To hold them truly accountable, to make sure they don’t use chemical weapons again, Obama has to do serious damage to the things Assad and his regime (chiefly his generals) hold dear. He needs to destroy as much of the military’s infrastructure as possible—air bases, weapons depots, command-and-control facilities (which, let’s face it, is often a euphemism for the leaders in the command-and-control facilities): everything. This will be harder than it might have been a few days ago, since U.S. officials have told the New York Times that they plan to attack such targets, as a result of which the Syrian officers have probably dispersed their weapons and emptied their headquarters so that the cruise missiles striking an air base will wreck fewer planes and those striking headquarters will kill many fewer commanders. As a result, the attack may have to be more extensive.
Obama says he doesn’t want to tilt the playing field in Syria’s civil war, but one thing any attack has to do is weaken Assad’s grasp on his country—or at least on his military. Secretary of State John Kerry said in his speech today that one effect of an attack should be to spur a negotiated solution to the civil war. The only way that will happen is if Assad or his henchmen realize that they are isolated. Supplies from Russia or Iran have to be severed. (Repeated attacks on airfields can help do that). More important, Assad needs to pick up a signal from Vladimir Putin that Moscow is not coming to his rescue. (This is how, eventually, Slobodan Milošević was dethroned in Serbia.)
It’s a thin line that Obama has to walk: launching a strike that’s sufficiently devastating to make Assad or his supporters (at home or abroad) tremble, but not so destructive that it kills lots of civilians or leaves behind a socio-economic catastrophe, which no one is likely to clean up and which therefore is bound to intensify the civil war.
Given the fragility and uncertainties, it would be good if this didn’t look like a purely American (or Western) assault, if more nations—especially Syria’s neighbors—came in on this, even with merely vocal support. One virtue of allies is that they can put a check on military excesses. This can prolong an operation, but it can also give it more international legitimacy.
The U.S. military in particular is a conservative organization. Most generals do not want to intervene in foreign wars, especially foreign civil wars, mainly because they know that they wind up holding the bag if things go south. If they do get pushed into drawing up a war plan, they tend to go overboard. They present a variety of options, placing a low probability of success on those that strike only a few targets (“a shot across the bow”) and a moderate-to-high probability of success only on those that strike practically everything. The president needs to question those options and the assumptions behind the probabilities so he doesn’t go too light or too heavy.
One thing worth noting: This is not Iraq. Some believed that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. It is long known that Assad possesses them, and the evidence seems clear that he has used them with very deadly effect.
The first question is whether the rest of the world should do something about it. Obama’s case—that action is necessary to preserve the taboo against the use of chemical weapons—is the only case worth making, and I think the case is strong.
The second question, though, is whether the United States and maybe one or two other countries have the legitimacy to enforce international law on their own. That’s a tougher case to make.
The third question is whether President Obama and the allies he rallies have a plan that really accomplishes the strategic goal. At the moment that’s unclear. If other countries had signed on to the mission, they would be discussing that now. Maybe the very act of a dozen or so world leaders discussing a real war plan would have given Assad or Putin pause before the bombs dropped and the missiles flew.
As is, what happens next is a nail-biter. If the use of chemical weapons is still to be considered an international crime, and if members of the international community are to remain relevant actors in the prevention and punishment of those crimes, the answer cannot be that we do nothing—nor can it be that we fire a shot across the bow.