Obama's Syria Dilemma

Sending a tough message to Assad while reassuring Americans and the world that the war won't be long will be tough.

The debate on the effectiveness of what appears to be an imminent strike on Syria by a U.S.-led coalition has centered on two opposite policy positions. Some observers have argued that a limited missile strike against the Assad regime’s command and control assets would be insufficient to change Assad’s calculus and deter future uses of chemical weapons; therefore, a more robust intervention would be necessary to achieve these strategic objectives and preserve American credibility. Others, however, have voiced concern that even a limited missile strike would represent a first step down an inevitable slippery slope, leading to a more costly and prolonged intervention in Syria.

These contrasting positions get at the root of President Obama’s dilemma. On the one hand, Obama needs to send a strong signal to the Assad regime to change its behavior. On the other hand, the President must reassure the American people and international audiences that the use of force would be limited in scale and scope.

However, what this debate fails to appreciate are the deep interconnections between the different kinds of risks associated with the prospective intervention. Coercion theory sheds important light on this. Coercion is the actual or threatened use of force aimed at changing an adversary’s behavior. Successful coercion has two basic requirements. First, the target of coercion must believe that the prospective pain inflicted on it will outweigh the benefits of continued defiance. In other words, the target must know that it would be made to pay an unacceptable price for failing to comply. Second, and often ignored, the target must be reassured that compliance will end or prevent the punishment. If the adversary believes that punishment is inevitable regardless of its behavior, then there is no incentive to comply.

Also important in this context is the American political audience. President Obama’s goal is not only to send a message to Assad, but also to assuage the concerns of a war-weary American public that the intervention would not lead to further U.S. entanglements in the Middle East. Domestic political considerations are relevant to coercion because they affect the adversary’s perception of the probability that a given threat will be carried out. Obama’s statements about the limited nature of the intervention may lead Assad to doubt the willingness of the United States to inflict sufficient damage, thus convincing him to stand firm.

The problem is that all of these concerns produce conflicting imperatives. Obama, to put it figuratively, faces the classic problem of a short blanket. Pulling the blanket in either direction threatens to expose one of his weaknesses. A strong emphasis on pain to come for the Assad regime may overshadow the message that punishment is conditional on behavior, thus reducing the probability of Syrian compliance and alarming the U.S. domestic public. One does not need to plumb the depths of history to identify relevant examples. Qaddafi failed to give in to Western demands in the lead-up to the 2011 NATO intervention in part because the Obama administration’s talk about regime change likely convinced him that he would be deposed regardless of his behavior toward Libya’s civilian population.

Conversely, Obama’s efforts to reassure multiple audiences about the limited nature of intervention may make Assad confident that he can ride out the missile strikes, leading to coercion failure. Arguably, an important reason for Milosevic’s decision not to comply with NATO’s initial demands in 1999 was his belief, based on NATO statements, that the intervention would be limited in duration and intensity. As a result, NATO was forced to escalate its bombing campaign up to the point where the deployment of ground troops in Kosovo became a concrete possibility.

These tensions are inherent in any attempt at coercion and are hardly escapable. Nonetheless, policymakers need to fully understand the competing requirements of coercion to avoid blunders in one direction or another. Only this way can policymakers hope to strike the right balance, which is necessary to make the use of force a morally acceptable means to legitimate political ends.

Costantino Pischedda is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University. His dissertation focuses on civil war alliances.

Erica D. Borghard is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University. Her dissertation concerns proxy warfare and the conditions under which allies are drawn into foreign policy misadventures.

Images: Flickr/stanhua. CC BY 2.0.