Syria and the Toxic Wind of Change

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- President Obama on Tuesday changed the tone of the debate over his desire to punish the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack, but Obama could still lose the vote in Congress when it returns from its long vacation next week.

The tone of U.S. media coverage of the Syrian situation immediately changed when Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) on Tuesday, following a meeting between President Obama and congressional leaders, said he would vote to authorize the president to order an attack on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Boehner said "my colleagues should support this call for action."

"The use of these weapons has to be responded to, and only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad and warn others around the word that this type of behavior is not to be tolerated," Boehner added.

President Obama during the meeting said he had "high confidence that Syria used, in an indiscriminate fashion, chemical weapons that killed thousands of people, including over 400 children, and in direct violation of the international norm against using chemical weapons." He added that he was planning for a "limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), after the meeting, said deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction is "a pillar of our national security," and that "we have to send a very clear message to those who have weapons of mass destruction of any variety that they should forget about using them."

Pelosi said "we must respond," but added that "the American people need to hear more about the intelligence that supports this action, and that is that the responsibility for this chemical weapons use is clearly at the feet of Assad."

Finally, Pelosi used very strong language in supporting the president: "Waiting for the UN and waiting for Russian president Vladimir Putin -- the slowest ship in the convoy in reacting to the use of chemical weapons by Assad -- is a luxury we that we cannot afford."

Later on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry said "we would keep the world's promise" to punish any use chemical weapons. The committee worked on a new draft of legislation that would "strictly prohibit American 'boots on the ground,' limit the duration of any military action to 60 days, and separately require a report from the Obama administration detailing U.S. support for vetted, moderate opposition groups in Syria," according to a statement released by Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) the ranking minority member of the committee.

While Senate approval over the modified proposal authorizing the president to use force seems likely, the president's success in gaining key political support could still be undone as some members of the House, in particular Rep. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), remain unconvinced and have already this year shown a willingness to veer from party leadership. Polls are showing very little support from a war-weary U.S. public for any action in Syria, making the job of convincing Congress that much harder.

The full Congress returns from its long vacation next week. Neither President Obama nor congressional leaders saw fit to end the vacation early, despite the prospect of military action.

Plans for Syrian intervention raise doubts not only about U.S. foreign policy, but also about the U.S.'s moral authority to intervene over human rights abuses in the civil dispute of a sovereign foreign nation. Those doubts are fueled in part by baggage the U.S. carries from previous long-term actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How Far Should the U.S. Go to Support Treaties?

As a signatory to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, 189 countries have agreed to outlaw the production, storage and use of chemical weapons. It would seem that very few of these signatories have any desire to enforce the agreement.

President Obama has been making the case that it is a moral imperative for the U.S. to lead the world in suppressing the use of chemical weapons. French President François Hollande has also gone on the record saying Syria should be punished. The French president can decide on military action without being subject to a vote in the nation's parliament. British Prime Minister David Cameron initially expressed strong support for an attack on Assad's forces, but has apparently thrown in the towel after losing a vote in the House of Commons last week, the first time a British PM had lost a vote to authorize military action since 1782.

That leaves only two countries likely to back up the Chemical Weapons Convention by taking action against Syria: the U.S. and France. Russia ratified the convention the same year as the U.S., 1997. Predictably however, Russia's Putin has not shown any indication of willingness to cooperate in a Syrian intervention, citing the need for overwhelming proof of the use of chemical weapons against its own people. In an Associated Press interview Tuesday night however Putin offered that he would consider supporting action against Syria if such proof were available.

President Obama said the attacks would be limited in scope and meant to punish Assad's use of chemical weapons, while degrading his ability to use them again. Secretary of State Kerry further stated that the attacks targeting chemical weapons would degrade Assad's military capability generally, which would assist the rebels opposing Assad. However presuming Assad's rule was replaced with a democratically elected leadership, there is no guarantee such a government would be sympathetic to U.S. interests.

For many decades following World War II, the policy of the U.S. was to ally itself with Arab dictatorships and also the Shah's dictatorship in Iran. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, which resulted in a theocracy, the United States supported Iraq's president Saddam Hussein during the 80's in his conflict with Iran. While supporting Hussein, the U.S. conveniently overlooked strong evidence that Iraq's government had used chemical weapons against Iran. The U.S. later took no action after Hussein's government used chemical weapons against Iraq's Kurdish minority.

The U.S. turned on Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. After that, Bashar Assad's father former Syrian president Hafez Assad -- a lifetime enemy of U.S. ally Israel -- cooperated with President George H.W. Bush's Operation Desert Storm early in 1991, with Syrian troops fighting alongside U.S. troops to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

The government of Hafez Assad had also been accused of using chemical weapons, although evidence was either lacking or wasn't pursued. The reports may have been false, however it seems clear the regime possessed such weapons and was prepared to use them. The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits not just the use but the development and possession of such weapons.

Further complicating matters is the U.S's own use of questionable weapons in the region. Recent published reports have pointed to a U.S. use of depleted uranium in Fallujah, Iraq, during the Gulf War beginning in 2003. The claim is supported by reports of a sharp rise in birth defects and infant mortality in the region, however the U.S.'s use of depleted uranium remains unconfirmed.

The use of white phosphorous in Fallujah, on the other hand, has recently been confirmed by the Pentagon. White phosphorous is similar to napalm: it combusts in contact with oxygen in the air and can burn through flesh. Exposure to it in its precombusted form can cause severe health effects.

The Chemical Weapons Convention defines such weapons based on chemical toxicity. Both white phosphorous and depleted uranium would seem to not be covered under that definition. White phosphorous as a weapon injures through burning; the toxic effects of depleted uranium are not chemical. Yet their use remains deplorable according to the spirit of the convention, which seeks to limit weapons that kill or maim indiscriminately.

The president's willingness to intervene in Syria also seems a stark contrast to his unwillingness to intervene in Iran. The U.S. is also one of 190 countries to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Iran is clearly working on developing the capability to manufacture and deliver nuclear weapons, while its government has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel.

U.S. policy may be changing, as President Obama makes the moral case to punish Syria for chemical weapons use. Similar logic could be used to justify military action against Iran. Such an operation could lead to a much larger and more dangerous conflict than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Once Congress returns from vacation, in fairness to the issue, members should engage in a robust, detailed debate, encompassing not only the Syrian problem, related moral issues, and the more narrow view of "U.S. interests," but also the long-term consequences of what could turn out to be a radical change in policy.

-- Written by Philip van Doorn in Jupiter, Fla., and Carlton Wilkinson in New York.

>Contact Philip van Doorn.

>Contact Carlton Wilkinson.

Philip W. van Doorn is a member of TheStreet's banking and finance team, commenting on industry and regulatory trends. He previously served as the senior analyst for Ratings, responsible for assigning financial strength ratings to banks and savings and loan institutions. Mr. van Doorn previously served as a loan operations officer at Riverside National Bank in Fort Pierce, Fla., and as a credit analyst at the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, where he monitored banks in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Mr. van Doorn has additional experience in the mutual fund and computer software industries. He holds a bachelor of science in business administration from Long Island University.

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