Neil Macdonald: Obama's faint 'red line' on Syria

Syria's bloody civil war has become a stew of fundamentalist combatants, something America's political elite doesn't seem to be fully digesting, Neil Macdonald writes. But Obama gets it, which is why he seems to be steering clear of a military response.

Republican Washington upping the macho war talk

America has a 'moral obligation' to help end the bloody civil war in Syria, President Barack Obama said this week. But that doesn't necessarily mean by military means. (Associated Press)

After dramatically declaring that Israel's recent airstrikes on Syrian targets were a "declaration of war," Bashar al-Assad's deputy foreign minister this week detailed a perfectly Middle Eastern theory as to who was behind the attacks.

"This," declared Faisal al Mekhdad, "is an alliance between al-Qaeda, Wahhabism and Israel."

The notion of such an alliance is lunacy of course. But at least Mekhdad does appear to know his enemies much better than the militarists in Washington who want to find allies in Syria's chaotic conflict and go charging in to save the day.

The fact is, Syria's Assad regime is indeed beset by all three of the players Mekhdad named.

Israel was clearly behind the ferocious airstrikes last Friday and Sunday. (No great surprise. Israel has been in a state of war with the government of Syria for decades, and has struck across the border in the past to protect its interests and keep high-tech weaponry out of the hands of its other enemies in the region.)

And it is now clear that al-Qaeda-linked cells are among the disparate crew of rebels that make up the anti-regime forces in Syria.

It is also true that one of the financiers of the rebellion is Saudi Arabia. Hence Mekhdad's reference to Wahhabism, the harsh, fundamentalist movement whose clerics effectively co-rule the Arabian kingdom, and who were great friends to the Taliban when that crowd ran Afghanistan.

Both al-Qaeda and Saudi Wahhabists are on the extreme end of Sunni Islam, while the Assad regime is allied with two Shia Muslim forces, just as extreme: Hezbollah, the Lebanese Party of God, and the Iranian military.

What this means is the conflict inside Syria is breaking down along either side of the great schism in Islam and has become a stew of fundamentalist combatants, something America's political elite doesn't seem to be fully digesting.

Macho Washington

While much of the world, including Canada, clings to the idea that Assad can somehow be ousted, and a peaceful solution obtained through diplomacy, the idea of intervening militarily is growing among Washington's hawks.

Republicans used the Israeli strikes as an opportunity to portray Obama as weak and vacillating.

Senator John McCain even declared that Obama should send warplanes into Syrian airspace to protect the rebels, and provide some of them — "the right people" — with lethal force.

Those rebels, said McCain in a breathtaking display of reductive simplicity, "are fighting for obviously the things we believe in."

Well, aside from the fact that atrocities have almost certainly been committed by the rebel side, McCain might want to have a chat with Carla Del Ponte, the seasoned European prosecutor who's been investigating war crimes in Syria, and taking testimony from witnesses.

On Sunday, she told Swiss TV that "we have no indication at all that the Syrian government have used chemical weapons," then added that her panel has collected some testimony that nerve gas has been used "by the opponents, by the rebels."

That, of course, is a narrative that just about nobody wants to hear.

Obama's 'red line'

The day after Del Ponte's interview the UN issued a statement saying "it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict."

But her startlingly frank accusation provides some insight into why Obama is reluctant to move after having repeatedly said the Syrian government would be crossing a "red line" that would provoke a U.S. response if it were to deploy its chemical weapons.

On Tuesday, Obama again confirmed "we have evidence there has been use of chemical weapons inside Syria."

He also said that America has "a moral obligation" to help end the bloody civil war there, but then he went on to say that he wasn't about to organize an international response without clear proof of who's to blame.

"I don't make decisions based on 'perceived' and I can't organize international coalitions around 'perceived,'" he told reporters.

"We've tried that in the past, by the way," referring to Iraq's supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction, "and it didn't work out well."

Now, Obama may have been misguided when he first used the term red line as far back as August in the run-up to the presidential election.

Once you draw such a line, you look ineffective if you don't act when it's been crossed.

But if Republicans believe they can go into Syria and find good guys who believe in American values and who will thank America should they prevail, they have learned nothing from Middle Eastern history.

Countries like Syria, and Iraq, are riven by religious, ethnic and tribal tensions.

But if there is one thing that does tend to unite their fractious populations, it is the presence of Western troops on their soil, or aircraft in their skies.

Ultimately, if Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons is breached, the only way to contain it will be boots on the ground, something the American public is not likely to embrace.

But as long as it is Syrians killing each other with conventional weapons, the major powers will clearly stick with the diplomacy option, however futile it may be.

That is realpolitik, and no one practises it like the Israelis, who understand the societies around them much better than the hawks in Washington and see no good guys in Syria.

Israel is neutral where Syria's civil war is concerned, its government says. In other words, let them settle this among themselves, as long as they don't directly threaten us.

That would appear to be what's behind Barack Obama's thinking, too.