If bombing Syria is in this country’s “national security interests,” as President Obama asserted in his address to the nation Tuesday night, it’s worth exploring what those are. Twelve years ago, the Sept. 11 attacks galvanized the public and launched the “war on terror.” But Syria has not directly threatened the United States, which makes Obama’s sales job difficult. The national security reasons to intervene in Syria are indirect—and can be countered with national security arguments against intervention.
Start with chemical weapons, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s national security argument. Syria, believed to have one of the largest stockpiles in the world, is one of the few countries that has not signed a treaty renouncing their use. If Washington fails to act, Obama warns, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will have no reason to stop using the weapons against his people. Moreover, other tyrants could acquire and use poison gas. American troops could face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, as they did in World War I. Assad’s ally Hezbollah, as well as Qaida affiliates, could more easily obtain them to use against civilians or American targets in the region, or to destabilize U.S. allies such as Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, where citizens have already readied gas masks.
On the other hand, Obama’s “limited” battle plan would not wipe out Syria’s capacity to use chemical weapons, which would be very hard to destroy safely in an attack. The president’s strategy gambles that such a strike would persuade Assad to change his calculus, and it could target the military units that employ the weapons. “Predicting what a despot will do—much less, a militarily punished despot—is risky business. Look at Saddam Hussein, look at Muammar el-Qaddafi. They both had rather irrational thought patterns and grandiose dreams in the face of clear military threats,” says Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Assad, analysts say, could respond to a military strike by launching even more chemical attacks. Chaos after a strike could also inadvertently give rebels more opportunity to seize, use, or sell the stockpiles.
“Credibility” is the idée fixe. The administration insists that rogue leaders in Iran and North Korea want to see if Washington backs up its “red line.” The United States does not want its long-standing promise to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons to appear insincere. “Leaders in Tehran must know that the United States means what we say,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said this week. (See “The World’s Uncertain Sheriff.”)
The power of a threat depends on how seriously people take it, cautions Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. But Washington’s strike is meant to be small enough that it won’t topple Assad or inflame the American public. So the Iranians, Biddle says, may think Americans are “tremendously war-weary and irresolute and wimps.” Instead of dissuading Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold with the threat of attack, he argues, a too-small strike in Syria after such gridlock and fanfare in Washington could simply encourage Tehran to take its chances.
Obama downplayed the terrorist threat that could result from a U.S. strike, saying that al-Qaida “will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.” Yes, Washington’s failure to intervene thus far, says Daniel Nisman of Max Security Solutions, a security-risk consulting firm based in Israel, is partly to blame for Syrians turning to jihadist groups offering money and training to overthrow Assad. “The more the U.S. gets involved, the more al-Qaida’s influence will go down,” he says.
Still, a strike could elevate the prospect of retaliation. Assad could order proxies to fire rockets at Israel from Lebanon, which could lead to an “accidental escalation” in the region if Israel retaliates, Nisman says. Other potential consequences, experts say, include Hezbollah launching a full-scale attack or bombing an embassy abroad; Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force seeking revenge; and Russia sending Syria advanced air defenses or, more discreetly, ammunition and small arms.
Accelerating the end of Syria’s conflict through military action could stem burgeoning violence in other critical countries, says David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The war has inflamed sectarian conflict in Lebanon, sparked clashes on Turkey’s border, and emboldened al-Qaida in Iraq, he says. Jordan, a key U.S. ally in keeping peace with Israel, is already in a precarious economic position, coping with throngs of refugees. Yet there’s no way to know how much a limited U.S. strike would stir this simmering regional pot.
If a strike fails to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, Washington will face pressure to double-down. An expansive military campaign is the only way to convince Iran that the United States is serious, Biddle says—and that option is not politically feasible. An ambitious campaign might mean losing pilots to Syria’s air defenses; a full-scale intervention would carry high financial costs and a “butcher’s bill in lost American lives.”
There’s also risk if the military intervention works better than intended. A post-Assad Syria descending into chaos would not necessarily be an improvement for American security. Militants are the most effective fighting forces within Syria’s opposition. “There’s a danger you would get terrorist base camps in Syria, … an infrastructure for attacking the U.S. and the West,” Biddle says.
Syria is a proxy for a bigger debate: In this era of exhaustion, does narrowly preserving U.S. national security mean simply protecting the homeland from attack, or does a stable world require active American leadership? That is a whole other kind of national security. “What is our role in the world today? Is it discretionary for us to be a world leader, or is it a necessity?” asks Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s no clear national consensus on this.”