President Obama’s Strategy in Syria: A Year in Review

President Obama is discussing with members of his administration options for a diplomatic and military strategy inside Syria to address radical Islamic militants.  Is it coincidence that almost a year ago to the day, the president called for air strikes in Syria?  Though, in 2013, the targets of the proposed air strikes were different than today.  There are significant differences between the military actions being called for today and one year ago as well as the genesis for the actions.

On August 31, 2013, the president addressed the actions taken by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in which he allegedly used chemical weapons on his own civilians.  President Obama had declared months earlier that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would cross a self-described “red-line,” for which there would be consequences.  “I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.  This would not be an open-ended intervention.  We would not put boots on the ground.  Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.  But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons,” the president said.  Fast forward nearly a year, the president is seeking a strategy for containing, disrupting, and/or dismantling the radical al-Qaeda terrorist separatist group known as the Islamic State.  The potential for escalation of a broader campaign against the Islamic State from the limited air strikes currently against Islamic State positions in northern Iraq is the brutal execution of an American journalist by the terrorist group.

Several of the president’s detractors believe that his wavering last year to not strike the Assad regime has not only made the United States look weak, but emboldened other actors around the world to disregard the word of the United States, and enable continuing violence in the ongoing Syrian civil war in which the Islamic State has been able to flourish.  Then, as with the current situation today, the president lacked unilateral Executive authority for strikes in Syria, despite his comments a year ago.  “But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.  I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  And that’s why I’ve made a second decision:  I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” the president asserted in the Rose Garden in August of 2013.  (As a brief aside, the president likely went to Congress rather than authorizing strikes himself given the unrest and much debated “coup” in Egypt, in an attempt to demonstrate democracy and lead by example.)

While a year ago, the president sought military action against the Assad regime, he now seeks military action against a Syrian insurgency – the Islamic State.  It is unfair for some to accuse the president of backing off his military promise in 2013 and for subsequently making the United States appear weak because the president did not have, and still today does not have, any legal standing or authorization to issue strikes in Syria.  Where the president should be faulted is for issuing a “red line” that he was incapable of enforcing and stating in the Rose Garden in 2013 that he had the power to unilaterally strike the Syrian regime.  The president asserted that striking the Syrian government was in “our national security interests,” however, the Syrian government posed no imminent threat to the United States or its personnel – a necessity for unilateral Article II constitutional authority to issue military action.

There is an argument to be made that with the execution of an American journalist, the Islamic State poses an imminent threat to the United States and its interests and therefore, the president could authorize strikes absent approval from Congress.  This line of thinking is also misguided because it is not clear that the Islamic State poses an imminent threat currently.  If the president wants to strike inside Syria, and continue strikes in Iraq, he will need to go to Congress to get authorization.

The other issue to consider with military intervention now is the sovereignty of Syria.  In 2013, the proposed air strikes would have been against the sovereign Syrian government.  Today, the proposed strikes, while being against a mutual enemy of the United States and Syria, would be a breach of Syria’s sovereignty.  Syria’s foreign minister has been clear that any US air strikes without consultation from the Syrian government would be considered an act of aggression.  The Obama administration has called for the removal of Syrian President Assad and has met with and is training moderate Syrian rebels.  Several Obama administration officials have also stated that they do not consider Assad to be the leader of Syria.  President Obama indicated at a press conference yesterday that Syrian sovereignty is a non-issue because Assad has lost legitimacy.  “[I]t’s not just my opinion — I think it would be international opinion — that Assad has lost legitimacy…And right now, what we’re seeing is the areas that ISIL [an acronym for the Islamic State] is occupying are not controlled by Assad anyway.  And, frankly, Assad doesn’t seem to have the capability or reach to get into those areas…And I don’t see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.”

The issue of Syrian sovereignty, and the way in which the United States views state sovereignty in general compared with their own interests (think the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden), is a whole separate issue that can be debated at length by legal experts.

The apparent about-face in policy by the Obama administration – a year ago asking Congress to authorize strikes against the Assad regime and now mulling congressional authorization to strike Assad’s enemies – personifies the complexity of the Syrian civil war.  When examining how we got here today, there are two important points to remember; 1) it seemed as though Congress was not going to authorize the president to use force in Syria, which is their constitutional duty that the president would have had to respect, and 2) since it appeared as though Congress would not authorize force, the administration took a new approach (somewhat haphazardly, I must admit) to strike an international deal to remove all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons (which is now complete).  Both points in some ways took the focus off retaliating against the Assad regime, for the time being, for using chemical weapons.

Preliminary reporting indicates this time around that Congress will authorize force in Syria if the president asks for it – most likely because the targets of strikes attacked an American citizen as opposed to the United States involving itself in the civil war of another sovereign country, the scene a year ago.  And without a clear strategy, we are forced to wait and see what the president will do in Syria next.