Limited strikes accomplish none of our stated objectives in Syria, by @DavidOAtkins

Limited strikes accomplish none of our stated objectives in Syria

by David Atkins

Watching the Senate hearing on authorizing use of military force in Syria, I was constantly frustrated by the lack of logical clarity in most of the arguments being made.

There are two key arguments in Syria that are quite separate but are often conflated: the question of chemical weapons, and the question of Syria's future stability and Assad's capabilities. The question of what to do in Syria is actually a two-by-two grid. Should we enforce the protocols against gas attacks? If so, do limited strikes accomplish that goal? Are we trying to turn the tide of the civil war? If so, do limited strikes accomplish that goal?

Bashar al-Assad has killed over 100,000 in Syria with conventional weapons, actions that only registered a dull background roar in the national news cycle. It was only when the regime allegedly used chemical weapons to kill a little over 1,000 people that suddenly the American government seemed to be taking the situation more seriously.

So it would seem that the key question here is one of chemical weapons. As it turns out, that's an argument the world needs to have. Does it make sense to maintain red lines over chemical weapons when we now have conventional weaponry capable of doing equal or greater amounts of indiscriminate damage? Perhaps. There's a compelling argument that even some norms against mass death and violence are better than none, and there is something viscerally creepy about poison gas attacks.

If we do need to maintain red lines on chemical weapons, then what constitutes adequate "response"? If it's a question of making sure that world leaders observe those norms, then wouldn't a resolution to bring Assad to the International Criminal Court be more effective? If observing norms of international law merits such a strong response, shouldn't the United States begin by holding our own leaders accountable for their own past war crimes?

The idea behind a limited missile strike campaign is supposed to be to degrade Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons capability, purely as an effort to "enforce" chemical weapons law. But it's questionable whether such an action would actually constitute credible enforcement of the principle. Enforcement of the principle would involve punishing the actors involved, not limiting the ability to engage in the act again. And it goes without saying that limited strikes that might degrade his chemical weapons capability will do next to nothing to address the conventional weapons capability that is giving Bashar al-Assad the upper hand in the civil war.

Which leads to the second question: is the U.S. actually attempting to alter the balance of the Syrian civil war against Bashar al-Assad? Few in government are suggesting the sort of war footing that would be required to accomplish that goal, and for good reason. The cost would be astronomically high both in blood and treasure, it would likely bog the United States down in yet another quagmire, and it is quite likely to put theocrats in power who would be even worse for human rights in Syria and abroad. Even just destroying Assad's chemical weapons capacity might even embroil the United States in a bogged-down conflict without even the slimmest hope of a positive outcome.

So it's not at all clear that limited strikes accomplish any of our goals in Syria.

The goal of holding Bashar al-Assad accountable for chemical weapons attacks can better be accomplished through diplomatic channels if it must be accomplished at all, given his far greater atrocities with conventional weapons. Limited strikes against chemical weapons factories accomplish next to nothing on that front.

The goal of turning the tide in the civil war is a questionable one in itself given the nature of the opposition, but it's absolutely certain that limited strikes will do nothing to accomplish that goal.

If the world wants to enforce chemical weapons protocols, the world needs a criminal system to enforce it. If the world wants to get rid of bloodthirsty dictators like Assad, the world needs a system of truly cooperative intervention that accomplishes that objective in a maximally peaceful way. Limited cruise missile strikes from a single nation-state would be woefully ineffective on all fronts.