Will this be the Straw that Break the Back of Non-Intervention in Syria?

21 August 2013, 1316 EDT

There are gruesome reports out of Syria today of a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus. If they are accurate, the chemical weapons inflicted mass civilian causalities. As David Kenner reports at Foreign Policy:

The information coming out of the Ghouta region, where the rebels enjoy significant support, is still unconfirmed by independent observers. But videos allegedly taken Wednesday in the area showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack (warning: the footage above is graphic). Syrian state media denied that chemical weapons had been used, attributing such stories to media channels that “are involved in the shedding of the Syrians’ blood and supporting terrorism.”

The opposition Local Coordination Committee, however, reported that at least 755 people had been killed in the attack. If that figure is true, what is happening on the outskirts of Damascus today is the worst chemical weapons attack since then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.

The pro-rebel website, The Revolting Syria collects videos that, frankly, I had to stop watching. If this is propaganda, then it is incredibly effective propaganda.

Assuming the veracity of these reports, will it prompt a consequential US intervention? My gut reaction, is no.

  1. Intervention remains, from a domestic political perspective, high-risk and low-reward. The dysfunction in Washington makes it rather difficult for the administration to get political cover from the opposition. With the Republicans threatening to inflict an economic crisis over fiscal policy, the effects of the sequester, and the spiraling revelations over the NSA, the politicos in the White House have plenty of reasons to argue against such a step.
  2. There is no significant political faction agitating for intervention. In the 1990s, Clinton worried about Dole flanking him on intervention. Right now, the GOP is too divided on foreign-policy issues to put the screws on.
  3. The chemical attacks change very little about relevant ‘facts on the ground’ that have so far led to little appetite for intervention, nor that have inclined Russia to block UN sanction for action.

On the other hand:

  1. There is interesting polling data that suggests widespread dissemination of this kind of information might shift public opinion on the subject.
  2. It is possible that White House operatives will embrace the “diversionary theory of war” and conclude that acting in Syria will strengthen the President’s hand with the GOP.
  3. Each episode like this may make it harder for Moscow to dissemble on the chemical-weapons front [update: nope], and it is vaguely possible that the Snowden affair has changed Putin’s political calculus.
  4. Public proof of such attacks might be sufficient to trigger “discursive entrapment” for Obama and his team and lead them to conclude that they must hew to their statements.

As Daniel Drezner would say, what do you think?

[Update: in comments, Cheryl Rofer points to her own post on the subject, which she is keeping updated.]