The attack America deserves, but not the attack Syria needs

August 29, 2013

Tonight or tomorrow, the United States will likely begin firing cruise missiles at targets in Syria.

This will come as no surprise as the the White House loudly leaked this course of action as early as Monday.*  As a consequence, the Syrian regime has plenty of time to evacuate personnel and equipment from expected targets.  Last night, President Obama insisted that he had not made a decision about launching attacks, but said that goal of such an attack would be to enforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons without getting “drawn into” the Syrian civil war.

Indeed, there is an interests-based case for a military attack on Syria in light of the regime’s multiple chemical attacks on civilians.  This was a flagrant violation of international norms that the United States should enforce so that future powers do not feel unencumbered by them in a future war with America or her allies.   Having failed to deter the Assad regime with a stated “red line,” an U.S. military attack should be aimed at compelling the regime to stop using chemical weapons.  Compellence can only be successful if the U.S. imposes costs that outweigh any benefits the regime believes it accrues by using chemical weapons.  But we do not know what those perceived benefits are.

The Syrian military has been effectively killing thousands of civilians with more conventional means – artillery, airstrikes, tanks, and bullets. It does not need chemical weapons to inflict more casualties.  So what explains their usage?

Are the regime’s perceived benefits in the international sphere? Perhaps the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies wanted to take a giant leap over President Obama’s red line in order to flaunt American irresolution and impotence. In this case, an American military attack would need to be of sufficient scope to demonstrate American resolve and intolerance of the use of chemical weapons.  Or were the regime’s perceived benefits closer to home? It is conceivable that the Syrian regime hoped these weapons would spread more terror through the rebel ranks and their civilian supporters.  In this case, the ideal American military response would foster even greater terror among the Syrian regime, the Syrian military, and its support base.  Or was this all a big mistake? Maybe a Syrian Army commander thought his position would be overrun and, in a panic, ordered the use of chemical weapons without authorization from a higher link in the chain of command.  If this was the case, then the purpose of a military attack would be to communicate that such a mistake cannot happen again.

But we do not really know why these weapons were used. In the words of one intelligence official, “We don’t know exactly why it happened. We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.”  So can a military attack cover all these bases and compel Assad to cease using chemical weapons no matter what his reasoning was? Yes, but it has to be large – much larger than what U.S. and allied military forces seem to be planning.

If President Obama is serious about “sending a message” to Assad, he should order the U.S. military to destroy every remaining airstrip in Assad-held territory that is large enough for military planes.  This would have the effect of crippling Assad’s air force without having to destroy every airframe and it would deny Assad the Iranian air logistics chain that has kept the regime alive.  The President should also order the U.S. military to target the three largest Syrian military bases.  Such an attack could still be conducted from a distance with cruise missiles. And it hits Assad where it hurts without getting the U.S. involved in a civil war that will go on for some time.

Imposing these costs would outweigh any benefits Assad believes that chemical weapons provide.

Ryan Evans is the Editor-in-Chief of War on the Rocks and the Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest.

*I am still hoping against hope that these leaks were a deception operation against the Assad regime and that the President has actually ordered a much larger attack along the lines of what I recommend here.