It now appears increasingly likely that some coalition of Western states will launch military strikes in Syria in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Editorials and short analyses are almost universal in underlining the difficulties the Obama administration and other governments face. Answers to key questions remain vague or inarticulate—what is the ultimate objective? How is the use of force linked to one or more objectives? What kinds of force will be used, and against what targets? What are the consequences of the attack, and how will Sria and the international community respond?
These questions highlight the inconsistency of the West's desires—a peaceful, stable Middle East, the end to the slaughter of civilians in Syria, an overthrow of an Assad regime that has violated international norms—and its inability to assure those outcomes. Simply put, the more ambitious the preferred outcome, the greater the resources that must be applied to achieve it. This creates a fundamental dissonance—the Obama administration seeks to reduce U.S. military activity overseas, and both Europe and the U.S. continue to struggle with faltering domestic economic growth. The appetite for major military commitments necessary to achieve ambitious goals, or even for initial military commitments for ambiguous goals that might escalate significantly, is very low.
At the same time, pressure for a strike is mounting for political reasons—both because of domestic politics in the democracies and because of the statements of Western leaders and the perceived costs of inaction to Western reputation. Assad HAS crossed a red line—his forces have used chemical weapons. There is a desire to deter future use, to punish those responsible, and to demonstrate that the international community will not simply stand by (as it did when Iraq used chemical weapons against its Kurdish population in 1988) and watch similar violations happen.
The ugly mismatch between ambiguous or highly aspirational ends and the rather limited means the West is likely to use is now a target of zealous criticism. Matching limited means to very expansive ends appears to most analysts to be a recipe for in effectiveness. Comparisons with the "Desert Fox" strike against Iraq in 1998 are common. The litany of "what do we do next?" Is both persistent and quite reasonable.
The answer might lie in trying to reduce our objectives, and make them more consistent with our available or likely means. If air and cruise missile strikes, of limited duration, are the most likely option, how can we articulate objectives that would allow us to influence the situation on the ground in Syria, provide a means of assessing and demonstrating effectiveness in a reasonable time, AND be consonant with previously articulated policy preferences and concerns?
There is an opportunity here. The primary rationale for a strike at this time is to deter chemical weapons use. Our intelligence about the strike itself, about who ordered it, and about Syrian command and control and military practice is limited. Public reports have stated that there was a frantic after-the-fact phone call from the Ministry of Defence to the units that launched the strike, and that unit has been identified as the Syrian 4th Armored Division. This provides an opportunity to deter future use—not so much by affecting Assad's mind set (he is, after all, a desperate dictator likely to use any means to stay in power), but rather by affecting the minds of those who might be authorized or inclined to use chemical weapons in the future.
Focus strikes on the 4th Armored Division. Make it clear that the unit is being punished for violating the norm against chemical weapons use. Destroy the headquarters, eliminate as much of the unit as possible, and make the message clear—units which resort to chemical weapon use will face a similar response in the future.
In addition to the military response, however, the West should use the other formidable tools at its disposal to publicly identify and punish the officers in the unit. Put their faces on Facebook and other social-networking sites. Identify them publicly, charge them with war crimes, and retaliate very specifically against their families as well. If they have foreign bank accounts, impound them. If their children study overseas, send them home to Syria. Deny them visas and travel permits and entry into foreign countries, or arrest them and send them home ignominiously and with great publicity.
Deterrence takes place at more than one level. We may have trouble, at acceptable cost, of assuring that Assad and his key cronies will recognize that chemical weapons use will end their regime. It may be easier, however, to convince the generals in the field that the use of chemical weapons will result in a swift, devastating, and personally destructive response. This certainly could be a powerful deterrent if generals are already authorized to use the weapons independently—they will know there will be costs to their forces, their lives, their reputations, and their families. It may even provide sufficient incentive, if the Assad regime chooses to escalate chemical-weapons use, to ignore or misplace an order, and thereby limit chemical weapons use from below, rather than from above.
At a minimum, stating that the objective of the attacks is to deter by punishment aimed specifically at the unit that launched the attack will make matching ends and means easier. It allows metrics for success, use of multiple tools of policy to facilitate effects, and a rationale for both limiting and ending the campaign in ways of the West's choosing. It also, however, allows the West to fit a limited campaign into its existing conceptual preferences. The strikes will support norms against chemical-weapons use and civilian slaughter. They can be portrayed as punishment for the guilty, rather than an assault on Syrian sovereignty. Strikes can be limited to legitimate targets, and to a small enough target set that others may not feel obligated to escalate in response (Iran). And they will support norms that are important to the international community without having to develop a time-consuming and unlikely UN consensus.
So if we are going to develop a military response, let it be limited in scope, for publicly limited aims, in support of broader policy preferences. Deterrence can be enhanced by attacking those who actually use the weapons. Make it clear, both through devastating military strikes and by a broader campaign of publicity and ostracization, that those who authorize and use the weapons will be considered equally guilty, that they and their families will be treated as abetting war crimes, and that "just obeying orders" is an even more odious excuse today than it was when the Nazi regime committed itself to genocide as a national policy.
Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are his own, and not those of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or any other element of the U.S. Government.