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.
A second option is to directly target those involved in the chemical attacks, and other members of the security elite. There’s some evidence that Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, commanded the recent atrocities. As head of a Syrian military unit, he’s a perfectly legitimate target in war. Yet individuals are notoriously hard to target, so while an attempt on his life should be made, other actions will be necessary. The units implicated in the chemical attacks should be struck viciously and without mercy. This fits the war’s punitive rhetoric, and could give pause to those ordered to carry out future chemical attacks. Such an attack will be difficult to carry out by cruise missile—ground-attack aircraft, supported by live intelligence from JSTARS and drone aircraft, would be more effective. (And surrounded by other Syrian divisions, the targeted units wouldn’t even be able to surrender, Iraqi Army-style, to their aerial attackers.)
Destroying Assad’s air defenses is worth serious consideration, as the three-day war probably won’t achieve its goal. We’ll most likely have to go back. Leaving Assad more vulnerable to a broader follow-up attack, this time by aircraft, will amplify whatever message we manage to send by making that follow-up attack easier and cheaper for us. On the other hand, it is unwise at this stage to destroy Assad’s air force. This is counterintuitive, given how important the air force is to his regime’s survival. But if our goal is to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons again, destroying his primary alternative to chemical weapons would be foolish. Further, leaving a fair share of his air force intact leaves him with something to lose—again amplifying our message. (Of course, if follow-up attacks do become necessary, much of the air force would have to be destroyed for the safety of our own pilots.)
In spite of all this, we cannot escape that Assad enjoys strategic advantages. We’ve signaled that we (rightly) aren’t willing to become deeply involved in Syria’s war. Assad, with his back to the wall, has a vastly greater pain tolerance than us. He can also attempt to use the war to his advantage—for example, by launching new chemical attacks in rebel-held areas he’s wanted to hit, and then announcing that the American campaign had caused their accidental release. He won’t want to provoke the United States too much (a broader war is still bad for him), but he’ll have many ways to retaliate through proxies and asymmetric methods (terrorism, etc.). This will inflict pain on us and our allies, but it will be harder for us to respond to than a naked Syrian attack.
Iran holds the strongest hand of all in this conflict. A U.S. entanglement in Syria couldn’t be better for Tehran. No matter how deeply involved we become, we’re unlikely to achieve outright victory. And the more deeply involved we become, the less power (military and diplomatic) we’ll have to wield against Iran. Israel will be left essentially alone in its stand against the Islamic Republic’s advancing nuclear program. Tying up America for even a year or two could be decisive, giving Iran enough time to develop a robust nuclear breakout capability, a capability that would leave it much less vulnerable to the United States—and especially to a United States left even more war-weary than it is now. Accordingly, we must be on guard for Iranian actions in and near Syria that aim to lure us deeper and keep us around for more than the White House’s scheduled three days of conflict.
The complexities of the situation and the numerous unfavorable dynamics mean that the Weekend War probably won’t achieve its goals, and may expose us to new dangers. Yet if we’re going to do this, we should do it right.
Image: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson. CC BY 2.0.