Obama Syria Policy: What Will It Be Tonight?


President Obama addresses the nation tonight at 9pm from the White House, where he will state the latest iteration of his ever-morphing policy on Syria. We have come a long way from the wait-and-see approach his administration has taken for the vast majority of the duration of Syria's civil war. For two-and-half years, Obama largely stayed on the sidelines of the nasty conflict save for some unspecified aid to the resistance, understandably not wanting to become ensnared in yet another Middle East quagmire. Some 100,000 Syrians have died, but yet only now does Obama seemed to be intent on acting. 

That is because it was recently confirmed that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used nerve gas against civilians, killing more than 1,000. In August of 2012, Obama made an off-the-cuff remark about the prospect of chemical weapons use in which he said that it would be crossing a "red line" that would "change my equation." One year later, he has found himself confronting that reality, and quite clumsily.

Just when it appeared all but certain that Obama would order strikes against Syria without congressional authorization, just as he had done in Libya, he announced that he would seek approval from Congress first. Since then, the White House has lobbied more than 400 lawmakers to try to convince them to vote for a use-of-force authorization against Syria. Obama has said that strikes against Syria would be designed to punish the regime for having used chemical weapons, and not to achieve regime change. 

Last week the administration botched the rollout of the plan in Congress when Secretary of State John Kerry stumbled through his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry suggested that U.S. troops on the ground in Syria might be a possibility, only to backtrack later in the hearing.  

Then on Monday, Kerry was asked in London if there was anything that could be done to avert a strike against Syria, to which he replied:

“Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

Later, a State Department spokesman clarified by saying that the secretary's remarks were simply rhetorical and not an actual proposal

Enter the Russians. 

Russia subsequently unveiled a proposal under which Syria would cede control of its chemical weapons to the international community, the Obama administration indicated that compliance with the proposal could mean Syria could avert a U.S. military strike. Assad said he would accept the terms, and Obama called it a "breakthrough," possibly hinting that Syria could go unscathed by U.S. bombs.

But if the original point of a U.S. strike was punitive, as Obama clearly indicated, it stands to reason that the U.S. should still be intent on punishing Syria, whether it gives up its WMDs or not. 

Given all this, what Obama will say tonight is anyone's guess.