In the aftermath of the massacre in Houla, Syria, pressure is mounting on the Obama administration to become more directly involved in efforts to remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The problem for U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security team is that there is no clear, safe course of action: Intervening or staying out of the conflict both carry their own sets of risks.
Let’s start with the “knowns” that would have to guide any American decision. The first is that Russia, backed by China, will not allow the United Nations Security Council to give its imprimatur to any military action, even if Russia has been more willing to chastise Damascus in the aftermath of Houla. U.S. commentators have focused on the mercenary reasons for Russia’s support of Assad, including lucrative contracts for Russian defense contractors and the use of port facilities at Tartus by the Russian Navy. Beyond that, however, Russia simply does not share the U.S. narrative of events in Syria. Moscow is less willing to accept the reports issued by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria or the London-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory about the culpability of the Assad regime for civilian deaths. And in contrast to Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin is far less likely to allow resolutions calling for more robust action to move forward in the Security Council.
So if the Obama administration wants to act, it must be willing to do so without the legitimizing cover of the United Nations, either in response to an Arab League request for intervention or by assembling a “coalition of the willing” prepared to act without such a request. It must also calculate whether causing new tensions in what are now rockier U.S. relations with Russia and China is worth bypassing the Security Council to intervene in Syria.