Immediately after President Barack Obama’s announcement on Saturday that he would seek Congressional authorization for the use of force in a military intervention in Syria, the administration launched a full-press effort to lobby lawmakers on the issue. According to The New York Times, about 80 lawmakers attended a classified briefing on Sunday, but some members of both political parties emerged from the briefing unconvinced that the draft resolution was ready for approval.
The resolution blames the Assad regime for the chemical attack in Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed at least 1,000 people, and says the objective for the US’ use of force “should be to deter, disrupt, and degrade the potential for future uses of, chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.”
Several days ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that US military forces are ready to execute a command to strike at Syria. On Saturday, President Obama said that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated to him that the US capacity to execute a military intervention in Syria “is not time-sensitive” and that “[i]t will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”
The US is also being pressured by allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and South Korea, among others, to move forward with the planned military intervention. Their reasons include concerns that a US failure to enforce a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria now may signal weakness to Iran and North Korea, encouraging them further.
With the momentum building for the proposed US intervention, despite setbacks including the UK Parliament’s vote against intervention, and a failure by the Arab League to clearly endorse such action, it is time to ask some hard questions:
1. The administration is convinced that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, and President Obama said military force is necessary. But the administration has not articulated a policy towards Syria. What outcome does the administration hope to obtain by conducting strikes?
2. Despite claims to the contrary, does the administration seek to overthrow the Assad regime? Does it seek to deny the regime the ability to launch future chemical attacks? Or does it wish to punish the regime, and launch attacks as part of a deterrent?
If the US seeks to overthrow the government, or if as a result of the strikes the rebel forces are able to sufficiently capitalize on the intervention to succeed in overthrowing the regime, who moves in to govern Syria? Some policy analysts believe the Free Syrian Army and the overarching Syrian Opposition Council are effective partners. But as we have documented numerous times at LWJ, the FSA and SOC often collude with al Qaeda’s affiliates and other Islamist groups [see LWJ report, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant leads charge to take Syrian airport.]
3. How would overthrowing the government effectively secure Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons? Is the US willing to send tens of thousands of troops into Syria to secure those stockpiles, which are thought to be stored in numerous locations? Keep in mind that a recent declassified intelligence assessment said that the US has lost track of said weapons. And back in early May, the Daily Beast reported that “the Syrian military has transferred more and more of its stock of sarin and mustard gas from storage sites to trucks where they are being moved around the country,” and as a result “the U.S. military and intelligence community are quietly acknowledging that the United States does not know where many of those weapons are located.”
The US will have few, if any, partners to occupy Syria; Britain isn’t even willing to conduct airstrikes. And what happens when al Qaeda and other Islamist groups begin attacking US forces?
4. If the US seeks to deny the Assad regime the ability to launch future chemical strikes, but is unwilling to overthrow the regime, occupy the country, and physically secure the weapons, just how would an air campaign achieve this? The attacks in Damascus were launched with mortars and rockets. Does the administration believe it can take out every small platform in Syria?
5. If the US intervention seeks to punish the regime in the hope that a “body blow” will deter it from launching another attack, what happens if the Assad regime is undeterred? What if the regime actually views the US’s airstrikes and unwillingness to commit ground forces as a sign of weakness?
6. What is the US plan for the not-so-implausible scenario that rebel forces, and in particular those associated with al Qaeda, have already procured and possibly used chemical weapons in Syria?
7. What is the US plan for the likelihood that a strike on Syria, which is already the site of a proxy war, ignites a regional war, as the various parties seek to retaliate?
8. If the US intends to attack the Assad regime, is it not important that the US have a clear case for intervention? Despite claims by American, French, and British officials that the evidence is clear and compelling for their accusation that the Assad regime is to blame for the Aug. 21 chemical attack, intelligence reports released by the governments of the US, the UK, and France have all relied essentially on circumstantial evidence.
A more general sense of imminent danger regarding the custody and alleged use of Syria’s extensive chemical weapons might well justify some kind of intervention, but it would have to be approached and presented differently.
Decisionmakers contemplating a military strike on Syria in the wake of the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons must keep at least two basic considerations in mind:
If the US wants to ensure that the regime cannot use its chemical weapons, the regime must be removed.
And if the US is seeking also to ensure that the weapons do not fall into the wrong hands, the US and allies must take possession of those weapons, and that would require a significant number of boots on the ground.
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