Should America Use Force to Stop Assad from Demolishing Ghouta?
How would Moscow and Tehran react if United States attacked the very proxy they have armed and supported over the past seven years? What would their response be if a U.S. airstrike killed Russian and Iranian troops? Would Assad simply stop bombing civilians after the initial strike, or would he call America’s bluff, betting that U.S public support for more strikes will prevent Trump from proceeding? How far, in other words, is Washington prepared to go?
How can the United States be sure moderates rather than extremist rebel groups would benefit from a weakened Syrian army? Is the Trump administration willing to back Bashar al-Assad into a corner like a caged lion and risk the dictator unleashing the rest of his sarin nerve gas on civilians? Would Vladimir Putin use a U.S. strike as an excuse to escalate himself, perhaps by flying in more Russian aircraft to compensate for the Syrian planes that were lost? Is it possible Moscow would respond in a different theater, perhaps by increasing the conflict in Eastern Ukraine or by testing NATO’s eastern defenses in the Baltics? Maybe more cyberattacks on the American political system would be an option—it is, after all, an election year.
How many civilians would die in a hypothetical U.S. operation? Wouldn’t civilian deaths provide the regime with the propaganda it was looking for? And even if Moscow and Tehran did blink and were scared into making credible offers at the negotiating table in Geneva, do Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamemei have the power to coerce Bashar al-Assad into accepting a diplomatic resolution? What if Assad declines to compromise and, with nothing to lose, chooses to fight it out to the last man. How many Syrians would die then?
Advocates of the 1995 Bosnia scenario would be quick to dismiss all of this as an excuse to do nothing. But the Slobodan Milosevic is not Bashar al-Assad, and Serbia of 1995 is not Syria of 2017; the former was a crackpot dictator with no foreign-military support, while the latter is a crackpot dictator who has Russia, Iran, chemical weapons, and tens of thousands of hardened Shia militia fighters on his side. Twenty-three years ago, Washington was the center of gravity with no serious geopolitical competition. Today, the United States operates in an increasingly multipolar world, a country that has gone through the regime-change business before with nothing to show for it except tens of thousands of American casualties and a national debt that would make even the impulsive shopper blush.
In the 1990s, an American president could order a military operation and be comfortable that the blowback would be manageable. Today, after sixteen years of making one foreign-policy mistake after another, the commander-in-chief cannot afford to ignore the hard questions and let emotions dictate when to take the country to war. As terrible as the images in Syria are—and they are terrible—the United States needs to think long and hard before setting itself on a mission that could very quickly descend into a military entanglement.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.