The Only Riskier Thing Than Not Striking Syria May Be Striking Syria

It’s easy to see how taking military action could go wrong. It’s harder to see how it could go right.

A worker dressed in protective gear prepares a chemical bomb for destruction at a special facility in Russia's Urals town of Shchuchye in this undated 2008 handout photo. Russia launched on Friday May 29, 2009 a facility to help destroy its dreaded Cold War-era stockpiles of chemical weapons and meet its commitment to eliminate all such weapons by 2012. 
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Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.”

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