Syria: Act Decisively or Not at All
April 11, 2018
Far too much of the outside speculation on possible U.S. and allied strikes against Syria misses the point. First, no one should confuse “proportionate” response to the limited effect of one poison gas attack. “Proportionate” should be in response to the overall nature of enemy behavior and its effect, not a single incident. The U.S. should respond to the overall pattern of Assad’s state terrorism and use of force to kill, injure, and damage the lives of millions of civilians.
Second, there is no reason that the response should be limited to Assad airfields. It is interesting that no one has yet suggested targeting the areas occupied by the extended Assad family and his closest supporters, the Presidential palace in Damascus, or the Assad’s elite internal security and guard forces. Assad is the real issue here, along with Russian and Iranian complicity. Hitting airbases or tactical facilities will always be an expendable loss to him (and them).
Third, there is also a surprising failure to consider tying sanctions to strikes. Sanctions that blocked all exports and banking ties to the U.S. (and possibly Britain, France, etc.) for any future airline, maritime, trade, and financial activity—except humanitarian aid—with Syria would put massive pressure on a bankrupt Syria and financially weak Russia and Iran.
If there is any lesson that should come out of more than half a decade of war in Syria, it is that any use of force must be strong enough to be decisive. The risks are higher, but token uses of force against expendable targets do little more than make the U.S. seem weak and ineffective, and may actually inspire Assad to be more ruthless over time than no U.S. response at all.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.