e.g. chemical weapons.
Acutely aware of the specters of another Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has shown a realist’s prudence in calculating measured U.S. engagement in Syria. Once confirmed, larger scale chemical weapons use will illicit an immediate U.S. response, but it is unlikely to lead to a major change of course in America’s engagement with Syria. To some, in the face of growing civilian casualties, this approach may border on coldness, but there is no question it is the wisest of many difficult paths. Obama is not dithering, not acting weak, he is not overwhelmed. To the contrary, he understands that the risk posed to America’s interests will be heightened by the age-old uncertainties of warfare that will accompany hasty U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.
Blair is a senior fellow on State and Non-State Threats at the Federation of American Scientists.