Harvard Affiliates Discuss Syria

As Congress prepares to vote on whether or not to take action against Syria, Harvard affiliates warn that given how strongly the Obama administration has endorsed a military strike, the United States risks losing credibility on the international stage if it does not act.

“There is a risk, if we don’t strike, that our credibility as a leader in this role will have decreased significantly,” said Tad J. Oelstrom, director of the National Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“A lot of that has to do with the fact that a red line has been drawn,” he added, referencing comments made by President Barack Obama regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

E. Roger Owen, a professor of Middle Eastern history, said that if the Obama administration were to deliberately strike Syria, such an action would be perceived as equivalent to declaring war.

However, Owen warned that “Obama will be perceived of as very weak if he doesn’t do something.”


“There is absolutely no point talking about red lines if, when people cross red lines, nothing happens to them,” he said.

Oelstrom said that intervening in Syria would not bring the civil war closer to an end.

“My own personal opinion is that [potential intervention] is not going to do a whole lot to change the complexity of the ongoing civil war within Syria,” he said.

He also said a strike would trigger strong reactions of both opposition and support from the international community.

Owen warned that military action against Syria could lead to indirect retaliation against American forces.

“If it’s a serious strike against military facilities, they won’t be able to do anything against the United States directly,” he said.

“But they will instruct Hezbollah and the Iranians probably to try to attack some American targets in the gulf.”

Oelstrom said that the key variable in Obama’s course of action is Congressional approval.

“If indeed the Congress supports [action], then I think there is a direct commitment by the President to carry out a limited action that has been described in some ways to date,” he said. “If indeed Congress does not approve [the] use of force, I think that the President now has a real problem.”

—Staff Writer Francesca Annicchiarico can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @FRAnnicchiarico.

—Staff Writer John P. Finnegan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @finneganspake.