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

How It Works
Aug. 23 2013 9:04 PM

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

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.”


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. 


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059


Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Nicolas Sarkozy, Thrice Married, Says Gay Marriage Humiliates the Family

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 5:33 PM The Politics of Stigma Why are lighter-skinned Latinos and Asians more likely to vote Republican?
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
Sept. 22 2014 4:06 PM No, Women’s Soccer Does Not Have a Domestic Violence Problem Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 5:45 PM The University of California Corrects “Injustice” by Making Its Rich Chancellors Even Richer
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.