Why Obama's Plan to Strike Syria Makes No Strategic Sense

Even a humanitarian operation demands a logical premise and a well-designed goal. The administration's proposal has neither.
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Protesters outside the White House (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Having backed himself into a corner by declaring a "red line" that has now been crossed, President Obama is by all appearances ramping up for military action in Syria. As best we can tell from the not inconsiderable leaks coming from Washington and elsewhere, the planned strikes would use aerial assets, last only a short period, and decidedly not be aimed at achieving our declared strategic goal.

Humanitarian wars have their own grammar but not their own logic.

The president has repeatedly articulated, going back to August 2011, that there is but one acceptable end state: "Assad must go."  Dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former ambassador Christopher Hill may well be right that this declaration "was not carefully arrived at" and has "boxed us in," it nonetheless remains the administration's policy.

Yet, the White House has been emphatic that the action contemplated here is not aimed at achieving that strategic objective. Press secretary Jay Carney declared Tuesday that, "It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change" and that "there is no military solution available here, that the way to bring about a better future in Syria is through negotiation and a political resolution." 

So, what then? 

Carney declared "there must be a response" to the chemical attacks and other "administration officials" have said that the strikes would "send a message." Any message sent by launching military strikes explicitly not designed to achieve one's stated strategic goal would be cryptic, and should probably be accompanied by a decoder ring.

An editorial in the German business daily Handelsblatt, helpfully translated by Der Spiegel, puts the case brilliantly:

Humanitarian wars are also wars. Those who jump into them for moral reasons should also want to win them. Cruise missiles fired from destroyers can send a message and demonstrate conviction, but they cannot decide the outcome of a war. Neither can a "we'll see" bombardment. There has to be a strategic motivation behind the moral one, and it demands perseverance.

To paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, humanitarian wars have their own grammar but not their own logic. That is, they're fought to achieve political objectives and judged on whether they have been achieved. Regardless of what modifier accompanies it, wars are fought, in the words of the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, to "obtain a better state of the peace."

While Secretary of State Kerry's August 26 speech setting the stage for US response was eloquent and emotionally satisfying, its fundamental argument makes no strategic sense. Who could argue against the idea that "The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity”? As Fred Hof, President Obama's former special advisor for transition in Syria and my colleague at the Atlantic Council, rightly notes, "Such slaughter is, in fact, morally obscene and criminal irrespective of the weaponry employed."

Chemical weapons account for less than one percent of the more than 100,000 killed in this conflict. Yet, while I'm sympathetic to international relations expert John Mueller's argument that chemical weapons are not inherently more horrible than many modern conventional weapons, their "development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use" are technically prohibited as a matter of international law. While Syria is one of seven states who have not signed and ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, they acceded to the 1925 Geneva Protocol in 1968.

But enforcement of these agreements is the province of the UN Security Council, not the executive branch of the U.S. government. And, rather inconveniently, Kerry's speech was delivered on the same day that Foreign Policy reported that the U.S. government aided and abetted Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1988.

If the goal is to send the message that using chemical weapons is unacceptable, as security specialist Charli Carpenter notes in Foreign Affairs,  it would be unfortunate to use "Tomahawk missiles, which are capable of carrying cluster munitions and which have been decried on humanitarian grounds by numerous governments and civil society groups." Additionally, "the planned strikes would likely involve the use of explosives in populated areas, which is in violation of emerging international concerns about such behavior."  If, on the other hand, the primary goal is protection of the civilian population, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine: 

requires policymakers and military planners to weigh just cause against the question of whether there is a reasonable prospect of success at reducing civilian bloodshed, given the available resources and constraints, and to select the best type of intervention to meet the goals, which generally means a much longer commitment of blood and treasure than punitive air strikes.

Leaving aside the niceties of international norms—odd though it might be when they are ostensibly the entire point of the operation—there's little reason to think that punitive strikes actually have the intended deterrent effect. A Los Angeles Times analysis notes that similar actions, including strikes against Libya and al-Qaeda in 1986 and 1998, respectively, were not only ineffectual but quite probably counterproductive. The Libya raid was followed by—and apparently inspired—the Lockerbie bombing. And, of course, al-Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attack three years after the widely derided strikes on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.  

Center for Strategic and International Studies military analyst Anthony Cordesman observes: 

Can you do damage with cruise missiles? Yes. Can you stop them from having chemical weapons capability? I would think the answer would be no. Should you limit yourself to just a kind of incremental retaliation? That doesn't serve any strategic purpose. It doesn't protect the Syrian people, it doesn't push Assad out.

As John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor and former State Department official Elliot Cohen rightly notes, "no one — friends, enemies or neutrals — would be fooled" by a token effort and therefore "A bout of therapeutic bombing is an even more feckless course of action than a principled refusal to act altogether." Indeed, token strikes that do little damage to regime assets could conceivably embolden Assad.  The Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis’s Bilal Saab and McGill professor Rex Brynen lay out numerous potential responses, ranging from expanding his conventional weapons attacks on Syrian civilians to fomenting regional spillover effects.

Cohen prefers a more robust campaign with "serious targets" such as the air force, air defense system, and airports. But the reason we haven't already done that, despite a stated goal of regime change, is that we have no way of achieving that objective at an acceptable price. In his letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee a month ago, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey outlined our military options, which ranged from horrible to awful. 

Dempsey warned then that it "is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state." He added, "Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."

Red lines or not, that hasn't changed.

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James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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