Choosing the Right Options in Syria

The U.S. has hard choices to make in Syria. Even if the U.S. does intervene militarily, the time window for its best option has already passed. President Obama may have had reason to be cautious and play King Log to President Bush’s King Stork, but the U.S. did not intervene when the rebels were strongest, the Assad regime most fragile, and limited U.S. support to the then dominant moderate rebel factions might well have pushed Assad out of power without dividing Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Every option today comes up against the reality that Assad is now far stronger, the country is increasingly being split into Assad and rebel controlled sections, the rebels are fractured and rebel forces have strong Sunni Islamist extremist elements, and the nation is increasingly polarizing into an Alawite and more secular Sunni and minority bloc, a Sunni Arab bloc, and a Syrian Kurdish bloc. In practice, this means there is no way the U.S. can quickly use any amount of force to destroy the Assad regime with any confidence that Syria will not come under Sunni Islamist extremist control, or divide into Alawite, Sunni, and Kurdish blocs in ways that prove to be even more violent and lasting than such sectarian and ethnic divisions have in Iraq.

The U.S. is also now faced with having chosen the wrong red line. No one has accurate estimates, but the key challenge in Syria is scarcely to end the use of chemical weapons. The real challenge is some 120,000 dead, another 200,000-plus wounded, and as many as 20% of its 22.5 million people have been displaced inside the country or are living outside it as refugees.  The nation has lost some three years of economic development, become a country of polarized factions, and seen many – if not most – of its children lose much of their schooling and learn to live in fear and anger in a country where more than a third of the population is 14 years of age or younger.

Chemical weapons alone are not a reason to use force. Even the most successful cruise missile strikes would not destroy Syria’s holdings. There is no credible chance the U.S. can locate or destroy Syria’s entire holding without a massive air campaign and some kind of presence on the ground. Even if the Assad regime has not done the obvious, and used the last few months to covertly disperse a large portion of its weapons, cruise missiles simply don’t have that kind of destructive power.

Even if the U.S. can somehow stop all future use of chemical weapons, the military impact will be marginal at best. Moreover, anyone who has actually seen wounds from conventional artillery -- or badly treated body wounds from small arms -- realizes that chemical weapons do not cause more horrible wounds. If anything, an agent like Sarin tends to either kill quickly or result in relative recovery. The case for intervening cannot be based on chemical weapons. It has to be based on two factors: Whether it serves American strategic interest and whether it meets the broader humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.

Americans also need to remember that the U.S. has chosen bad options in Syria before, and the sheer pointlessness of largely symbolic U.S. strikes.  The pointless use of battleships to shell Druze and Syrian forces in Syria in 1983 led to the Marine Corps barracks bombing and a similar attack on French forces on October 23, 1983.  U.S. mistakes and debates within the Pentagon then led the U.S. to suddenly halt its part of what might have been a meaningful, large-scale U.S.-French strike plan, have the U.S. halt its strikes without telling its French ally, and result in a totally ineffective French bombing of Syrian targets on November 16, 1983. On December 4, 1983, the U.S. finally did launch 28 airstrikes because of Syrian air defense attacks on U.S. F-14s flying reconnaissance missions. The end result, however, was a pointless attack on Syrian air defense targets, the loss of two U.S. aircraft, one pilot dead, and another held prisoner until he was rescued by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

If the U.S. is to intervene in Syria, its options must have some strategic meaning and a chance of producing lasting success. They must have a reasonable chance of bringing stability to Syria, of limiting the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence, of halting the spillover of the Syrian struggle into nearby states, and helping to deal with the broader humanitarian crisis.

In practice, this requires the following actions:

  • Tie U.S. action to allied support: Work with Britain, France, Turkey, and key Arab states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to show that the U.S. is acting with broad international support before the U.S. takes any military action on its own.
  • Focus on targets that go well beyond chemical weapons sites, and that hit at key political and military targets: Strike at targets like Assad’s palace in Damascus, the headquarters of Syrian intelligence and the secret police, Syrian and Al Quds bases and training centers for the Assad militias, and the mix of air bases and ground support facilities that do most to support Syrian military operations. These are targets U.S. cruise missiles can hit, although the U.S. might consider at least limited air strikes to show it can and will escalate if Assad does not show restraint.
  • Set redlines that matter for the future and seek to deter Assad with plans for a limited No Fly, No Move Zone:  Warn Syria that U.S. will enforce a no fly/no move zone if Assad forces carry out more missile, air, chemical weapons, or ground artillery strikes on rebel-held areas. Make it clear to Assad that there are clear limits to the targets he can strike in the future, and the U.S. is planning a broader effort with its allies that could lead to a no fly-no move zone to protect rebel held areas. Give this option real teeth by openly working with key allies on contingency plans. Make it clear to the world that the U.S. is taking the lead, and that the U.S. will act if Assad continues his attacks and ground offensives, and the U.S. has suitable allied support.
  • Act to provide lasting support for the rebels. Finally make good on U.S. announcements about helping moderate rebel factions. Openly back and arm moderate rebel factions with advanced light guided air defense weapons like MANPADS, SHORADS, anti-tank guided weapons, mortars, and artillery. Provide such weapons directly from the U.S. and/or allow friendly Arab states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to release such weapons in coordination with the U.S. and only to the more moderate rebel elements.
  • But, make U.S. support conditional. Test rebel capability, the impact of actively supporting moderate rebel elements, and show Assad the U.S. not only has a tongue but has teeth. Hold the rebel forces that get such support accountable by demanding videotapes and other evidence the weapons are being properly used -- as the supporters of extremist elements are already doing with Islamist factions. Forward deploy a limited CIA and Special Forces presence. Act on the reality that such “sensitive” weapons are already out of tight control, on the market, and in rebels hand in limited numbers.
  • Organize an international humanitarian effort. Do not seek to solve the humanitarian or refugee problem alone, but do be far more proactive in organizing a broad international effort to support Syrian refugees inside areas in Syria where moderate rebel factions and NGOs can operate, and work with European allies, Arab allies in the Gulf, and with Jordan, Iraq, the KRG, and Turkey to create a collective effort to reduce the suffering. Treat USAID as a key element of a civil-military effort in Syria. Give it the funds and support it needs to be effective.

None of these options should be open ended, or be chosen and acted upon without getting clear, public commitments to joint action from our key allies. The U.S. should not continue to replace U.S. overreaction in Afghanistan and Iraq with inaction in Syria, but it should take account of the concerns raised by General Dempsey in his letters to Congress. The Obama Administration should also act on a key statement in General Dempsey’s August 19th letter to Congressman Engels, “We could, if asked to do so, significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition. Do so, in combination with expanded capacity to-building efforts with regional partners and a significant investment in the development of a moderate Syrian opposition, represents the best framework for an effective U.S. strategy in going forward.”

Finally, the U.S. should make it clear that it does not reject negotiations that could lead to some form of agreed solution that would protect Syria’s Alawites and Kurds, offer Russia a role in Syria and move towards a UN solution, and give Assad a secure way to leave or even lead to some form of ceasefire that temporarily divides Syria without leaving it without a future.

The chances of such negotiations succeeding are now extremely limited, but the U.S. has waited so long that so are the chances of a clear rebel victory based on moderate movements. Moreover, an active, high profile U.S.-led effort towards national conciliation can lay the groundwork for some form of eventual agreed national conciliation even if it cannot end or even pause the fighting in the short-term.  Above all, the U.S. needs to focus on collective action, and finding a workable compromise among Syrian factions that has some chance of a long-term solution that offers stability and security to Syrians. There is no point in fighting a war against chemical weapons. There is no point in U.S. military symbolism or massive unilateral military action. There is a point in trying to use force to end the suffering, the fighting, and repression – and serve our national interest while we meet the needs of the Syrian people and our allies.

For further analysis of U.S. military options, see U.S. Options in Syria: Obama’s Delays and the Dempsey Warnings, here.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.