President Obama's two-and-a-half years of inaction since the beginning of Syria's civil war helped precipitate the crisis that is now building. His red line prohibition against the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons -- of which last week's attack was not the first -- became a dotted pink line. His failure to assist the insurgency in its initial stage smoothed the way for the influx of radical jihadists. As with this administration's vacillating policy in Libya and Egypt, the lack of a strategy to prevent the jihadists from capitalizing on political change in the Arab world has earned this administration not respect, but contempt.
Syria's consequent aggressiveness should surprise no one.
There's nothing new here. The Bible describes a similar phenomenon. When the defenseless Israelites fled Egypt the Amalekites set upon them in the Sinai. God tells Moses to "rehearse (the attack) in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." Years later God remembers and commands King Saul to "utterly destroy all that the (Amalekites) have..." Saul disobeys. He spares the Amalekite king and flocks of choice sheep and oxen. Saul's disobedience angers God but there's policy here too. The Amalekites remain a problem. When surviving Amalekites attack and burn a Judean town taking away two of David's wives, God commands David to pursue them. David obeys, rescues all Israelite captives, and finishes off those of the Amalekites who do not flee. "David," as the same book of the Bible notes, "behaved himself wisely in all ways; and the Lord was with him." And that is pretty much that for the Amalekites in the Bible. Obedience is important, but so is strength.
Strength is the short suit in the signals that Obama is sending about a response to Syria's un-ignorable use of chemical weapons. The White House has talked about what it won't attack: Syria's chemical weapons facilities. It has announced that military targets that are not directly related to the Assad regime's chemical warfare capabilities might be on the target list, and that -- as The Washington Post reported on Monday 27 August -- the military options under consideration are probably restricted to a time limit of two-days. On the 28th the president told National Public Radio that any military strike against Syria would be "a shot across the bow," a clear message to the Syrian regime that the U.S. is looking no further than a slap on the wrist.
Obama's unwillingness or inability to articulate the objective of a U.S. or coalition military strike is the most troubling sign of the president's irresolution and strategic befuddlement. To a brutal dictator under whom more than 100,000 have lost their lives over the past two and a half years, the current administration's approach to the use of force as well as the event itself -- were it to occur -- is likely to be seen as equivocal, a virtual invitation to repeat the offense. The gas will be used again.
As for the slap itself, sending four ballistic missile defense (BMD) destroyers to the region plus a fifth destroyer, the U.S.S. Stout, which is configured for a land attack mission (i.e. the entire standing combat power of the U.S. Sixth Fleet plus two) is as much of an option as closing your home's windows in a rainstorm: there's no other reasonable choice. It's important to remember, however, that the BMD ships, while able to launch land-attack missiles, were initially stationed in the Mediterranean against an increasing threat to Europe from Iran's ballistic missiles. Obama decided in 2009 that resetting relations with Russia required abandoning the plan to build land installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. With enough time the anti-ballistic missiles in their vertical launch tubes can be replaced with slower Tomahawk (TLAM) missiles that are designed to strike land targets at a distance. But whether and how many TLAMs the little flotilla now carries remains to be seen.
As events have shown, the reset has been less than a success. Moscow understands the problem that U.S. military planners face as they contemplate an effective response absent the combat power that the U.S. projected in the Mediterranean when two aircraft carrier battle groups prowled the inland sea year in and year out. According to a report in Thursday's Agence France Presse, the Russians are sending one large ship equipped for anti-submarine warfare and the 11,000+ ton rocket cruiser, Moskva. Another cruiser of the same class, Varyag, is to relieve the anti-submarine ship this fall. These ships bristle with anti-ship missiles.