Washington Is Sure About a Strike in Syria, Not Sure It Would Actually Work

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Pentagon has presented President Obama with "all options for all contingencies" in Syria. But in Washington, there is broad agreement on what option Obama should choose: a limited "surgical" strike. 

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Pentagon has presented President Obama with "all options for all contingencies" in Syria. "He has seen them, we are prepared... We are ready to go," Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday. But in Washington, there is fairly broad agreement on what option Obama should choose: a limited "surgical" strike. While this would punish Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians, some foreign policy analysts say that in the long run, it won't do much to stop his government's violence against civilians. Even so, a strike could come as early as Thursday

Obama hasn't made a final decision about military action in Syria, The New York Times' Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler report, but administration officials say he's "likely to order a limited military operation — cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea at military targets in Syria, for example." He probably won't try to oust Assad or try to "fundamentally alter the nature of the conflict on the ground." In other words, Assad would be punished, but not removed, and the U.S. would not try to help the rebels win.

While there is some disagreement among lawmakers over whether Obama should consult Congress first before taking action, there is remarkably broad agreement about what Obama should do. The U.S. and allies must "take limited military actions," GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement — "without boots on the ground," the U.S. can "significantly degrade Assad's air power and ballistic missile capabilities and help to establish and defend safe areas on the ground." Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House foreign affairs committee, said on Sunday"I certainly would do cruise missile strikes. I think you can do that without boots on the ground..." On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk called for the same thing: no "boots on the ground," but "a proportional response with cruise missiles would, I think, be a better way to go." So did GOP Rep. Peter King: "I would say cruise missiles. I would not put American troops on the ground." Republican Sen. Bob Corker said as much on Monday. That follows that he said on Fox News Sunday"I think we will respond in a surgical way."

This is being presented as the sensible middle ground — more than doing nothing, less than risking the lives of American troops. And the term "surgical" makes one of the many not-good options in Syria sound less bad. But it would not actually be all that surgical. It would be very difficult to take out Syria's chemical weapons stockpile with military strikes, Time's Mark Thompson reports. A strike will have to take out the artillery and missile units that could launch chemical weapons instead. It would take about 75,000 troops to seize those weapons.

Further, Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon tells Politico's Jonathan Allen that to actually stop the civil war, the U.S. will have to do more than air strikes. It would probably need to send ground troops. "Limited military involvement isn’t going to produce an outcome," O'Hanlon says. And Zbigniew Brzezinski said, "Action, if it is to be taken, should be part of some broader strategy. Otherwise, it may be an appropriative, punitive response, but would it solve the problem?" Military action might be "morally justified" but "will have consequences that may not be all that desirable." At The New Yorker, George Packer literally has a debate with himself over whether sending a message to Assad is worth risking the much worse things that could happen next.

And the man who outlined the plan for cruise missile strikes in Syria is skeptical it will work. Foreign Policy's John Hudson reports:

"Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive," Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said. "I never intended my analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that."

(Photo of Chuck Hagel by Associated Press.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.