So the No. 1 objective of a U.S. air campaign against Syria would be the seemingly limited one of deterring or preventing Assad’s regime from using chemical weapons again. However, Obama’s top generals and intelligence officers would likely tell him that they can’t do much to fulfill this mission. They probably don’t know where the remaining chemical stockpile is located, so they wouldn’t be able to destroy it. And the notion of using military force to deter some future action is a bit vague: It’s unclear whether it would have any effect on Assad. Obama would also have to specify the additional damage he’d inflict if Assad ignored the message, and he’d have to be reasonably sure ahead of time that that damage would be enough to deter him from taking the dare.
A more extravagant, but possibly more feasible, target of an air strike might be Assad’s regime itself—with the objective of destroying it or at least severely weakening it.
In an Aug. 5 letter to Congress, made public just this past week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a comment pertinent to this point. He said that if Assad’s regime were to topple, none of the myriad Syrian rebel factions are currently in a position to fill the power vacuum. Nor, if any of these factions did come to power, do they seem inclined to promote U.S. interests. For that reason, he expressed skepticism about the good of taking the side of a particular rebel faction or, presumably, sending its fighters more arms.
However, Dempsey also said in this letter that U.S. military intervention could tip the balance against Assad in the Syrian civil war—by, among other things, destroying his military assets and infrastructure as well as reducing the flow of arms from Iran, Russia, and others.
President Obama seemed on the same page when he said, during an interview aired this weekend on CNN, that while the Syrian situation is “troublesome,” his job as president is “to think through what we do from the perspective of … national interests.” He added, “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
But Obama also said that if the evidence clearly shows that Assad has used chemical weapons “on a large scale,” that would “start getting to some core national interests … in terms of … making sure that weapons or mass destruction are not proliferating as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”
This marked the first time that Obama has mentioned “core national interests” in the context of Syria. It may signal rising pressures to do something—and, again, Kosovo, where Clinton switched his views on intervention dramatically, serves as an intriguing parallel.
In his letter, Gen. Dempsey wrote, “We can destroy the Syrian air force” but he also warned that doing so could “escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict.”
That would be the risk, and it’s the sort of risk that Obama is generally inclined to avoid. There have been some exceptions, most notably in Libya, where he concluded that the important thing was to get rid of Qaddafi and to let those on the ground—aided to some extent by the United States but more by allies with bigger stakes in the region—settle the aftermath.
This may be the position he takes in Syria, in consultation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other interested parties, which would play some role along with the NATO command. If he decides to use force, it’s the only position he could reasonably take. Given the threat, the humanitarian crisis, America’s standing in the region, and the importance of preserving international norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction, the best option might be to destroy huge chunks of the Syrian military, throw Assad’s regime off balance, and let those on the ground settle the aftermath. Maybe this would finally compel Assad to negotiate seriously; maybe it would compel the Russians to backpedal on their support (as NATO’s campaign in Kosovo compelled them to soften their support for Milosevic). Or maybe it would just sire chaos and violence. But there’s plenty of both now, and there might be less—a road to some sort of settlement might be easier to plow—if Assad were severely weakened or no longer around.