U.S. Strikes and Military Involvement in Syria: The Need to Keep Action Limited and Conditional

It seems likely that during the next few days, the U.S. will carry out a limited strike on Syria. So far, the only strategic rationale for that strike has been tied to the use of chemicals weapons and enforcing barriers against the use of these and other weapons of mass destruction. The Obama Administration has gone out of its way to avoid any implication that it might also tilt the balance in the Syrian civil war, restrict the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence, reduce the pressure on an Iraq sandwiched between Iran and Syria, and reestablish U.S. credibility with our other regional allies while helping to protect them.

There is something to be said for the politics of the Administration’s narrow approach. It severely limits the U.S. commitment to the use of force, it may well deter Syrian gas and more conventional attacks on civilian populations, and it will have some effectiveness in reducing the risk of any use of chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction in the future. No ally has to publically commit to any broader form of intervention, and the U.S. can claim it is acting under a provision of the Chemical Weapons Convention and to deal with crimes against humanity to legitimize its action in international law.

The Key Issue is Not the Tactics of the Strikes but the Strategic Aftermath

The real issue, however, is what happens afterwards. A series of strikes on key Syrian facilities and command and control capabilities might alter the balance in the civil war, but the impact seems likely to be limited. There is a chance of some form of Syrian retaliation, or action by Hezbollah and other non-state actors that support Syrian and Iran.

More importantly, the civil war will go on – killing, wounding, pushing refugees out of their homes and often into neighboring states, and the Syrian economy will move further towards collapse. Sectarian and ethnic tensions will get worse and push all involved towards extremes. The risks Sunni extremists will gain advantage over the vast majority of Sunni moderates will grow. Alawites will grow more violent and extreme, and the forces behind Kurdish separatism will grow.

The morning after any U.S. strike, the world will start asking “what next?” What is the role if the U.S. is now going to be dealing with the Syrian civil war? What is the U.S. strategy for the Levant, the Gulf, and the region? The U.S. may earn some broader credibility for its strikes, although it may also face Syrian challenges in the UN over “illegal aggression,” real and false claims of collateral damage and civilian deaths, and charges that its act increases regional instability and “chaos.” Its critics and enemies will do everything possible to discredit U.S. action, backed by all those who oppose the use of force in the U.S. and the West, and its friends and allies will immediately start asking “what now?”

No amount of spin and victory claims can get around these issues. Nothing can stop critics from validly raising every past U.S. mistake in past interventions in the region and the world. If the Administration differs, studies, and argues internally – rather than presents a clear picture of the future – the benefits of even the most successful strikes will vanish within weeks.

No U.S. Action Can Control the End State, but Every U.S. Action Can Influence It

The Administration does face critical problems. The United States faces serious uncertainties in choosing any course of action in Syria. Nothing the U.S. does can predictably control the end state in Syria much less in any other part of the MENA region. The internal forces in these given countries will dominate the outcome in a nation that must now work out the consequences of half a century of incompetent authoritarian leadership, failed economic development, and suppression of tensions between an Arab Alawite elite, an Arab Sunni majority, a Kurdish minority, and other Christian and Druze minorities.

As is the case in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and far too many other countries in the Middle East, there is no credible possibility that the U.S. can create instant democracy on real-world level. There is a very high chance that any form of stability can only come after internal power struggles burn themselves out, a series of regime changes take place, and efforts to revive authoritarianism and efforts to take control by Islamist extremists have run their course.

Nothing the U.S. does can predictably compensate for Syria’s lack of real political parties and leaders or alternatives to Assad’s regime with any real experience in governance. Nor can U.S. action bring a real rule of law, fix a police and internal security service that rule by repression, or foster robust opposition movements when they are too used to conspiracy and winner-takes-all approaches to power rather than real democracy.

Nothing the U.S. does can stop the broader forces at work in terms of Sunni Islamist extremist challenges to moderate Sunni Islam and governance, all the other branches and sects of Islam, and other minorities. Nothing the U.S. does can stop Syria’s internal power struggles from being part of a violent clash within a civilization that involves all of Syria’s neighbors and the broader clash between Iran and the Arab states.

Inaction and Doing Nothing is Not a Credible Option

That, however, is not an excuse for inaction. The U.S. can influence what it cannot control. Doing nothing is not an answer, and any critics of U.S. action must justify their position by explaining what they think will happen if the U.S. fails to act.

Simply standing by and letting Syria drift into armed, violent partition will threaten every U.S. interest in the region.

It will affect every ally, and the future role and strength of Iran. It will cut across the Arab-Israel divide to affect Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and all of the Southern Arab Gulf states. It will affect the resurgence of Al Qaida and every form of Islamist extremism.

More selfishly, it will affect the U.S. posture in the Gulf – and the security of world oil exports -- when the U.S. is still years away from any meaningful independence for direct energy imports (an independence the U.S. Department of Energy does not predict as ever going beyond 67% of U.S. use of liquid fuels and then does not project as lasting). It will affect U.S. indirect oil imports in the form of imports of goods from Asia and Europe – areas far more dependent on oil imports than we are – and the health of a global economy that now affects our economic health and every job in America.

Setting Clear and Conditional Limits on the Use of U.S. Aid and Force

That said, the U.S. needs to make it clear in this case and every case where it has real, but limited strategic interests, that it is redefining its strategic role in ways where its actions are directly tied to the level of allied support it gets and the actions of those it aids. It must put a firm end to escalating beyond the value of the objective and treating those it supports as if limited regional struggles were part of some moral crusade.

The U.S. must unambiguously state that it not only actively has and implements “dual standards,” but will be ruthless in enforcing them. The U.S. must make it clear to the Syrian rebels and its regional allies that every bit of U.S. military support – and the overall level of its humanitarian support –will be conditional on what they do, on their effectiveness, and their lack of extremism.

The U.S. must be very clearly and openly prepared to walk away from any support of the Syrian rebels and any other military intervention where its allies or host country fail to create the conditions that justify U.S. support – a message the U.S. should have given Karzai and Pakistan years ago. The U.S. must put the primary burden of action on those it aids rather than assume it. The U.S. must never again throw blood, lives, and money into an intervention or intervene without clear, credible, and integrated civil-military plans for action.

At the same time, the U.S. must not fail allies it can help when this serves its strategic interest and they are capable and willing to act. It must also stop trying to do things “its way.” One key aspect of conditionality is to actually aid other nations and movements in practical ways that “do it their way,” and suit their real-world limits and take account of their level of political development and their values, not try to transform them in mid-crisis or in combat.

In the case of Syria, the minimum follow-on steps should be to announce a strategy of working with our allies to increase humanitarian support to the Syrians, and military advisory and arms support to the moderate factions in the Syrian opposition and forces. It should be able to say the U.S. will consider collective action in terms of some no fly zone or use of airpower to both protect and empower the rebels if they can show they really have moderate leadership, can control the flow of arms and support, and will give full rights and protection to their Sunni opponents, Alawites, Kurds, and other minorities if they win. It should make it equally clear the U.S. will leave them to lose if they don’t, and the U.S. should be openly ruthless in making these terms clear.

The U.S. should also make it clear to its European and regional allies that they cannot call on the U.S. to assume any burden where they are not willing to do their share. In fact, it is time to start deliberately embarrassing the leaders of our allied countries when they ask the U.S. to act but won’t be partners.

In many ways, these are the real-world implications of the new strategic guidance the Obama Administration issued in early 2012.  The U.S. cannot either lead the world through unilateral action or abandon it. It now needs to go beyond both its past tendency to act unilaterally, its part reliance on traditional allies, and form real partnerships tailored to given cases and contingencies and to real world condition with real world limits. The U.S. needs to both set new standards -- and conditions and limits   -for its support. But, the U.S. must never be paralyzed by uncertainty and turn away from those cases it can have major influence and impact on and when it has real partners that are willing to act. 

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

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy