There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons last week crossed all 50 shades of the “red line.” While prudence dictated restraint this past June, the repeated violation of international norms now may require a military response. The use of chemical weapons is one of the most insidious acts that can be undertaken in war and Secretary of State John Kerry has made clear that the Obama administration would hold Assad accountable for an inexcusable “moral obscenity” that “should shock the conscience of the world.” The international community must respond — and likely will respond — with overt military force against Damascus. But limited war, whether air strikes or something else, will bring about its own set of challenges.
As difficult a decision as it will be for Obama to raise the stakes with a military response, the real challenge may be more political than military. Pundits and some in the U.S. Congress have called for taking out Syrian air assets and creating humanitarian corridors, believing that this will magically solve the country’s broader problems. Likewise, the comparisons being made to Libya and Kosovo are misleading and misrepresent the political commitment required to ensure the success of these military actions.
Indeed, the White House faces a much more difficult task in seeking to prevent Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons. This is not about regime change but about behavioral change — deterring or preventing the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime — whatever the rationale for doing so. The operational challenge is to ensure that strikes are significant enough to destroy Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons without backing him into a corner where he feels he has no choice but to use them.
There are a few ways to cope with these challenges. First, the United States and its allies must be prepared to maintain political resolve beyond the immediate strikes. Deterring and denying the use of chemical weapons will not be accomplished with one sortie, but may require retaining a military option while continuing to arm selected opposition groups and push Assad to the bargaining table. Second, the United States and its allies must keep the gap between expectation and reality to a minimum. For the Syrians being killed, this conflict is also one for survival, and military strikes may falsely raise hopes for imminent regime change. Some will continue to blame Western leaders for not doing enough or blame them if Assad responds with even deadlier force against his own people.
Third, while the United States should act alone if it must, a strong coalition remains the preferred option. If NATO takes action as an alliance, it will have to be more than a coalition of the willing. The Alliance must send a unified message that it stands together. More importantly, the Arab League must reconsider its objections to the use of force to prevent such atrocities and, in the event of military action, should take part in operations with Western forces. Finally, the Arab League should step up pressure on Russia and China to provide political support for the operations or get out of the way. In the end, however, Vladimir Putin’s intransigence is an insufficient reason to keep from responding to such reprehensible crimes.
Moreover, no matter how well-planned the strikes are, even the best plans are unlikely to survive first contact with the enemy. There is no guarantee that anything beyond static targets can be completely destroyed. Likewise, it is almost completely certain that limited strikes will not destroy Assad’s ability to continue to murder his own people. Without a major military commitment — one that potentially includes ground forces — Assad will still retain the capability to terrorize population centers in Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus. Unfortunately, even if the United States and NATO desire just a limited war, it is already a total war for Assad, as he remains intent on personal and regime survival.
While a failure to address these issues should not necessarily stop the international community or a small coalition from acting, these considerations should guide leaders as they consider military options. A military response, if and when it happens, is but one limited engagement in the long-term effort at ending the war in Syria. Just as importantly, there must be realistic goals that are clearly articulated to the public and to the Syrian people. Only in the best of circumstances can limited war result in a quick political solution — and even the limited goal of deterring Assad’s continued chemical weapons may prove a hard proposition. For the Syrian people, for our own national interest, and for the betterment of the international community, it is likely time to take that risk.