The U.S. Probably Still Isn’t Attacking Syria

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Aug. 23 2013 9:04 PM

The U.S. Probably Still Isn’t Attacking Syria

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In this U.S. Navy handout photo, the guided missile destroyer USS Porter launches a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile toward Iraq during the initial stages of shock and awe campaign March 22, 2003.

Photo by Christopher Senenk/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

CBS News is reporting that the U.S. is “making the initial preparations for a cruise missile attack on Syrian government forces." Specifically, the commander of the U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean ordered U.S. naval warships to move closer to Syria in preparation for the possible strike. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will reportedly present options for a strike to the White House tomorrow. At time of writing, no other news outlets have picked up the story. 

A healthy dose of caution should apply here. Preparing for a possible strike is not the same thing as planning to strike. Despite evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack earlier this week,  President Obama seems extremely reluctant about the idea of intervening in Syria, telling CNN just this morning that “we're still gathering information about this particular event” and that “if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it.”

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It seems likely that positioning the warships is simply a bit of theater meant to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the United States means business. None of the other gradual escalations the U.S. has announced in the year since Obama declared the use of chemical weapons to be his “red line" seems to have had much of an impact on the regime’s behavior, but perhaps the hope is that armed warships in the neighborhood will finally get the message across.

As I noted on Wednesday, Assad’s strategy for dealing with the international community seems to be that as long as he keeps the escalation of carnage gradual, the strong opposition to intervention in Western capitals and Western publics will keep him safe. It’s a gamble that has paid off for him so far. Obama is obviously extremely reluctant to intervene and seems to have only become more so as the conflict has worn on and the nature of the rebel forces has become more uncertain. But as Muammar Qaddafi learned two years ago, the president does have a breaking point.  

In the event that this is actually the prelude to an intervention, it seems worth pointing out that the horrific damage done to Syrian infrastructure, the influx of foreign fighters into the country, and the gradual internationalization of the conflict will likely make the consequences of such an operation even messier than they would have been two years ago. Also, if Assad’s back is to the wall, he may be even more likely to employ the worst weapons he has at his disposal. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog.