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Obama's Bluff

When Barak Obama declared his 'Red Line' regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria he thought Assad would never cross it. So what will the US President do now? Stratfor outlines the hard choices.
 

 
by George Friedman
Stratfor
Montage: ChristiansTogether
Obama bluffImages of multiple dead bodies emerged from Syria last week. It was asserted that poison gas killed the victims, who according to some numbered in the hundreds. Others claimed the photos were faked while others said the rebels were at fault. The dominant view, however, maintains that the al Assad regime carried out the attack.

The United States has so far avoided involvement in Syria's civil war. This is not to say Washington has any love for the al Assad regime. Damascus' close ties to Iran and Russia give the United States reason to be hostile toward Syria, and Washington participated in the campaign to force Syrian troops out of Lebanon. Still, the United States has learned to be concerned not just with unfriendly regimes, but also with what could follow such regimes. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have driven home the principle that deposing one regime means living with an imperfect successor. In those cases, changing the regime wound up rapidly entangling the United States in civil wars, the outcomes of which have not been worth the price. In the case of Syria, the insurgents are Sunni Muslims whose best-organized factions have ties to al Qaeda.

Still, as frequently happens, many in the United States and Europe are appalled at the horrors of the civil war, some of whom have called on the United States to do something. The United States has been reluctant to heed these calls. As mentioned, Washington does not have a direct interest in the outcome, since all possible outcomes are bad from its perspective. Moreover, the people who are most emphatic that something be done to stop the killings will be the first to condemn the United States when its starts killing people to stop the killings. People would die in any such intervention, since there are simply no clean ways to end a civil war.

Obama's Red Lines

U. S. President Barack Obama therefore adopted an extremely cautious strategy. He said that the United States would not get directly involved in Syria unless the al Assad regime used chemical weapons, stating with a high degree of confidence that he would not have to intervene. After all, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has now survived two years of civil war, and he is far from defeated. The one thing that could defeat him is foreign intervention, particularly by the United States. It was therefore assumed he wouldn't do the one thing Obama said would trigger U. S. action.

Al Assad is a ruthless man: He would not hesitate to use chemical weapons if he had to. He is also a very rational man: He would use chemical weapons only if that were his sole option. At the moment, it is difficult to see what desperate situation would have caused him to use chemical weapons and risk the worst. His opponents are equally ruthless, and we can imagine them using chemical weapons to force the United States to intervene and depose al Assad. But their ability to access chemical weapons is unclear, and if found out, the maneuver could cost them all Western support. It is possible that lower-ranking officers in al Assad's military used chemical weapons without his knowledge and perhaps against his wishes. It is possible that the casualties were far less than claimed. And it is possible that some of the pictures were faked.

All of these things are possible, but we simply don't know which is true. More important is that major governments, including the British and French, are claiming knowledge that al Assad carried out the attack. U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a speech Aug. 26 clearly building the case for a military response, and referring to the regime attack as "undeniable" and the U. S. assessment so far as "grounded in facts." Al Assad meanwhile has agreed to allow U. N. inspectors to examine the evidence onsite. In the end, those who oppose al Assad will claim his supporters concealed his guilt, and the insurgents will say the same thing if they are blamed or if the inspectors determine there is no conclusive evidence of attacks.

The truth here has been politicized, and whoever claims to have found the truth, whatever it actually is, will be charged with lying. Nevertheless, the dominant emerging story is that al Assad carried out the attack, killing hundreds of men, women and children and crossing the red line Obama set with impunity. The U. S. president is backed into a corner.

The United States has chosen to take the matter to the United Nations. Obama will make an effort to show he is acting with U. N. support. But he knows he won't get U. N. support. The Russians, allies of al Assad and opponents of U. N.-based military interventions, will veto any proposed intervention. The Chinese -- who are not close to al Assad, but also oppose the U. N.-sanctioned interventions -- will probably join them. Regardless of whether the charges against al Assad are true, the Russians will dispute them and veto any action. Going to the United Nations therefore only buys time. Interestingly, the United States declared on Sunday that it is too late for Syria to authorize inspections. Dismissing that possibility makes the United States look tough, and actually creates a situation where it has to be tough.

Consequences in Syria and Beyond

This is no longer simply about Syria. The United States has stated a condition that commits it to an intervention. If it does not act when there is a clear violation of the condition, Obama increases the chance of war with other countries like North Korea and Iran. One of the tools the United States can use to shape the behavior of countries like these without going to war is stating conditions that will cause intervention, allowing the other side to avoid crossing the line. If these countries come to believe that the United States is actually bluffing, then the possibility of miscalculation soars. Washington could issue a red line whose violation it could not tolerate, like a North Korean nuclear-armed missile, but the other side could decide this was just another Syria and cross that line. Washington would have to attack, an attack that might not have been necessary had it not had its Syria bluff called.

There are also the Russian and Iranian questions. Both have invested a great deal in supporting al Assad. They might both retaliate were someone to attack the Syrian regime. There are already rumors in Beirut that Iran has told Hezbollah to begin taking Americans hostage if the United States attacks Syria. Russia meanwhile has shown in the Snowden affair what Obama clearly regards as a hostile intent. If he strikes, he thus must prepare for Russian counters. If he doesn't strike, he must assume the Russians and Iranians will read this as weakness.

Syria was not an issue that affected the U. S. national interest until Obama declared a red line. It escalated in importance at that point not because Syria is critical to the United States, but because the credibility of its stated limits are of vital importance. Obama's problem is that the majority of the American people oppose military intervention, Congress is not fully behind an intervention and those now rooting the United States on are not bearing the bulk of the military burden -- nor will they bear the criticism that will follow the inevitable civilian casualties, accidents and misdeeds that are part of war regardless of the purity of the intent.

The question therefore becomes what the United States and the new coalition of the willing will do if the red line has been crossed. The fantasy is that a series of airstrikes, destroying only chemical weapons, will be so perfectly executed that no one will be killed except those who deserve to die. But it is hard to distinguish a man's soul from 10,000 feet. There will be deaths, and the United States will be blamed for them.

The military dimension is hard to define because the mission is unclear. Logically, the goal should be the destruction of the chemical weapons and their deployment systems. This is reasonable, but the problem is determining the locations where all of the chemicals are stored. I would assume that most are underground, which poses a huge intelligence problem. If we assume that perfect intelligence is available and that decision-makers trust this intelligence, hitting buried targets is quite difficult. There is talk of a clean cruise missile strike. But it is not clear whether these carry enough explosives to penetrate even minimally hardened targets. Aircraft carry more substantial munitions, and it is possible for strategic bombers to stand off and strike the targets.

Even so, battle damage assessments are hard. How do you know that you have destroyed the chemicals -- that they were actually there and you destroyed the facility containing them? Moreover, there are lots of facilities and many will be close to civilian targets and many munitions will go astray. The attacks could prove deadlier than the chemicals did. And finally, attacking means al Assad loses all incentive to hold back on using chemical weapons. If he is paying the price of using them, he may as well use them. The gloves will come off on both sides as al Assad seeks to use his chemical weapons before they are destroyed.

A war on chemical weapons has a built-in insanity to it. The problem is not chemical weapons, which probably can't be eradicated from the air. The problem under the definition of this war would be the existence of a regime that uses chemical weapons. It is hard to imagine how an attack on chemical weapons can avoid an attack on the regime -- and regimes are not destroyed from the air. Doing so requires troops. Moreover, regimes that are destroyed must be replaced, and one cannot assume that the regime that succeeds al Assad will be grateful to those who deposed him. One must only recall the Shia in Iraq who celebrated Saddam's fall and then armed to fight the Americans.

Arming the insurgents would keep an air campaign off the table, and so appears to be lower risk. The problem is that Obama has already said he would arm the rebels, so announcing this as his response would still allow al Assad to avoid the consequences of crossing the red line. Arming the rebels also increases the chances of empowering the jihadists in Syria.

When Obama proclaimed his red line on Syria and chemical weapons, he assumed the issue would not come up. He made a gesture to those in his administration who believe that the United States has a moral obligation to put an end to brutality. He also made a gesture to those who don't want to go to war again. It was one of those smart moves that can blow up in a president's face when it turns out his assumption was wrong. Whether al Assad did launch the attacks, whether the insurgents did, or whether someone faked them doesn't matter. Unless Obama can get overwhelming, indisputable proof that al Assad did not -- and that isn't going to happen -- Obama will either have to act on the red line principle or be shown to be one who bluffs. The incredible complexity of intervening in a civil war without becoming bogged down makes the process even more baffling.

Obama now faces the second time in his presidency when war was an option. The first was Libya. The tyrant is now dead, and what followed is not pretty. And Libya was easy compared to Syria. Now, the president must intervene to maintain his credibility. But there is no political support in the United States for intervention. He must take military action, but not one that would cause the United States to appear brutish. He must depose al Assad, but not replace him with his opponents. He never thought al Assad would be so reckless. Despite whether al Assad actually was, the consensus is that he was. That's the hand the president has to play, so it's hard to see how he avoids military action and retains credibility. It is also hard to see how he takes military action without a political revolt against him if it goes wrong, which it usually does.


"Obama's Bluff is republished with permission of Stratfor."

Ed footnote: Stratfor is a respected (secular) intelligence agency. The above report is published here in order to inform Christians of events of possibly Biblical significance and to provide points for prayer.

George Freidman / Stratfor, 01/09/2013

Feedback:
Editor 02/09/2013 15:40
In 2011 Avi Lipkin (aka Victor Mordecai) wrote:

Finally, there is President Barack Obama who has promised that he would never go to war against another Moslem country.

But since Iran and its proxies Syria and Lebanese Hizbullah are seen as a threat to Western interests, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia (and even little Israel!), the US would not be adverse to "democracy" happening in Syrian, ie. the Sunnis taking over in Syria and terminating the Shi'ite/Christian minority rule in Syria. The Sunnis, of course, would be assisted by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime would by extension mean the eventual termination of the fanatic Shi'ite Hizbullah domination of Lebanon, both tentacles of the Iranian regime. In turn, the writing would be on the wall for the Ayatollah regime in Teheran.

Many people say that the entire "Arab Spring" phenomenon throughout the Arab world would be dominated by the fanatic Sunni Moslem Brotherhood which, of course, seeks the termination of Shi'ite Islam, and this aim could be achieved without American intervention by the US President.

The question then would be: Will this "caliphate" of Sunnis then seek to storm Israel by force in an "Armageddon" type invasion once the Shi'ite threat was terminated.

Obama would prefer that proxies or in western terms "useful idiots" in the Moslem world would terminate the Bashar al-Assad regime, then the Hizbullah, and then Iran. The final remaining enemy to be dealt with later by these Moslem Brotherhood regimes would be Jewish Israel.

So does Bashar al-Assad have a Syrian "Samson's Option" or will he leave the scene quietly? Will he decide to "bring the house down" by attacking Israel to deflect the Moslem world's attention away from his predicament?

In my opinion, one way or another, the eventual takeover of Syria by the Sunni's led by the Turkish backed Moslem Brotherhood is inevitable.

We mustn't forget Turkey's imperialist ambitionsand history. Syria was once the southern province of Ottoman Turkey, and that includes, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. The Turks' dream of the restoration of their empire from the heart of Europe to Mecca, from the Atlantic Ocean to China would then be realized.
Colin Ford (Guest) 02/09/2013 19:50
A very confusing cocktail? I don't believe there is a man alive that can understand or organise any successful pre emptive action?
Truly, diplomats, advisers, and politicians of every colour have NO answer?
We must remember, whether Shi'ite or Sunni, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or whatever else, all these various factions are all Islamic? Correct me if I am wrong.
With Islam being the source of all this, we can learn from the Saviour's Words in Matthew 12.25-26 KJV ? Only He will resolve this? In His timing of course, Antichrist cannot be too far away?
Editor 11/09/2013 22:04
Stratfor Report (republished with permission)

In recent weeks I've written about U.S. President Barack Obama's bluff on Syria and the tightrope he is now walking on military intervention. There is another bluff going on that has to be understood, this one from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin is bluffing that Russia has emerged as a major world power. In reality, Russia is merely a regional power, but mainly because its periphery is in shambles. He has tried to project a strength that he doesn't have, and he has done it well. For him, Syria poses a problem because the United States is about to call his bluff, and he is not holding strong cards. To understand his game we need to start with the recent G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Putin and Obama held a 20-minute meeting there that appeared to be cold and inconclusive. The United States seems to be committed to some undefined military action in Syria, and the Russians are vehemently opposed. The tensions showcased at the G-20 between Washington and Moscow rekindled memories of the Cold War, a time when Russia was a global power. And that is precisely the mood Putin wanted to create. That's where Putin's bluff begins.
A Humbled Global Power

The United States and Russia have had tense relations for quite a while. Early in the Obama administration, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up in Moscow carrying a box with a red button, calling it the reset button. She said that it was meant to symbolize the desire for restarting U.S.-Russian relations. The gesture had little impact, and relations have deteriorated since then. With China focused on its domestic issues and with Europe in disarray, the United States and Russia are the two major -- if not comparable -- global players, and the deterioration in relations can be significant. We need to understand what is going on here before we think about Syria.

Twenty years ago, the United States had little interest in relations with Russia, and certainly not with resetting them. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Russian Federation was in ruins and it was not taken seriously by the United States -- or anywhere else for that matter. The Russians recall this period with bitterness. In their view, under the guise of teaching the Russians how to create a constitutional democracy and fostering human rights, the United States and Europe had engaged in exploitative business practices and supported non-governmental organizations that wanted to destabilize Russia.

The breaking point came during the Kosovo crisis. Slobodan Milosevic, leader of what was left of Yugoslavia, was a Russian ally. Russia had a historic relationship with Serbia, and it did not want to see Serbia dismembered, with Kosovo made independent.

There were three reasons for this. First, the Russians denied that there was a massacre of Albanians in Kosovo. There had been a massacre by Serbians in Bosnia; the evidence of a massacre in Kosovo was not clear and is still far from clear. Second, the Russians did not want European borders to change. There had been a general agreement that forced changes in borders should not happen in Europe, given its history, and the Russians were concerned that restive parts of the Russian Federation, from Chechnya to Karelia to Pacific Russia, might use the forced separation of Serbia and Kosovo as a precedent for dismembering Russia. In fact, they suspected that was the point of Kosovo. Third, and most important, they felt that an attack without U.N. approval and without Russian support should not be undertaken both under international law and out of respect for Russia.

President Bill Clinton and some NATO allies went to war nevertheless. After two months of airstrikes that achieved little, they reached out to the Russians to help settle the conflict. The Russian emissary reached an agreement that accepted the informal separation of Kosovo from Serbia but would deploy Russian peacekeepers along with the U.S. and European ones, their mission being to protect the Serbians in Kosovo. The cease-fire was called, but the part about Russian peacekeepers was never fully implemented.

Russia felt it deserved more deference on Kosovo, but it couldn't have expected much more given its weak geopolitical position at the time. However, the incident served as a catalyst for Russia's leadership to try to halt the country's decline and regain its respect. Kosovo was one of the many reasons that Vladimir Putin became president, and with him, the full power of the intelligence services he rose from were restored to their former pre-eminence.
Western Encroachment

The United States has supported, financially and otherwise, the proliferation of human rights groups in the former Soviet Union. When many former Soviet countries experienced revolutions in the 1990s that created governments that were somewhat more democratic but certainly more pro-Western and pro-American, Russia saw the West closing in. The turning point came in Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution generated what seemed to Putin a pro-Western government in 2004. Ukraine was the one country that, if it joined NATO, would make Russia indefensible and would control many of its pipelines to Europe.

In Putin's view, the non-governmental organizations helped engineer this, and he claimed that U.S. and British intelligence services funded those organizations. To Putin, the actions in Ukraine indicated that the United States in particular was committed to extending the collapse of the Soviet Union to a collapse of the Russian Federation. Kosovo was an insult from his point of view. The Orange Revolution was an attack on basic Russian interests.

Putin began a process of suppressing all dissent in Russia, both from foreign-supported non-governmental organizations and from purely domestic groups. He saw Russia as under attack, and he saw these groups as subversive organizations. There was an argument to be made for this. But the truth was that Russia was returning to its historical roots as an authoritarian government, with the state controlling the direction of the economy and where dissent is treated as if it were meant to destroy the state. Even though much of this reaction could be understood given the failures and disasters since 1991, it created a conflict with the United States. The United States kept pressing on the human rights issue, and the Russians became more repressive in response.

Then came the second act of Kosovo. In 2008, the Europeans decided to make Kosovo fully independent. The Russians asked that this not happen and said that the change had little practical meaning anyway. From the Russian point of view, there was no reason to taunt Russia with this action. The Europeans were indifferent.

The Russians found an opportunity to respond to the slight later that year in Georgia. Precisely how the Russo-Georgian war began is another story, but it resulted in Russian tanks entering a U.S. client state, defeating its army and remaining there until they were ready to leave. With the Americans bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, no intervention was possible. The Russians took this as an opportunity to deliver two messages to Kiev and other former Soviet states. First, Russia, conventional wisdom aside, could and would use military power when it chose. Second, he invited Ukraine and other countries to consider what an American guarantee meant.

U.S.-Russian relations never really recovered. From the U.S. point of view, the Russo-Georgia war was naked aggression. From the Russian point of view, it was simply the Russian version of Kosovo, in fact gentler in that it left Georgia proper intact. The United States became more cautious in funding non-governmental organizations. The Russians became more repressive by the year in their treatment of dissident groups.

Since 2008, Putin has attempted to create a sense that Russia has returned to its former historic power. It maintains global relations with left-wing powers such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba. Of course, technically Russia is not left wing, and if it is, it is a weird leftism given its numerous oligarchs who still prosper. And in fact there is little that Russia can do for any of those countries, beyond promising energy investments and weapon transfers that only occasionally materialize. Still, it gives Russia a sense of global power.

In fact, Russia remains a shadow of what the Soviet Union was. Its economy is heavily focused on energy exports and depends on high prices it cannot control. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, life remains hard and life expectancy short. Militarily, it cannot possibly match the United States. But at this moment in history, with the United States withdrawing from deep involvement in the Muslim world, and with the Europeans in institutional disarray, it exerts a level of power in excess of its real capacity. The Russians have been playing their own bluff, and this bluff helps domestically by creating a sense that, despite its problems, Russia has returned to greatness.

In this game, taking on and besting the United States at something, regardless of its importance, is critical. The Snowden matter was perfect for the Russians. Whether they were involved in the Snowden affair from the beginning or entered later is unimportant. It has created two important impressions. The first is that Russia is still capable of wounding the United States -- a view held among those who believe the Russians set the affair in motion, and a view quietly and informally encouraged by those who saw this as a Russian intelligence coup even though they publicly and heartily denied it.

The second impression was that the United States was being hypocritical. The United States had often accused the Russians of violating human rights, but with Snowden, the Russians were in a position where they protected the man who had revealed what many saw as a massive violation of human rights. It humiliated the Americans in terms of their own lax security and furthermore weakened the ability of the United States to reproach Russia for human rights violations.

Obama was furious with Russia's involvement in the Snowden case and canceled a summit with Putin. But now that the United States is considering a strike on the Syrian regime following its suspected use of chemical weapons, Washington may be in a position to deal a setback to a Russia client state, and by extension, Moscow itself.
The Syria Question

The al Assad regime's relations with Russia go back to 1970, when Hafez al Assad, current President Bashar al Assad's father, staged a coup and aligned Syria with the Soviet Union. In the illusion of global power that Putin needs to create, the fall of al Assad would undermine his strategy tremendously unless the United States was drawn into yet another prolonged and expensive conflict in the Middle East. In the past, the U.S. distraction with Iraq and Afghanistan served Russia's interests. But the United States is not very likely to get as deeply involved in Syria as it did in those countries. Obama might bring down the regime and create a Sunni government of unknown beliefs, or he may opt for a casual cruise missile attack. But this will not turn into Iraq unless Obama loses control completely.

This could cause Russia to suffer a humiliation similar to the one it dealt the United States in 2008 with Georgia. The United States will demonstrate that Russia's concerns are of no account and that Russia has no counters if and when the United States decides to act.

The impact inside Russia will be interesting. There is some evidence of weakness in Putin's position. His greatest strength has been to create the illusion of Russia as an emerging global power. This will deal that a blow, and how it resonates through the Russian system is unclear. But in any event, it could change the view of Russia being on the offensive and the United States being on the defensive.

Putin made this a core issue for him. I don't think he expected the Europeans to take the position that al Assad had used chemical weapons. He thought he had more pull than that. He didn't. The Europeans may not fly missions but they are not in a position to morally condemn those who do. That means that Putin's bluff is in danger.

History will not turn on this event, and Putin's future, let alone Russia's, does not depend on his ability to protect Russia's Syrian ally. Syria just isn't that important. There are many reasons that the United States might not wish to engage in Syria. But if we are to understand the U.S.-Russian crisis over Syria, it makes sense to consider the crisis within in the arc of recent history from Kosovo in 1999 to Georgia in 2008 to where we are today.
'Syria, America and Putin's Bluff' is republished with permission of Stratfor.
See: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/syria-america-and-putins-bluff

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