By Bilal Y. Saab, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bilal Y. Saab is visiting fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bilal Y. Saab.
The Washington Post ran a story Thursday with the headline “Suicide attack in Syria makes international action less likely.” The author concludes that the recent upswing in terrorist violence actually decreases the chances of U.S., NATO or Arab-Turkish military intervention in Syria.
I argue it may well be the opposite.
Should Syria descend into total, Iraq-style chaos and start to resemble a failed state that is unable to fight terrorism, secure its own borders and safeguard its suspected weapons of mass destruction, the Obama administration will find the military option — whatever shape or form it may take — more appealing and suitable to contain the crisis.
While President Obama is still not in a position to seriously consider intervening in Syria — both because of the upcoming election and because of the very real risks and difficulties of any military strategy — his hand could be forced by developments on the ground and intelligence reports in Washington.
Imagine this not-so-improbable scenario: If Obama starts to receive additional reports from his intelligence advisors that al Qaeda is gaining ground in Syria and about to establish another safe haven in the Middle East along the borders of that country, he may have little choice but to reassess his options.
The political costs of another U.S. intervention in the Muslim world are evident and likely to be high given the “intervention fatigue” in Washington and the nonexistent appetite for costly foreign adventures among the U.S. public. But if CIA Director David Petraeus and National Intelligence Director James Clapper call tomorrow for a meeting and brief Obama about increasingly disturbing al Qaeda activity in Syria, the president cannot ignore their assessments. Obama might still decide that the costs of intervention are higher, but that decision will not be easy.
And should it become clearer to everyone that Syria is starting to pose a real and urgent threat — not only to regional security but also to international security and U.S. strategic interests — inaction on the part of the president will have its political costs, too.
You can already anticipate the fierce debate and political circus in Washington that could emerge from this potential scenario. Conservative outlets will not miss the opportunity to say that Obama is unwilling to protect America from international terrorism and safeguard U.S. strategic interests abroad because he is focused on his re-election campaign. Of course, the argument will be utterly unfair and ridiculous given Obama’s almost impeccable foreign policy record and his ability to make tough calls like the raid on Osama bin Laden. Yet the president would still have to deal with it and prepare himself for the possibility that such news will only help his adversary in November.
This is all hypothetical, of course, and Syria is not a failed state yet. Also, we still do not know for sure who is committing these terrorist acts.
It could be al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri has already stated his interest in establishing a base in the Levant, and there are more-than-capable members of the organization in Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon who could fulfill his vision.
But it could also be the Syrian government. It is not unthinkable that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his cronies could be ordering these attacks. Part of al-Assad’s survival strategy is to tell the world, and especially the United States, that he is fighting terrorists and thus should be given a chance to finish the job so that he can initiate political reforms. Surely another 55 deaths, when more than 10,000 are already dead, would not cause him to pause or rethink his strategy.
But, ironically, what al-Assad does not seem to be realizing is that the more he tries to convince Obama and the international community that al Qaeda is involved in his country, the closer Washington gets to make the decision of employing military force. He sealed his own fate the moment he decided to shoot to kill when the Syrian uprising started in January of last year.
With his risky “I am fighting al Qaeda” strategy, he may also be hastening his demise. Washington might not tolerate an al Qaeda victory in the Middle East, election season or not.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bilal Y. Saab.