Presidential Address on Syrian Conflict

President Barack Obama’s address to the nation on the Syrian crisis focused on making the case for United States involvement, even with strikes he characterized as ‘limited’. For a quick blog post tonight we’ll list some review points on the Syrian crisis and why he proposed the use of military strikes in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Below are the bullet points summarizing the president’s assertionss. Our analysis follows below the summary of the President’s statements. President’s claims:

-Purpose of the strikes stated to be punitive in order to respond to a grave violation of international conventions banning the use of weapons of mass destruction that cannot discern between civilian and soldier. The enforcement of the convention is vital to the future of limited warfare.
-Stated that multiple intelligence communities (France, Britain, US) conclude that the Assad regime ordered and launched the attack.
-Attack stated to be launched from a regime-controlled area; the delivery systems (rockets) landed in opposition stronghold neighborhoods of Damascus.
– Regime change and intervention into the civil war are not the purpose of the strikes. Strikes are purely punitive, intended to reinforce and keep valid international conventions banning chemical weapons; the strikes are to deter the Assad regime from further use of the weapons (degradation of capability)
-Threats to US security: spread of weapons to unstable regimes and terrorist groups, weakening of international regimes/conventions banning chemical weapons.
-President sought to strengthen Congressional role in war-making apparatus and reverse the ‘sidelining of peoples representatives from the process’ of deciding when to go to war.
-President was mindful of war weariness.
-Pledged to strenuously avoid open-ended action; the strikes are targeted for clear objective: deterring Assad from further attack and degrading his abilities.
-‘US military does not do pinpricks’. Even limited strike by US military would be damaging to Assad.
-Danger of retaliation: Assad lacks capability to retaliate directly. Asymmetric means would escalate the conflict and ensure Assad’s demise. This is not in Assad’s interests.
-Al-Qaeda draws strength from a chaotic Syria.
-Why not leave the action to reinforce the convention to ‘other countries’? Warnings were not observed by the Assad regime.
-Credible threat of US military action inspired Russian cooperation to push Assad regime to give up chemical weapons. Assad now pledges to join the convention banning chemical weapons.
-Asked Congress to delay vote on authorization of force until diplomatic meetings with Russia are complete.
-‘Burdens of US world leadership are heavy but the world is better when the US leads it.’
-Addressed left wing failure to embrace cause of human rights in Syria in the wake of the attack.
-Asked Americans to view videos of attack and then reflect on a world where we look the other way while dictators gas civilians.

The speech relied heavily on language designed to appeal to both Realists and Liberals.

Realism: the president addressed threats to US security as well as how the spread of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors threatens the interests of the US. Liberalism: the president noted the humanitarian crises and the violation of international conventions banning the use of chemical weapons.

In Realism, one is primarily concerned with security of the state. The idealistic notion of intervention on the basis of humanitarianism is admirable but misguided; the outcome of a humanitarian intervention is more often than not costly both financially and militarily to the state. President Obama did cloak the conflict in Realist terms: the future security interests of the United States, the proliferation of weapons, the breaking of the chemical weapons taboo and the precedent of use in warfare, and the relative power of those that threaten our interests. He also engaged (and challenged) IR Liberals by appealing to humanitarian motivations. As a Realist, one is wary of idealistic notions for intervention but remains supportive of intervention in instances where  US interests are directly affected.

Our analysis: Remain opposed to strikes and military intervention.

Takeaways: Strikes would ineffectively degrade Assad’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and would do little to deter him in future attacks; the second point speaks to the strikes weakening Assad, providing initiative to the opposition, further inspiring a desperate Assad to use the weapons again in a self-preservation effort. Further, the strikes would inadvertently provide initiative to the opposition which is infested with al-Qaeda elements. In this, the recent violence in Iraq (800+ killed in August by a resurgent al-Qaeda) would be compounded and possibly lead to failed states in Syria in Iraq in the wake of a power vacuum. This would strengthen al-Qaeda strategically and provide vital haven for future recruitment and key operational planning. In combination, this would further destabilize the entire region, upset markets, affect energy resources, degrade the relationship of the US with Russia, and inspire further conflict in a vital area of the world.

President Obama’s speech is certainly an effective reinforcement of the argument for punitive US military action in order to enforce international conventions banning use of chemical weapons. There were certainly some very good points made for military action, even unilaterally by the United States. I remain opposed to the strikes for strategic reasons involving long-term US interests and regional stability.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here:


  1. Joe says:

    US policy is regime change (Assad must go) and Assad is like Hilter (Kerry) but now he’s a partner in a new multi year or decade inspection venture. Rebel groups wanting more advanced weaponry are about to get Benghazied high and dry. Wow, what a mess. But if the bottom line is not conducting unfocused precision strikes with who knows what blowback; not a bad day considering the team.

    1. Eric Jones Eric says:

      US policy per the strikes is not regime change. In fact, the administration was constrained and forced to state directly that the strikes were purely punitive. They were in response to the chemical attack specifically and not to force Assad from power. The international community found it difficult enough to even pass a resolution condemning the chemical weapons attack itself. They would never approve of a US strike that targeted Assad. Assad is still the internationally-recognized legitimate leader of Syria. The demonization of Assad as ‘Hitler’ is not something I even want to address. Often US domestic politics descends into hyperbole and polemics in order to gain support for policy. It’s often embarrassing. I won’t say whether I agree with Kerry’s statement or not and will ignore his analogy in its entirety.

      I’m in agreement with you on the blowback. My own personal analysis led me to believe that the difficulty in predicting the outcome of a weakened Assad following strikes (specifically in power vis a vis the opposition conglomerate) is too much ‘unknown’ to risk in striking his chemical capacity. That is not to say that I don’t understand the position of the Obama administration in pursuing the strikes. The position that the enforcement of the international convention banning the use of chemical weapons is essential is a valid argument. I simply do not agree that the strategic cost is worth the strike in enforcement of an international convention.

  2. Alejo Maciel says:

    Great piece but I do have a reply or more like a rough assessment. What if the decision to strike Syria is as much a decision to strike Iranian interest; and in doing so preventing Israel from conducting it’s own strikes on Iranian nuclear sites. If Iran & Israel sees the U.S. faltering on it’s autority and ability to support a strike against a nation like Syria over chemical weapons, the war drums against nuclear proliferation for Iran is no longer a viable threat at all. Israel will most likely take action on it’s own because ultimately they are the ones in immediate danger, which would surely draw us into a mass conflict we definitely don’t want to be a part of. I believe a strike now, prevents a much larger conflict in the future. At least until Saudi Arabia is able to establish itself over its nemesis!

    1. Eric Jones Eric says:

      You hit on a huge point that has flown largely under the radar of the analysis of this entire conflict: in the larger sense, you are absolutely correct. At the moment, this is a proxy conflict and war between groups such as Saudi Arabian supported Sunni al-Qaeda affiliates in the Syrian opposition and Iranian/Syrian supported Shi’a Hezbollah. This is a geo-strategic battle. In fact, just below the surface recently Hezbollah and al-Qaeda have been attacking key installations of each other in Libya and Lebanon, including the recent bombing of a mosque in Lebanon. The Sunni extremists al-Qaeda are seeking to dislodge the Alawite/Shi’a Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Assad is an important client of Iran and essentially occupies a position that grants the Iranian regime in Tehran strategic depth. The Assad regime in turn is a sponsor of Hezbollah, the Shi’a group that uses havens in Syria and Lebanon to launch attacks against interests in Israel, Bulgaria, Thailand, and even South America. In this, the weakening of Assad acts as a weakening of the Iranian regime itself; the now well-established support that the Sunni Saudi Royal Family is sending to the al-Qaeda infested Syrian opposition is the Sunni Saudis seeking to weaken their strategic competitor in Tehran.

      This conflict is definitely much more nuanced and complicated than it appears on the surface and your comment hit the nail right on the head. It’s low-fidelity at the moment but, given the alliances and the entangling interests that are mutually divergent, it could very easily spin out of control into regional conflict, failed states, and destabilized regimes from Iran to Algeria.

      1. Joe says:

        Superb. While I understand the Syria as Iran client and mischief maker and for that reason supported fast action when the rebellion first broke so long ago (that may have been stupid also); the more I have seen of the current situation there the more I lean that no hypothetical harm to Iranian influence of toppling Assad would justify the incomprehensible hell that would erupt in Syria if he was struck down and it became a free for all amongst the current rebel factions. How Iraq would avoid being dragged down in that I don’t know.

        1. Eric Jones Eric says:

          The overall motivation for the Saudis (and likely some measure of American policy-makers) is encirclement of Tehran. In the strategic sense, unseating Assad (even at the expense of strengthening the Sunni radical and extremist Al-Qaeda that could fill the power vacuum in a post-Assad Damascus) is seen by the Saudis as weakening Tehran’s influence, encircling it, and slowly but surely squeezing it from its perch as burgeoning regional hegemon.

          The Saudis don’t like competition… especially from a growing Shi’a state that could destabilize southern Iraq right on its border. It’s no wonder that help the southern Iraqi Shi’a were dying and begging for in 1992 never came.

          And this is all, in a nutshell, even more evidence for me to maintain the strikes were potentially disastrous to US long-term strategic policy.