- President Obama had earlier deemed employment of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad a "red line" because of the long-standing international norm against their use, and U.S. and allied intelligence agencies (the same ones who brought you the "slam dunk" case that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction) have now confirmed that attacks on the Syrian rebels involving sarin gas and other chemical agents have killed around 150 people. This means he now has to act to preserve his credibility and the strength of the norm.
- In light of the Syrian government's recent conquest (with aid from the Iranian-backed Lebanese terror outfit Hezbollah) of the city of Qusayr and impending assault on Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, the administration fears that it might be on the verge of victory or at least sufficiently confident in its chances that it won't be willing to negotiate a political solution.
- The regional allies the U.S. is working with to supply the "non-lethal" aid and coordination it currently provides the Syrian rebels, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are losing faith in our commitment to the rebel cause because we haven't intervened forcefully enough and so are growing reluctant to cooperate.
- The Syrian civil war has basically turned into another front in the centuries-long, on-again/off-again conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam, the two main Muslim sects, and the passions stirred by this rivalry are threatening to create a wider regional war, which would be harmful to American interests.
On the former, let's first pinpoint why the international community stigmatizes chemical weapons. Again, I'm no expert on the relevant international law and scientific issues, but intuitively seems to me that there are two main reasons. First, chemical weapons make the infliction of massive casualties significantly easier than do conventional weapons; second, they not only kill but necessarily cause profound suffering and thereby psychological terror whenever they're used as weapons (unlike conventional weapons, which only do these things if they're used in certain ways - an artillery bombardment of a civilian population center could lead to similar consequences but this is because of the target and not simply because artillery shells are being used). In other words, the norm prohibiting chemical weapons is grounded in more general norms prohibiting the infliction of mass casualties and cruelty in warfare. However, if these are the things the Obama administration is worried about in Syria, then chemical weapons attacks which its own figures indicate were quite minor (though of course tragic, as death always is) shouldn't be a trigger for intervention, since while they may fall within the letter of the norm it wants to enforce they have little to do with its underlying justification.
The flaw in the other three reasons the administration has given for its new policy is that, even if you assume the factual claims being made are correct (and I'm at least somewhat skeptical of each), they point toward a much more serious escalation than it's actually proposing. Presumably, the way to bring the Assad regime to the bargaining table is to strengthen the rebels enough that they stand a serious chance of overthrowing it; the same is true with respect to forestalling the risk of a larger war, since the best way to do this is presumably to end the fighting quickly. Similarly, if our allies are worried about our current commitment to the anti-Assad effort, we should presumably allay their concerns by taking a step that strengthens the rebels significantly more than what we're currently doing and/or costs us much more.
However, the administration proposes the relatively minor step of directly supplying some rebel groups with small arms and ammunition. These are not the weapons the rebels in question think they need (they're demanding heavier anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons). Furthermore, in light of New York Times reporter C. J. Chivers' recent summary of the Assad regime's military strategy on NPR's Fresh Air, in which he posited that the government was responding to the rebels' control of land routes in the countryside by fortifying its urban positions and making frequent use of airstrikes, small arms seem unlikely to make much of a difference. And since we already seem to be connecting other regional powers with arms merchants and helping them transport weapons to rebel forces, starting to provide weapons of our own hardly seems like the type of order-of-magnitude change needed to strengthen their confidence in us.
Perhaps administration officials mean for the main impact of the policy change to be psychological. You could make a somewhat plausible case that by pursuing a course of action that up to this point had been urged primarily by extreme hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and involving the U.S. much more directly in the actual use of force than had been the case earlier, we're implicitly staking our reputation on the rebels' success and thereby committing ourselves to take more aggressive action if doing so becomes necessary to end the war. Foreign Policy columnist James Traub suggests this might be the case, quoting an unnamed senior official saying that the administration doesn't expect to make a tangible impact on the military situation in the near term but instead hopes to "change the emotional balance." However, Benjamin Rhodes, the Obama foreign policy adviser who announced the new stance, seemed to actively try and prevent this message from being sent by explicitly ruling out the possibility of sending in ground troops and saying that the administration wanted to avoid sending heavy weapons and that "we don’t at this point believe that the U.S. has a national interest" in
I have some thoughts on why the administration is making what seem to me to be transparently silly arguments, but given how absurdly long this thing already is I think I'll return to the issue in another post.