Date: 14 May 2013, Politics and Current Affairs
Question setter: Nicholas Beadle

US Intervention in Syria

Will President Obama's response to the Syrian Government's alleged use of chemical weapons result in direct US military action, including through the use of drone attacks, by the end of May?


Answer: No
Confidence level: 80%
Mean confidence level (all requests): 62.29%

Obama is really not keen to start war on another front and particularly not in Syria where the aftermath of Assad's removal is unlikely to be an immediate peaceful democracy. Instead the US risks danger and vilification if radical Islamists or Al-Queda affiliated groups gain a strong foothold. Many of the rebel fighters in Syria are there to take advantage of the funding and without any intent to secure a peaceful democratic process. The recent history of US intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Libya show the difficulties of extrication once embroiled.
So, only irrefutable evidence of chemical attacks by Assad or a major escalation in genocide would force Obama into taking part and even then it's unlikely to be within the next fortnight.

Outcome: No
Score: 80
Mean score (all respondents): 62.29

Expert opinion:

Answer: Yes

Selected Expert Answer from Mettletest Panellist:
A direct US intervention could be triggered by a specific event. The recent use of chemical weapons remains unproven but if a fresh verifiable incident occurred resulting in a serious loss of life then President Obama would face increased pressure for action. The use of chemical weapons may not be sanctioned at the top of the Syrian regime but that may not be the determining issue. In fact, use by groups that are only loosely controlled could be so serious as to require US intervention to secure the stocks. That in itself may well require direct 'shaping' operations.

There are a number of other factors such as Assad and as importantly Hezbollah, achieving a game-changing advantage over the rebels. The west has not fully factored in a regime victory and in many respects could not afford this to happen. The impunity with which Israel has struck at specific convoys will have been noted and perhaps changed the calculus over so called surgical strikes. The chemical weapons issue may prove to be a useful chapeau. Coupled with this, if Assad fails to respond to the US/Russia calls for dialogue then a short sharp strike may be seen as a forcing move.

Answer: No

Selected Expert Answer from James Kidner:
The President is instinctively chary of getting engaged in the sort of overseas engagements which so dogged his predecessors. His outlook is cautious – he will be looking for reasons not to engage. Congress is divided on the issue – as are Media commentators. And the US electorate have little enthusiasm for yet another uncertain foreign entanglement. Recent UN reports suggesting the Syrian opposition may have been using chemical weapons as well as Government forces give a further reason for caution. The only driver for such an intervention at present is the vocal but minority liberal fringe, who assert that "something needs to be done". Clearly, the horrors unfolding in Syria will only stop when some kind of international engagement separates the factions. But for the moment the US is unwilling to put its own forces at risk – they will limit their actions to diplomatic pressure through Middle-East allies and through efforts, such as those from John Kerry in Moscow, to trying to build an international consensus against the current regime.

Answer: No

Selected Expert Answer from Nicholas Beadle:
The US Administration has repeatedly stated a reluctance to get involved in direct military action.

President Obama has to balance the wider regional issues that have caused the emergence of proxy fighters in the not-so-civil war. Rebel faction links with AQ plays into the concern over who or what would emerge as Assad falls; Iran retain a capacity to inflame the region and, in what looks like a gamble, has committed Hezbollah; Turkey playing host to refugees while it supports those rebels it feels it can influence; and a US domestic audience that would reject an expensive discretionary war. This is sticky stuff and the US will want to stay clear if at all possible.

The potential use of chemical weapons has changed the balance. The so called 'red-lines' were seen as an answer to those saying 'something must be done'. The red lines have moved and obverscatIon over what a response would look like are further indications of their continuing reluctance. There is an understandably cautious approach in the light of the failings of intelligence over Iraq WMD.

Finally the joint US/Russia moves to start a dialogue will be given a chance to succeed. It is unlikely that there will be a swift resolution and the US will not want to upset that initiative by direct intervention.

Outcome: No

Comment on outcome from Mettletest Panellist:
In the event Obama held back, no doubt heartily relieved that there was little evidence of any great further use of chemical weaponry since the first allegations were made. Instead, he is pinning hopes on extracting some kind of diplomatic solution from the proposed Geneva peace conference. Meanwhile, Assad continues to hold on and the rebel opposition appears to be increasingly fractious as the civil war draws in outsiders with their own agenda and the numbers of radical Islamists alarm the West. Ahead of the possible conference, Russia promises to send anti-aircraft missiles to Assad and the EU relaxes sanctions to allow arming the rebels. Support for intervention is the US is low anyway, so Obama remains uncommitted.