Obama’s credibility on the line as US weighs up a Syria response

Allegations of chemical weapon use by the Assad regime is leading to calls for Western intervention. EPA/STR

Those who thought US president Barack Obama was chastened by his failure to subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan and his decision to “lead from behind” in Libya expected the White House to be less overtly promiscuous in his second term.

However, Obama’s foolish decision months ago to draw red lines in the sands of Syria over the use of chemical weapons means he is now under mounting domestic pressure to “do something” to further destabilise Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

A prefence for killing “enemies” and civilians in Pakistan and Yemen with pilotless drones – using Australia’s Pine Gap facilities to target victims - reinforced the view that US interventions around the world would not be as conspicuous, if no less deadly.

Obama would rather do nothing and avoid further escalating anti-American sentiment in the region, as would his allies in Tel Aviv who prefer the devil they know in Damascus to one who might be less compliant about Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

But having raised public expectations, which in turn have been inflamed by the chemical attack in the Syrian capital last week, Obama will now look weak if he declines to launch cruise missiles at the Syrian Army in the next few days. And in Washington, credibility is everything.

It now appears Obama will not even wait for the UN weapons inspectors to conduct their investigations into the atrocity, nor is he curious about why Assad – who has recently made significant gains in his battle with rebel forces – would invite Western attacks by using weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Obama had better be certain that Assad’s opponents, whom he now backs with money and arms, were not responsible.

Aerial attacks by Western forces will further immiserate the people of Syria, and may solidify local support for the Assad regime. They will be strenuously opposed by Iran, and Russia will almost certainly prevent the UN from legitimising the strike.

The only certain winners will be the rebels, supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and now European and North American governments. Some of these fighters are extreme Islamist fanatics, a fact of little apparent concern to their international backers. Israelis, however, are much less sanguine about the prospect of people like these coming to power in the neighbourhood.

How genuine is the West’s concern about the use of chemical weapons in Syria last week? The historical record would suggest quite the opposite.

According to Foreign Policy, in the 1980s Washington knew about but did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks by Saddam Hussein which were far more deadly than anything Syria saw last week. Recently declassified CIA files are, according to the respected policy journal:

…tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.

Determined to see Iran defeated by its neighbour, the Reagan administration was happy to ignore these crimes while intensifying intelligence and logistical support for the tyrant in Baghdad. This was despite the ban on chemical weapons in war under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which commits parties to “exert every effort to induce other States to accede to the agreement”. The US ratified the protocol in 1975.

International leaders like Barack Obama and David Cameron are currently weighing up a response to the Syrian crisis. EPA/Andy Rain

And how did the West respond to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish civilians of Halabja on March 17, 1988, when over 5000 people were poisoned. Outrage, condemnation, missile attacks? Again, the opposite was the case.

First, Washington disingenuously blamed Iran – knowing all along exactly who was responsible for the crime. They then continued to shower Saddam with “$5 billion in food credits, technology, and industrial products, most coming after it began to use mustard, cyanide, and nerve gases against both Iranians and dissident Kurds”, according to historian Gabriel Kolko. After the attack on Halabja, Saddam was rewarded by George Bush Sr with new lines of credit and praise from his Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly, who described their friend as “a source of moderation in the region”.

Twenty months after this horrific attack, Washington was still providing Baghdad with dual-use licensed materials, including chemical precursors, biological warfare-related materials and missile guidance equipment - enabling Saddam to develop his WMD programs.

During the worst decade of Saddam’s rule (1980-90), the UK sold Iraq £2.3 billion in machinery and transport equipment and £3.5 billion in trade credits, supporting the creation of a local arms industry and freeing up valuable resources for the Iraqi military. London responded to the atrocity in Halabja by refusing to criticise Saddam, doubling export credits to Baghdad and relaxing export guidelines, making it easier to sell arms to Iraq.

Obama rang Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd yesterday to brief him about Washington’s plans for Syria. Given Australia takes the chair of the UN Security Council next week, the US wants to make it very clear to Canberra just how a diplomatic solution to this crisis is going to be avoided. Rudd, and opposition leader Tony Abbott if he is elected on September 7, will willingly do as they are told.

The US might succumb to the public pressure it largely induced and “do something” terrible to Syria as punishment for last week’s chemical attack, but it will not be out of any humanitarian concern felt in Washington about the use of chemical weapons. It will be because Washington has, yet again, put its own credibility on the line.

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