Skip to main content

Obama's no-win options in Syria

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
updated 2:00 PM EDT, Wed May 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller says President Obama has no good choices on Syria
  • He says U.S. would probably provide arms to elements of the opposition
  • That is the least risky course but still could mean a slippery slide toward war, he says
  • Miller: Obama rightly wants to avoid the risks, bloodshed, cost of another war

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Having willfully avoided direct military involvement in Syria for the past two years, Barack Obama may not be so lucky over the next two.

Reports that Bashar al-Assad's forces may have used chemical weapons will almost certainly force the president's hand into a course of action that takes the U.S. beyond the humanitarian assistance to refugees and the non-lethal aid and training it's provided to the rebels.

What Obama does on Syria flows directly from what he wants to achieve, or more to the point, what he wants to avoid. And in this case, that means a slippery slide toward military involvement in Syria that incrementally sucks America in without a clear sense of an end game. Indeed, it's been the president's inability to see that end state that has been the single greatest constraint on his willingness to become more involved.

And because that's no clearer today, Obama will look for the least risky and encumbering course of action in Syria, and that probably means arming the opposition. Sadly, this is unlikely to significantly accelerate the demise of the al-Assads.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

In March, the president said that al-Assad's use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, a red line. Tuesday, he said he needs more evidence before acting. "When I am making decisions about American national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapons use, I have to make sure I have the facts," he said.

Paradoxically, the chemical weapons issue isn't so much a revolutionary departure point for the president as much as it is the impetus for another incremental move in a complicated calculus of how Obama tries to find a way to stay out of Syria.

Pentagon plans military options on Syria

And who could blame him?

Despite the moral, humanitarian and strategic arguments for intervention, Syria is a trap that threatens to suck external powers in and shackle them with responsibility for war-making, peacekeeping and a reconstruction effort that could eventually involve thousands of boots on the ground and billions of dollars in assistance. And it's been clear from the beginning that Obama has no intention of getting stuck with the check.

His calculations are pretty obvious ones. Having laid the groundwork for taking America out of wars that have been the two longest and among the most profitless in its history, Obama has no intention of getting America into new ones. Syria isn't Libya, a country without serious defenses, allies and chemical weapons that represents low-hanging fruit for any military planner. And Obama's priorities reflect the desires of the American people, which run to fixing America's own broken house, not chasing around the world looking for others to repair.

And while's there's no evidence to prove this, Obama's cautious calculation on Syria is probably also driven by Iran. This isn't the conventional notion banging around Washington that the best way to weaken the mullahs is to push al-Assad out but the president's sense that when the moment of decision comes on Iran, he'll need Russian and Chinese support and as much flexibility as possible if he needs to launch military strikes. He knows he won't get Russian support on Syria and Iran. And he doesn't want to be engaged in military campaigns on two fronts (and in Afghanistan) if he's going to war with the mullahs.

All of Obama's calculations have now been challenged by what appears to be al-Assad's use of chemicals. And he's now forced to consider violating his own red line on military action in Syria.

The chemical weapons issue challenges him in three ways: First, it undermines his personal credibility. If Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer and nothing happens, America's credibility is lost in the yawning gap between the president's words and deeds. The red line turns pink; once again, America's street cred is undermined in a region where power is respected.

Second, if Obama doesn't impose some cost on the regime, al-Assad may use chemicals again, perhaps this time in a more expansive way. The Syrians have introduced more muscular military tactics against the opposition gradually: first artillery, then air power and then surface-to-surface missiles. The alleged use of sarin gas may well be part of that pattern. Obama must try to break it.

And third, the world is watching. If the president can't enforce his own red line on chemicals, what do you think our adversaries (North Korea and Iran) and friends (Israel and Saudi Arabia) will conclude on the nuclear issue?

So the question is not whether to act but how. And the answer from Obama's perspective is to identify the least risky option.

If the president wanted to bring down the regime more quickly, he'd develop a three-pronged strategy to create offensive no-fly zones protecting rebel sanctuaries near the Turkish and Jordanian borders using Patriot missile batteries; proactively suppress Syrian air defenses; and then launch air and cruise missile strikes against Syrian military assets and even leadership targets. Shock and Awe the Syrians for several weeks.

But that's not his inclination or that of his military advisers. As recently as Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was still being super cautious on a no-fly zone.

What Obama is likely to do -- and the signals from the White House are clearer than ever -- is to begin providing lethal assistance to opposition elements that have been carefully vetted and covert assistance to coordinate delivery and training.

Help the rebels to help themselves and avoid, at least for now, direct U.S. military intervention. The real question is whether the administration is prepared to provide even those "koshered" rebel groups, those without ties to Sunni extremists and an inclusive approach to the new Syria, with the "manpads": portable surface-to-air missiles and anti-armor weapons in sufficient quantities that might be effective against al-Assad's air and armor.

There's a real risk that weapons could end up in the wrong hands, used against Americans or other Syrian opposition groups in the ongoing struggle for Syria and between Sunnis and Shiites.

The fact is, Obama has no good options. He'll pick the least worst one, providing some kind of weapons to the rebels. That will make us feel better, neutralize the liberal interventionists and conservative Republicans who've been blasting him and respond to those who say he's backing away from his red line.

It won't turn the tide in Syria or necessarily prevent al-Assad from using chemical weapons. The other alternatives -- do nothing or design a proactive and comprehensive military strategy to take out the al-Assads -- aren't in the cards.

But make no mistake: Sooner rather than later, the president will likely be faced with another decision point along the slippery slope of U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT