“…And though your inclinations my words would be powerless, should I advise you to keep what you have, and not expose your present possessions to danger for things which are uncertain and future; yet that neither are you timely in your haste, nor the objects of your ambition easy to attain, on these points I will give you instruction.”
-Nicias to the Athenian Assembly, as recorded by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian Wars
The recent question of American (to say nothing of multinational) involvement in the Syrian Conflict has provoked a mass of public comment and now is being debated in Congress. President Obama reserves the executive right to order limited military action without the approval of the legislature, but has expressed a desire to seek Congressional approval. At stake is the President’s reputation and the reputation of the United States as an guarantor of global security, especially now that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Conflict has now been universally acknowledged. However, as the incident remains contested, President Obama, and Congress if they choose to support military action, now must choose what the objective in Syria is going to be.
In terms of justification, the Administration may either follow on with the pre-Ghouta rhetoric about the desire to support the Free Syrian Army in opposition to the Assad Regime, or it may follow the recent desire to act in order to punish and discourage the further the use of chemical weapons, which the Administration has claimed were deployed by Assad’s forces. This latter course, while sharing an-anti Assad element, is a limited action not intended to seek a conclusion to the conflict, according to the statements released by the Administration last week and presented to the Congress by Secretaries Hagel and Kerry. The previous course has never manifested in more than limited logistical and moral support, though increases in the scale and expansions in the dimension of this support were being discussed before the August recess and being tentatively championed by the White House. Direct military action in support of the opposition is not currently being discussed by the administration, and support for direct intervention of any kind remains low both in the Congress and amongst the American public.
Our intervention’s parameters are extremely important in determining if a direct action will be seen as viable, and deemed either a success or a failure. If the idea is to remain out of the conflict between the two sides (though we openly support the FSA), and hit in such a way as to keep Assad from attacking his own people with chemical weapons, then it will be necessary to act with sufficient force to determine a favorable outcome, similar to American airstrikes in Kosovo in 1998. It will be, however, a very limited strike by the admission of the Adminstration, and it cannot involve the deployment of US ground troops, which would be beyond political suicide in a country deeply opposed and schooled (by the current Administration) to distrust such commitments. While the US military appears more than capable of performing this task, the result of limited action is not only uncertain as a deterrent, but it may in fact further draw the United States into deeper involvement in what may already be in some sense a proxy war with the Shi’a governments and insurgencies that oppose the United States (Iran and Hizbollah). This already complicates the picture, even if we are committed to a targeted bombing campaign without intention of aiding the FSA.
The current and fairly un-broachable division in the legislature guarantees that congressional approval will either be unattainable or drag on for such a time as to thoroughly muddy the waters and undermine our capability to strike with sudden intensity and over-awe our opponents. We also risk by delay a further consolidation of Assad’s allies, Iran and Russia, in their active support in the form of weapons systems and military assistance, to say nothing of their guarantees of heightened intervention should the United States attack Government facilities or assets. The dynamic of this conflict could also spread to include many of the States of the Middle East (many of whom are directly or indirectly involved already to varying degrees), and at worst this ulcer of violence could further destabilize regional balances and engulf neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. So already we are in a position where inertia seems to be the easiest and overreaching policy.
But the fact remains that the chemical attack on the people of Ghouta is a crime which the Administration and the United States has long held to be within our right to judge and punish. The President risks much to his reputation if he doesn’t act, and much if he does. The country by proxy will lose much in our diplomatic standing if we back down from an authoritarian government, and possibly risk the dissemination of chemical weapons into the hands of anti-American interests. However, in an age when Americans innately distrust foreign interventions in the name of what are, by another name, Weapons of Mass Destruction (“It’s a slam dunk, Mr. President” being words that echo in the popular conscious), this plan seems unwise and admittedly knee-jerk for those who have been monitoring a conflict now well into its third year. The unwelcome news of the presence of Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra fighters in the ranks of the FSA also does nothing to convince Americans of the wisdom of intervening against the enemies of Sunni extremists. In light of this some may feel, in the words of Sarah Palin, spokesperson for the consciousness of the lower-denominator and the isolationists: “Let Allah sort it out”.
It is therefore important that any decision the Congress or Administration makes faces the facts. If our position is to simply strike back to discourage further deployment of chemical weapons, the time is swiftly ticking away. Granted the time it took to accurately determine the facts of the Ghouta attack, the Administration’s response would have had more weight if it had been swift and decisive within a far shorter time span. At this point the delay has given time for the backers of Assad to prepare their case and strengthen their resolve to oppose, perhaps violently, any attempted police action on the part of the United States. Furthemore, some military personnel, experts at RAND, and other think-tanks and strategic agencies have highlighted some potential limitations of the targeted strike against chemical weapons capabilities, which, if guided by faulty or unreliable intelligence, may have little to no effect on Assad’s ability to deploy these weapons and be a costly but fruitless exercise which might even prompt the regime to deploy further weaponry. Discussions of a longer operational strike (currently being floated about) may cover opportunities to strike major Assad positions that may have little to nothing to do with chemical weapons as an attempt to indirectly aid the Syrian Opposition. This may be one way to actively cripple Assad’s chemical weaponry and also his chances of victory, but this is outside the parameters of the Administration’s stated objective. We also must not underestimate the desperation of the struggle, currently bogged down in stalemate, and understand that our intervention will very likely increase the scale of violence by conventional weapons even if it destroys the chemical weapon capability of the Assad regime.
Further action may be taken this week, and as soon as Monday President Obama will make the case to the public for that action. Until then, it is wise to consider that although the operation is very clearly something that in many ways ought to be done if it can be carried out with accuracy and overwhelming force, it has the potential to further bloody an already bloody area for a result that many have argued is unrealistic or impractical. The unfactored cost in terms of dollars in our already debt-ridden government is also another factor to consider (but I hope to address this question on the whole and in more detail in future posts).