Second-year MA candidate at SAIS Washington
The American knee-jerk reaction, the desire to do something in the face of a chemical weapons atrocity in Syria is understandable and arguably part of being human.
But action is not inherently good; it has to be justified by its goals and ability to achieve them. And the US’ competing objectives in Syria have created an operation that will muddle the situation further.
On the one hand, the US has taken an approach towards Assad’s use of chemical weapons that attempts to protect international norms. Obama’s explicit objective is “to prevent or deter the use or proliferation of chemical or biological weapons within, to or from Syria.” President Obama and Secretary Kerry have repeatedly invoked international norms against the use of WMDs, such as the Geneva Convention, to justify the strikes to Congress.
However, this stance flies in the face of America’s realist stance towards the conflict as a whole. Despite many public statements, the US has not delivered its promised military aid to anti-Assad forces. Washington has let the increasingly radicalized Sunnis of the opposition fight Hezbollah and the Iran-allied government troops on their own. For the US to gain, the opposition does not have to win — just not lose.
General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ruled out using strikes to actually weaken the Damascus regime, due to the potential new threats that could emerge from post-Assad Syria.
The tension between the sides limits our strategic options. If we pursue limited strikes that lead to the total collapse of Assad, the security situation will not improve.
Chemical weapons will not disappear if the Assad regime falls; they become available to whichever group finds them first. And the presence of Jabhat al-Nursa and other foreign fighters in the region leaves many people in a post-Assad Syria about whom to be concerned. Securing these weapons in a political vacuum would require boots on the ground – something few in the West want.
That being said, the situation is also unlikely to improve if limited strikes fail to degrade Assad’s capabilities. Syria’s government has already demonstrated a willingness to cross red lines to demonstrate its strength, as was seen by its decision to use chemical weapons in the first place. Damascus will face major incentives to prove its resolve against the West, either through large attacks on opposition-held regions or expanded use of chemical weapons.
The US does not have the diplomatic capital to stop these attacks now, and striking Assad’s bases worsens those prospects. If anything, Iran and Russia will have an easier time justifying its support against Western “regime change.”
None of this is to say that punishing Syria will not have symbolic value in future wars. But symbols do little now, and if they create the illusion that the country is “fixed,” then the West has tied itself to a policy that will hurt it later.