It now appears that America’s entry into the Syrian civil war is inevitable. The crucial question now is not whether this is a good idea, but what our goals are and how our imminent use of force can best achieve them. The popular purpose proffered for the pending war is punishment—that is, to inflict harm on the Assad regime over its reprehensible chemical attack on its own people. On one hand, this is remarkably easy to achieve—the first measure of a successful punishment is that it is proportionate to the offense, so we merely need to inflict as much harm on Assad as we think is appropriate, and we have succeeded. On the other hand, punishment is a highly unusual goal for a war. Morally, it is unusual (and risky) that we are assuming the power to judge and mete out punishments to other states—this power is normally exercised by a sovereign authority, and it is an empirical fact that we do not exercise sovereignty over Syria. Strategically, it is unusual as war, per Clausewitz’s classic definition, normally aims to make the enemy do what you want. If our intent is to punish Syria, no action is required of the Syrian government besides “being punished”—we wage war against it as an object, and do not ask anything of it in return. A war like that would not even be strategic.
So the goal is really more complicated—we aim to prevent as much as we aim to punish. By harming the Syrians, we hope that other states will hesitate to use chemical weapons. And we hope that the Syrians won’t use chemical weapons yet again. The former goal requires that our attack be brutal and effective enough that others would fear it. It’ll be hard to do that with the three days of cruise missiles that the Obama administration is hinting at.
But the latter goal is far harder. The Syrian government uses chemical weapons because the rebels threaten its survival. The United States needs to create a comparable threat if it wants Assad to think twice. Yet for now we aren’t attempting regime change, and a three-day war probably won’t give the rebels a decisive advantage. (Indeed, one anonymous official told the Los Angeles Times that the attack would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.... just enough to be more than symbolic.”) Assad has already lost half his country—we’d have to endanger a lot to hold his attention, and few in America want a war big enough to do that, or even want a war at all.
All is not lost. There are other ways to create near-existential fear. As Lincoln Bloomfield has pointed out, the Alawite elite that stands behind Assad has suffered relatively little, especially in its coastal homeland. Attacks there might have little significance to the broader civil war, but could reshape the internal discussion and create support for a negotiated settlement—America’s broader goal in Syria. Our expectations must be bounded, though. The Alawites rightly fear that an Assad defeat would see them driven, with savage violence, into a pathetic rump state behind the coastal mountains. It’ll take a lot to convince them to negotiate—a lot of force and a lot of confidence in their own diplomacy. But attacking them in their homeland offers a key advantage: compared to many other options, it is less likely to turn the tide of the war in favor of, say, Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebels, but more likely to alter Assad’s calculations.