The Obama administration may be missing a major opportunity to strike a serious blow against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and boost moderate elements in the opposition if it adopts a cautious minimalist approach to forthcoming military strikes, analysts suggest.
“The kind of attack the administration appears to be planning will demonstrate to Syria and to others that there is a cost the United States is willing to impose for crossing clearly established American red lines and violating widely held international norms,” said Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security, a centrist research center.
But, he said, “It probably will do very little to alter the fundamental balance of forces on the ground or hasten the end of the conflict.”
The West’s reluctance to provide lethal assistance to moderate factions in the opposition has had the effect of boosting militant jihadist elements and aggravating sectarian tensions. Some observers contend.
“Although warmly applauded by foreign policy ‘realists,’ the administration’s resolve to stand aloof from crisis has been a strategic and moral failure,” says Will Marshall (right), the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. “What began as a civil uprising has morphed into something worse: a full-fledged proxy war that is inflaming the region’s sectarian divisions,” he writes for Real Clear World:
For Washington, the costs and dangers of non-intervention are mounting. Admittedly, as Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote recently, it’s often hard to discern friend from foe in Syria, and moderate forces seem weak relative to the jihadis. It’s also hard to tell who the good guys are in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. But it shouldn’t be this difficult for our leaders to articulate clearly what’s at stake for America in these conflicts.
“No U.S. policy toward Middle East will work if we don’t know our own mind,” says Marshall, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
But President Obama told PBS on Wednesday that he is contemplating “limited, tailored approaches” to any military strikes against the regime.
The administration’s plan would “gravely disappoint our allies and accomplish little other than to be seen as doing something,” said a retired Central Command officer.
“It will be seen as a half measure by our allies in the Middle East,” the officer said. “Iran and Syria will portray it as proof that the U.S. is unwilling to defend its interests in the region.”
Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. naval officer who worked on contingency plans, said that cruise missile attacks could have a major effect on Assad’s forces if they were concentrated on destroying his warplanes and airfields used to receive arms from Iran, the Times reports:
If the strike was largely symbolic, however, it could backfire by leading Syrian rebels to conclude they might not receive much support from the United States and would be better off aligning themselves with extremists.
“The strikes could be consequential or counterproductive,” said Mr. Harmer, who is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “The secular rebels are watching us closely.”
If Mr. Assad’s forces carried out last week’s chemical weapons attack, as American and British intelligence officials assert, it is possible that they anticipated they could ride out a potential American military response. For this reason, military experts say the strikes have to be aimed at the Syrian armed forces, infrastructure and command centers that Mr. Assad sees as critical to his ability to control his country and prevail.
“If deterrence is to be restored, we need to do more than Assad has anticipated and destroy assets he really values,” said Franklin C. Miller, a former Pentagon official.
The consequences of military action must be evaluated on strategic, operational and tactical levels, argues Quilliam, the London-based anti-extremism think-tank.
“On each of these levels it must be determined to what extent intervention can reduce the capability of the regime, without aiding the jihadists, and while strengthening the position of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, whom the Government have identified as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” the group contends:
With these issues in mind, there are a number of factors that should be considered for any military action to be credible:
- Any action should be based on evidence that the use of chemical weapons against civilians has taken place by the regime.
- If the resolution in the Security Council is blocked, the applicability of the legal principle of humanitarian intervention must be identified.
- Steps must be taken to ensure that intervention does not benefit jihadist groups operating in Syria, by working closely with the National Coalition as the sole local partner.
- The chemical weapons arsenal of the regime must be secured and prevented from falling into the hands of extremist groups as a key objective of any action.
- There should be support and participation of regional countries for intervention.