Syria: No Good Options, But Some Worse Than Others

By Nicolas Taeuber

Hans Morgenthau, the great realist, once wrote that making choices in the realm of international politics can only amount to picking the alternative that creates the least damage. President Obama is now facing one of such Sophean situations.

After last week’s terrible use of chemical weapons against civilians, with Syria’s president Al-Assad as the prime suspect, Obama’s – ill advised – red line for US intervention has clearly been crossed. Learning that words cannot alter the actions of a regime fighting for its survival the US is forced to act now. Failing to do so could seriously undermine its credibility with opponents and allies alike – and prove consequential in other overarching international concerns such as the brewing Iranian-Israeli conflict. Tehran would feel emboldened to cross red lines itself. Israel would feel the need to take its security even more in its own hands, as it doubts America’s will to follow through with its public security guarantees.

Yet, especially the Syrian conflict, an Arab version of the Spanish civil war, and a blueprint the religious, ethnic and political struggles in the Middle East, poses difficult questions on how to act. What are the US‘ options and what should its strategic objectives be when staging an intervention?

To be clear from the beginning: there are no good choices. A do-nothing attitude, meaning neither sending weapons to opposition groups nor attacking the Assad government directly is most likely to result in a stalemate in the civil war or a limited victory by the regime. In either case the territorial disintegration of Syria and a continuous civil war is the most likely outcome. The resulting anarchy, sectarian strife, and economic suffering would just create another hotbed for terrorists, like Yemen or the Sahel region. If the Assad regime secured a rump Syria to impose an uneasy truce, an internationally isolated Syria would be even more under the influence of Hezbollah and Iran, which is already financing Assad’s war chest. In any case, Tel-Aviv, America’s closest ally certainly doesn’t favor instability or Iran’s hand at its northern border.

The first do-something option, which appears to be most likely as of today, is some punitive, yet highly symbolic, air strikes on regime buildings and forces for crossing the red line. But without extending them in a Libya-like campaign the course of the war wouldn’t be changed. To help the rebels oust Assad a Libya like campaign is needed. According to the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Chef General Dempsey this would require hundreds of air crafts, naval vessels and supporting units and could cost to billion dollars per month. The big unknown is what a post-Assad regime will look like and if it makes the region any more stable.

Secondly, the US could decide to at least protect civilians from attacks by establishing safe heavens along the Turkish border. These could be secured by air force, but would most likely require some ground forces as well, allowing international organizations to come in. Of course a humanitarian mission would require a stronger financial and political commitment. Usually the public is also less favorable of missions that do not directly concern national security, which makes this a more theoretical than practical political option, as Obama won’t be keen on another Somalia.

Option number three is to secure or destroy Assad’s chemical weapons before these falls into the wrong hands or causes more havoc. Even if he didn’t use them the idea that the opposition is in possession and is able to use these is not comforting either. The question is if destroying the chemical stockpile can be achieved through air and special ops alone. A Pentagon assessment seemed, however, to imply that ground forces would be needed to secure the stockpile. This goal is the easiest to define and most tangible as it aligns with US security interests.

But even to secure Assad’s chemical weapons, a boots-on-the-ground scenario is, for domestic and external reasons out of the question. With Afghanistan and Iraq the army’s resources are drained and the public not in favor of another ground war. Also, engaging the US in an asymmetric proxy war is the Mullah’s wet dream. Lastly, what would Washington’s reaction be if US forces were attacked with chemical weapons? Saddam didn’t cross that line in the first gulf war, but what if Assad did?

The big historic irony of the America’s reluctance and indecisive action in Syria is that it is related to the last Iraq war, which was fought exactly on the grounds to oust a crazy dictator possessing weapons of mass destruction.

  • 28.08.2013
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