Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Can the U.S.’s limited military strike against Assad stay limited?

By Ian Bremmer
August 27, 2013

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech about Syria’s chemical warfare yesterday, it’s clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are “ready to go.” Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces “could attack Syria within days,” per Reuters.

But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, “The meaning of [Assad’s chemical weapon] attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself.” The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria’s civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America’s top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.

Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his “red line.” But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It’s only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large — and calls from the United States’ allies too loud — for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it’s clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama’s one explicit red line — however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.

As I explained a few months back, the United States had two options that weren’t quite as bad as the status quo of slowly slipping into the conflict: it could go big — establish a no-fly zone and do what is necessary to stem the violence — or go home: firmly stay on the sidelines. The Obama administration opted for the latter — that’s why it dragged its feet responding to chemical weapons charges the first time around. The White House believes the best way to stay the course is to apply the minimum amount of force that will satisfy the mounting pressure for action without becoming further entangled: “The options we are considering are not about regime change,” the White House said on Tuesday. Afterwards, it can return to its backseat role.

But it has only become more difficult to pull that off. If there were limited military actions that had no risk of dragging the U.S. deeper into the Syrian conflict, Obama would have opted for them in response to the first wave of chemical attacks. The irony is that the bar for what the international community will deem an acceptable response to Assad’s chemical weapon use has risen substantially since that first instance a few months back. If this had been an Israeli red line that was breached, we would have seen an immediate, limited and surgical strike in response. The U.S. dithered, a much bigger atrocity occurred, and now the U.S. will need to engage in a broader response to maintain its credibility and satisfy its allies — just the sort of response that carries a higher risk of pulling the U.S. further into the quagmire.

So what will be deemed sufficient action? It’s hard to say. But it seems clear that a cruise missile or two aimed at specific weapons sites in Damascus will likely no longer be sufficient. The situation demands bellicose words from America’s top diplomats, and actions that can back them up — certainly a broader set of military targets, perhaps sustained aerial strikes as well. It demands just the sort of actions that always carry the potential to exceed their limited scope.

The other issue is that many members of the coalition calling for action want different outcomes, and would welcome deeper American involvement. When the United States responds to the chemical attack, allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey — the chief outside powers supporting the rebels — are likely to try and cast the intervention as a turning point in the war effort and interpret the United States’ action as tacit support for the rebels in their bid to oust Assad.

Taking action could also cause problems for America in its diplomatic negotiations with Assad’s allies. Unlike in Libya, where the U.S. last helped lead an international strike, the Syrian government has real support from foreign actors. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are all firmly in the Assad camp.

Washington’s Iran policy is an overlooked and vital consideration in the Syria equation. The top American priority in the region is its upcoming nuclear discussions with Iran; expect this issue to drive headlines in the last few months of this year. If the United States’ response to Assad’s chemical weapons use is too bold, it could roil Iran and trigger tit-for-tat escalatory actions that leave the two countries unwilling or politically unable to engage in productive negotiations. If the United States’ response is too meek or too muddled, it could undermine its credibility — and make the U.S.’s red lines on Iran’s nuclear progress that much blurrier and difficult to uphold.

When Kerry said Assad’s actions go “beyond the conflict in Syria itself,” he was speaking from a moral perspective. But if you read between the lines, it’s about American credibility. It’s about upholding the U.S.’s regional priorities. And it’s about distancing the U.S.’s imminent military response from the Syrian civil war itself.

The U.S. is right to act in Syria. Defending the international boycott on chemical weapons and backing up its red line are worth military action, within limits. Let’s just hope its actions can stay limited.

PHOTO: United States Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the media on the Syrian situation in Washington August 26, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS) – RTX12XCZ

Comments
12 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I love the way the U.S.sets itself up to mandate what defines international norms and their unambiguous breaching…I wonder how other parts of the world feel about Obama’s international norm of using targeted kill programs in Yemen and Afghanistan – the use of signature strikes by drone to profile and execute young men who haven’t even been identified as terrorists as well as innocent civilians and U.S. citizens. Not that I’m opposed to giving Assad a serious bi*ch slap in this case, but we are such hypocrites when it suits us to be….

Posted by vitaminr | Report as abusive
 

You voted for these failed foreign policies

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive
 

Yes, chemical weapons are a bad thing. But this should go through the UN and if Russia block it, then it lies on their national conscience.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive
 

US does not limit it’s use of weapons internally (tear gas a chemical weapon and expanding bullets) so direct action is hypocritical. Also to show it is in response to chemical weapons it should be a chemical weapon attack aimed at responsible and their families. That would get our hand dirty.

But indirect is fitting and proper just give chemical weapons to rebels but only a little at a time with inspectors to see they where used up against Syrian military targets before giving any more (no stock piling to use against N.Y., D.C. or L.A.). That will send the message using chemical weapons is counter productive unless you are too big to be an easy target (Russia she used them internally). Our hands would be clean as far innocents killed and it would be poetic justice. WE should stop after a very short time because both sides are bad guys mainly and therefore there is no need to take sides; just enforce international law on the smaller nations and get some experience for West Point instructors on the effectrs of newer chemical weapons.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive
 

If the fact that the U.S. received the intercepted phone conversations from Israel is confirmed, it will make the situation worse.

The intel information from Israel is good for the U.S. But not so good for Europeans. And very unreliable source for the Arabs. I am not saying about Iran.

At the moment, the sectarian war’s interests may overweigh the usual Arab attitude towards the Israel provided information. However, it is a weak game, in my opinion.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive
 

The American secretary of State and others talk much about moral obscenities as they decide the Syrian govt are guilty of a specific war crime.

In the absence of an international
judicial declaration from the UN, lynch law punishment is likely to be inflicted.

If this occurs individual nations like America will then be giving the green light to any other country say,Russia, Israel, or Iran, to inflict punishment on their international foes.

Is that what international order has come to, ?
What was the UN set up for?

I ask which is the greater moral obscenity , a chemical attack in a civil war, or unilateral armed aggression by powerful countries that must needs expand into international war.

The real moral obscenity will be if armed unilateralist national aggression by USA, UK or whoever proceeds in the absence of a UN mandate.

The superpower leaders have a duty to the UN permanent security council
to halt this nonsense and live up to their responsibilities.

Posted by Malachy | Report as abusive
 

The USCA should abide by the UN decision, whatever it may be.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

If a US/Western powers attack against Syria is launched, it will not be because Syrian forces (assuming they did) employed chemical weapons. It will be because the employment of those weapons gives the US/Western powers an excuse to implement the desired policy to effect regime change in Syria. For the Administration to state the strike will not affect the balance of power between the Syrian government and rebel forces is simply a lie, as fixed and rotary wing aircraft, artillery, rocket launchers, and other means of delivering chemical weapons will be targeted. Those are the same capabilities that enable the Syrian government to maintain its tactical edge against the rebels. Secondly, any US/Western attack against Syrian forces will divert the attention of those forces and enable rebel forces to make territorial gains.

Lastly, the one-sided nature of US media reporting on this civil war is irresponsible. The wounding, maiming, and killing of non-combatants is not limited to Syrian government forces or supporting militias. The rebels have done more than their fair-share of the same. In the 1980s, there was a saying that one nation’s definition of a terrorist is another nation’s definition of a freedom fighter. Today, the Obama Administration tells us that Syrian government attacks that lead to non-combatant casualties are criminal but is silent relevant to rebel attacks that cause non-combatant casualties. One is murder; the other is collateral damage.

Wake up, America. We are looking into the mouth of another war. There is a time and place for war, but if attacks against Syria are essential for our national security interests, let’s make certain the Administration is providing us the truth of “why” the attacks are absolutely necessary and “why” nothing short of military attacks can send the message that the use of chemical weapons (Assuming Syrian forces used chemical weapons) by any nation will not be tolerated. A total economic and financial aid embargo of the Syrian government and the areas it controls will send a very certain message. A seizure of all Syrian government and government official funds in all Western banks would send an undeniable message. War is suppose to be the last arrow you draw from your quiver.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive
 

Time to buy Raytheon stock. An order to replace some Tomahawk missiles is on it’s way.

Posted by Duffman | Report as abusive
 

The author forgot to include Israel, China and Russia in the list of participants in the conflict. As a result, we get the LAST World War.

Posted by DimanDrugan | Report as abusive
 

The simple answer that everyone knows is, “NO!” Of course not. The real question is, How much and how fast will it escalate?

The American arms manufacturers that profit from conflicts subsidized by the federal government through “foreign aid” would make sure through their lobbying (bribery) of Members of Congress that never-ending conflicts will continue. $ $ $ $ …

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

There is a less advertised side of foreign intervention strategy. People have their moral sentiments and their political preferences that they don’t part with easily, even against formidable evidence they fail to be compelled to change deeply rooted views and long hold social alliances. It takes infliction of deepest mental wounds to effect such a change. National army is for more than one reason a source of pride and confidence of most of citizens. Most of the people are conservative, i.e. they give a huge discount to a promise of heaps of gold and hold dear an option of return to status quo ante. A way of changing this well founded custom is to prove total moral bankruptcy of those who were supposed to defend an ordinary man. Sometimes, where corruption has done its ugly job, it takes merely a gust of wind for an edifice of state power to collapse. In other circumstances people will cling to what is left of the skeleton of power structures that once protected them effectively (not least from each other) having a gut feeling that whatever is about to come is going to be worse that the old regime. An euphemism of “no fly zone” is a device which, by degrading the current power structures to an animal instinct of saving own life at all cost cuts of plenty, maybe most, maybe all, moral support for a regime. This does not come at low cost. The air strikes campaign, depending on length, intensity and ferocity of the implementation of force leads to de cohesion of society, undermines and brakes basic structures of mutual trust reinforced by law and (comparatively to air strikes all is moderate) moderate use of power. Foreign intervention changes a balance of moral support in a civil war. Foreign intervention leaves a long lasting scar on a social body. Libya can not and will not recover from the civil war any soon, because there is a shortage of moral mandate to take the animal spirits under control, especially when there is enough free unattached power (neither clearly national – subservient to interests of a particular state, nor even obviously corporate – connected to a business structure that one can easily name and isolate) that thrives on decomposition of societies. We unleashed a dormant beast of uncontrolled social connections that run across countries, societies, political systems and have not even material gain but a desire to control and govern at all cost as their ultimate, not necessarily consciously realized, because evolutionarily gained aim. The first and utmost cause of a death of Roman Empire was an inexhaustible growth of a shadowy web of plot and intrigue. This seems to be our fate as well.

Posted by Suav58 | Report as abusive
 

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