WASHINGTON, September 4, 2013 — In his uphill battle to sell an unnecessary war against Syria to a reluctant American public, President Obama has repeatedly promised “no boots on the ground.” But, as the administration has inadvertently indicated, that is a promise that can’t be kept.
Obama is waiting on Congressional approval to bomb Syria after allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad killed over 1,000 people with chemical weapons. This has not persuaded most observers that an intervention is wise or warranted, especially since Syria presents no threat to the U.S. and the deaths by chemical weapons represent a mere fraction of the total casualties in Syria.
So in its effort to gin up support for another U.S. war in the Middle East, the administration has promised a war weary public that the bombing would be “limited,” insisting that putting American soldiers on the ground in Syria is out of the question.
But that may be just a part of the sales campaign, instead of a credible guarantee. In a Senate hearing yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry, in an apparently accidental moment of candor, said he doesn’t “want to take off the table” the “option” of boots on the ground.
“In the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of [the Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group] al-Nusra or someone else,” Kerry explained, boots on the ground has to be an option at the president’s disposal.
When pressed by senators, Kerry quickly backtracked, insisting “the administration has zero intention of putting troops on the ground.”
President Obama, too, may have revealed intentions in Syria that are broader than his administration has let on. Although he’s promised that we will not “involve ourselves fully in Syria’s civil war,” Obama told Congressional leaders in a White House meeting on Tuesday that the ultimate strategy is regime change.
Bombing the Syrian regime’s military assets, Obama explained, “also fits into a broader strategy that can bring about over time the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic, economic and political pressure required – so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability, not only to Syria but to the region.”
Former CIA director Michael Hayden told CNN this week that the administration “shouldn’t try to promise” not putting boots on the ground, adding that he “can imagine circumstances within a minute or two where you might have to do that.”
This vacillation on exactly how limited the Obama administration intends its attack on Syria to be should worry Americans who, in the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan, want to avoid another lengthy military quagmire in the Middle East.
All this should have been clear from the text of the resolution proposed to Congress by the Obama administration. The brief, one-page resolution “does not contain specific limits on targets,” says Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, “or the geography of the targets,” and includes “no procedural restrictions on the President’s powers.”
A study published this week by the RAND Corp. concluded that even a “limited” U.S. bombing campaign in Syria runs the risk of instigating a regional war and greater U.S. involvement.
“Destroying or grounding the Syrian air force is operationally feasible but would have only marginal benefits for protecting civilians,” the report’s press release explains, and “any airpower option would involve substantial risks of escalation by third parties, or could lead to greater U.S. military involvement in Syria.”
In other words, even if the administration’s claims of “no boots on the ground” are sincere, it’s not something Washington is likely to be able to control following airstrikes that carry unforeseeable consequences.
“The U.S. and its allies can certainly conduct an operationally successful air campaign in Syria,” said Karl Mueller, author of the RAND report. But bombing “has the potential to escalate or expand the conflict, and could lead to unwelcome responses from Assad’s allies or to wider or deeper U.S. military involvement.”
As Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has recently written, “it is highly unlikely that such an intervention can be so narrow that it will not force a deeper U.S. military engagement in Syria’s civil war.”
The administration’s eagerness to entangle the United States in Syria’s bloody, sectarian civil war has been disguised by repeated assurances that intervention will be limited and U.S. troops won’t be put in harms way. Unfortunately, those are assurances that cannot be trusted.
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