Unleash the dogs? Considerations about US action in Syria


As of this post being written, the Obama Administration has not yet given authorization to push the buttons, turn the keys, or light any comically long fuses required to launch strikes on Bashir Al-Assad’s regime in Syria. A last minute play to include Congress in the process means that it is unlikely to see strikes begin until after Congress comes back in session on September 9th. However it seems that, in this town at least, it’s a forgone conclusion that it’s not if Tomahawk (TLAM) missiles start dropping on Syrian bunkers, but when. As recently as last weekend, the National Security Council discussion vis-a-vis a response to chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria was solely focused on what type of military intervention should take place. With the administration set on acting (barring any Congressional inaction), and spending time gauging the appropriate amount of force to use, debate has broken out across the foreign policy landscape. This is my addition to the debate, an argument against intervening in the Syria Civil War. There are really three broad questions to ask.

1. Do you intervene in the first place?

First, do you intervene in the first place? Intervention has been wholly off the table for the lion’s share of the Syrian Civil War. Only the specter of CWs was enough of a catalyst to get a serious conversation going among world powers, and only somewhat substantiated evidence of their use was enough to turn that conversation towards courses of action. Now that the international norm against CW use is threatened, international powers are alarmed. However, moving forward with intervention (especially unilaterally) brings one face to face with significant irony: to uphold an international norm, one must disregard international law. There is no chance of the Security Council authorizing action, and NATO does not seem interested in giving the green light either. Yet that does not seem to have deterred President Obama and his administration as of yet. This president and his administration prize collective security and international “rules-based-orders”. Certainly members of the National Security Council would prefer to get a UN Security Council resolution in place. Yet by moving forward with a strike against Syria, they could provide modern precedent for other countries to carry out their own interventions, without international authorization. It’s at least plausible to see how rival countries could cite US unilateral intervention as a legitimate precedent for their own actions in the future.

2. What goals do you want accomplished by the intervention?

Suppose that we are past that stage, the decision has been made, for whatever reasons they may be–humanitarian, norms-based, or for a domestic constituency. What goals do you want accomplished by the intervention? At this point, it seems that the Obama administration is looking to “send a message” to Assad. (I guess they don’t have his instagram handle on file?) In a telling quote, an unnamed US official was quoted as saying the goal of the strikes was to be  “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” If true, that is a shameful goal to advance, let alone admit to in public. The quote ends, “They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic.” A message via cruise missile certainly won’t cripple Assad’s physical capacity to launch CW attacks in the future, it can only potentially dissuade him from choosing that path again. Yet why would a salvo of missiles really convince him to comply? It’s clear that the US will not put boots on the ground and has stated it is not interested in regime change at this point. If the end goal of a limited strike is to tell the pundits that “something” was done, I find that to be a callous and shallow use of American power that will likely not be any more effective than the 1998 strikes in Iraq or Sudan or even the 1986 strikes in Libya. The lack of clear goals to be accomplished is all the more concerning when new research showing that interventions (even well planned ones) don’t really work that well after all.

3. If you do intervene, what does it look like?

But say that we are past that stage too, and that a message shall be sent, by God! If you do intervene, what does it look like? First off, it’s increasingly apparent that any strike will be unilateral. After much hullabaloo, the Brits took their case to Parliament where a measure to authorize the use of military force was defeated, albeit narrowly. Second, US action has been telegraphing its intentions so clearly that Assad is already redeploying forces to increase survivability. Third, due to the American public having precious little appetite for the deaths of more servicemen and women abroad, all strikes will be done with stand-off munitions like TLAMs. However, far too much faith is being put in what TLAMs can accomplish, even according to the man who designed the campaign. Chris Harmer, of the Institute for the Study of War, claims “tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive,” and “I never intended my analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that.” Beyond the failure of these types of strikes to produce intended strategic effects, the true cost of their use must also be taken into account. Many have compared this proposed strike to be similar to the Kosovo intervention – but fail to bring up the 1,200 civilians killed by NATO bombs.

Obama’s likely choice of limited missile strikes occupies a middle ground between non-action and a full-fledged no-fly zone. There is a defensible argument for either of those options. However, I do not see value in even considering a limited, unilateral, “message-sending” strike that will have no strategic effect. Miller said it best in Foreign Policy this week “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” We’ve seen two years of a negligibly-coherent strategy formed towards Syria (and the Middle East writ large), so a half-baked intervention plan is not unexpected, although it is disheartening.

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One thought on “Unleash the dogs? Considerations about US action in Syria

  1. Laura J. McCarthy says:

    Well stated, Brian. I often wonder if Obama already knows all this, but he’s afraid to look anything less than puffed up with rage. It’s as if this is all about our immediate show of power and dominance rather than coming up with a well thought out strategy to work through the underlying issues and future implications. It is heartening to see that the younger generation “gets it” and Obama would do well to put the old ways aside and listen to these voices of reason.


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