Since March 2011, Syrian society has been ripped apart at the seams. In counter-attack after attack, over 100,000 people have lost their lives — civilians and combatants, Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Arabs, and Kurds. Despite the daily loss of life that has left much of the world numb to the tragedy, last week’s chemical attack has brought the world’s attention back to Syria, increasing the number of Western statesmen calling for intervention, and emboldening those already doing so. Even President Obama, long reticent to take an active role in the Syrian Civil War, has shifted his stance after such a blatant transgression of his rhetorical "red-line."
As the administration debates a response to the attack, media reports suggest that they favor conducting limited tactical missile strikes against regime targets as a "punishment" not for the mass killing of civilians, but for breaking the rules of the playground. On its face, this response seems appropriate and tempered, demonstrating American resolve while avoiding long-term entanglement in the quagmire of loose political alliances and ever-shifting battlefield realities that have come to characterize the conflict. In reality, the suggested plans are unlikely to accomplish either the immediate goals of preventing future mass atrocity or to promote an outcome in the conflict that is in the best interest of the United States.
Recent polling suggests that 60% of Americans are against an intervention, however limited, in Syria. Even more tellingly, only a mere 9% of Americans actively support such a venture. Those 180 million Americans who are skeptical of a western intervention reflect the deeply divided opinions in Washington and confusion over what American interests in the conflict are, and what the strategy should be to promote those interests. In his most recent letter to the president, Speaker Boehner (with whom I am agreeing for the first time in my life) correctly notes that missile strikes like those being discussed are a tactic — not a policy nor a strategy — and called on the president to tell Congress and the American people what the broader American policy in Syria is, and how these strikes further our political aims.
First and foremost, the administration, including Obama himself, has made it clear that any actions taken by the U.S. (if they are taken), would be limited to missile strikes with no long term presence, and punitive, meaning to function as a deterrent against the future use of chemical munitions.
Unfortunately, it is exceedingly unlikely that these missile strikes, in and of themselves, will knock out the regime’s chemical weapons capability, which remains among the most robust across the globe. Further, the administration’s insistence on the limited nature of the strikes, and the government’s disinterest in long term engagement in the conflict will likely feature prominently in the Ba’athist leadership’s decision-making. Taking these two factors together, limited tactical strikes will likely fail to create the kind of change that the administration desires.
This focus on the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, however, really misses the point. While the most recent chemical attack killed civilians by the hundreds in a matter of hours, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed by conventional weapons, by bullets, artillery shells, and rockets, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands who have been forced to flee across international borders into refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
This point gets to the underlying reason that 60% of Americans are skeptical of an intervention: There has been no clear delineation of American policy in the conflict, nor of a strategy to support such an outcome. So far, the administration seems to have failed to ask or adequately answer a seemingly simple question: “What’s next?” How will these strikes stop chemical weapons from getting into the hands of those intent on doing the U.S. harm? What outcome of the conflict would be most amenable to the U.S. and how does this intervention support that outcome? How will the U.S. deal with the refugee crisis threatening to cripple the surrounding countries. Without answers to these questions the strikes are nothing more that a punitive expedition aimed as much at salvaging the U.S.’s reputation after it failed to take action against the government the first time the rhetorical "red-line" was crossed as deterring future chemical attacks against civilians.
This stage of the conflict is far from over and it's about time the United States decided what it wants to happen or American leverage over actors in the region will continue to diminish, whether it launches missiles or not.
Tactical missile strikes that cannot be adequately justified in front of Congress and the American people may not be missile strikes worth launching.