Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing
Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing // Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Does Assad Win No Matter What the U.S. Does in Syria?

It’s a catch-22 no president wants to be caught up in.

If President Obama doesn’t launch a limited military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons against its people, President Bashar al-Assad will be able to claim victory over the United States. If he does order a strike against Assad, the U.S. has made clear that it won’t remove Assad from power — another reason for the Syrian dictator to boast that he stood up to the powerful United States.

Either way, it seems, Assad wins.

During nearly four hours of testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) put this conundrum to Secretary of State John Kerry. “One of the concerns that I have and I’ve heard others express,” Rubio said, “is that Assad could take three, five, six days of strikes, maybe longer, maybe shorter and emerge from that saying, ‘I have faced down the United States and I have held onto power and survived’ and at that point be further emboldened both domestically and perhaps even abroad. Have we taken that into account?”

Kerry answered candidly, showing the U.S. hand in this poker-game of crossing red lines:

“Yes, we absolutely have, for certain, we’ve taken that into account. [Assad] will weather, I mean, he will weather it,’ Kerry told Rubio. “The president’s asking for a limited authority to degrade his current capacity and to deter him from using it again. He is not asking for permission from the Congress to go destroy the entire regime or to, you know, do a much more extensive kind of thing, that’s not what he’s asking. So he will be able to stand up and no doubt he’ll try to claim that somehow this is something positive for him.”

Obama has made it clear from the start that any military action against Syria for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack would not be aimed at removing Assad from power. That is a task for the Syrian people alone. The president’s argument for launching missiles at strategic targets inside Syria is simply to “deter and degrade” Assad’s ability to wage another chemical attack.

But even the success of that narrow mission is unclear. Would a limited strike against Syria deter Assad from doing whatever he has to — including using chemical weapons again — to stay in power? Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s assessment during Tuesday’s hearing was chilling:

“I think it’s maybe even more insidious than that, he’s reached a point where he now thinks of chemical weapons as just another weapon in his arsenal and that’s the part of it that makes this so very dangerous,” Dempsey said.

Still, the Obama administration believes that doing nothing would be worse — and that eventually Assad will get the message. “I think Gen. Dempsey has made it clear and I think we believe deeply, as do others who are knowledgeable about this in the region, that there is no way that [a U.S-led strike] will in fact be beneficial for [Assad], that it will not translate on the ground, that the defections that are taking place now and other things that will happen will further degrade his capacity to prosecute them going forward,” Kerry said. 

But Kerry’s controversial answer to whether he could guarantee that any resolution to allow the use of military force against Syria would not include American boots on the ground – “I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available” – shows just how unpredictable Assad can be.

“Let me put it bluntly, if Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision,” Kerry said.