Obama and Syria: Red Lines and Tipping Points

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". The use of chemical weapons last week in Syria should shock the conscience of the world. That's according to Secretary of State John Kerry who spoke this afternoon in Washington. Kerry said it was undeniable that chemical weapons were used against civilians near Damascus last week, and he said the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out such an attack. Kerry also said that President Obama is close touch with America's key allies to consider a response. What that response would be is still unclear. Marc Lynch directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

Marc Lynch: It seems pretty likely that the White House is contemplating some form of military action. The real question is the scope of that action, something between a punitive strike to enforce the red line against chemical weapons used or the the beginning of an actual military intervention designed to bring down Assad and the war and bring about regime change. Obviously there's a very wide distance between those two kinds of campaigns and what they would mean for the United States and Syria.

Werman: Right. So let's take the extreme bookend of that frame. What would military intervention look like? Troops?

Lynch: Nobody is talking about American boots on the ground, but just because nobody is talking about it doesn't mean that it won't necessarily happen. I think that it's been pretty clear to people for quite some time that there are no really good limited military options. Whether it was arming the opposition or airstrikes or no-fly zones, all of these are ways for the United States to get involved and certainly to change the battlefield calculations. But none of them seem likely to bring about a rapid downfall of the Assad regime or, crucially, to guarantee any kind of better Syria after Assad falls. What many people are worried about, certainly what I'm worried about, is that what begins as a very limited set of objectives and means will rapidly escalate. Now we're in, now we're a little bit pregnant, and it's extremely difficult then to pull back.

Werman: So the Russian Foreign Minister, [??] Lavrov, said today that any US intervention in Syria, and I assume he's also referring to even a strike to address the alleged use of chemical weapons, any intervention without UN approval would contravene international laws. Is that true? I mean is it legal to go into Syria without UN Security Approval?

Lynch: I think that they'll probably rely on the Kosovo precedent. That was a way that NATO circumvented the UN Security Council and carried out an operation which they believed was justified by what seemed be the clear violation of international norms. If they do go that route it will be very controversial. Many people will vehemently disagree, but it's not clear that that would restrain the United States or NATO if it makes the decision to begin such an operation.

Werman: Now, a poll that was published over the weekend by Reuters/Ipsos found that actually even with the consideration of chemical weapons, fewer American respondents to the survey supported intervention at this point. How much does that weigh into Obama's response to what's happening in Syria?

Lynch: You'll hear a lot of people say, and I think correctly, that you can't conduct foreign policy by opinion poll, but I think you can't ignore public opinion. I think that most Americans, they look at Syria and certainly they're moved by the absolute humanitarian horror, but they also have not forgotten Iraq and they look, I think quite reasonably, at the two sides in Syria and they don't really see that a group of opposition with pretty strong representation of al-Qaeda types is necessary worth fighting for. And the tragedy of course is that ordinary Syrians are lost in the middle.

Werman: Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

Lynch: Thanks for having me.