Syria War: Chemical Weapons Use is the Wrong "Red Line"

Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has publicly concluded that the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons and crossed a “red line” for U.S. intervention. While Rep. Rogers certainly has access to classified information as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, nearly all other assessments make it clear that what actually happened in Aleppo last week, and which weapons were used, remains unclear. The United Nations has launched a probe into the events and the White House has repeatedly assured the press that they are investigating all available information and that Assad’s forces would suffer “consequences” if they were found to have used chemical weapons on their own people. Focusing on whether these weapons were used, however, obscures the reality that chemical weapons use is simply the wrong red line for Syria. American decisions about whether and how to intervene in this conflict must be driven by their likelihood to achieve strategic goals, not by a reactionary desire to simply do something. Facilitating the development and support of the key infrastructure of post-Assad Syria should be the focus for American policymakers.

If it turns out that chemical weapons were in fact used, that would certainly represent a tactical escalation, but it is difficult to see how it changes the fundamental dynamics on the ground. Dying from mustard gas in Aleppo is horrible, but so is being blasted apart by mortars outside Damascus. One of the many American interests in the conflict surely is to minimize the civilian death toll, but with 70,000 already slain — debating the weapons that are used is a conversation about tools, not lives. In the medium term, American interests center on constraining Iranian influence, ensuring that Syria does not become a breeding and training ground for terrorists, minimizing the spread of regional instability, and guarding against the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. These are the yardsticks that must guide U.S. action, not arbitrary red-lines.

Securing Syria’s chemical weapons is not simply a matter of a few surgical air strikes. The regime still maintains a significant anti-air capability and the Pentagon concludes that an operation with any chance of success would involve up to 75,000 American troops. Those forces would not be limited to the liberated areas in the North, they would have to push into the heart of regime-controlled territory to access major storage facilities in Damascus and Homs. Policymakers need to be realistic and ask themselves if they are prepared to make that kind of commitment and honestly evaluate whether that type of invasion would increase or decrease the likelihood of securing the full-range of U.S. interests.

Staggering military might, however, is not the only tool at the president’s disposal. Working with international partners to prepare for a post-regime future is an area where the U.S. can actually leverage a significant value-add and do so with a much smaller footprint. The Supreme Military Command needs to be further unified and its various groups need to practice operating under a cogent institutional framework. This is not only critical to achieving tactical successes against the Syrian Army, but also essential for building the habits and mechanics of trust that will be needed for a successful new government. It is often said that there is not one revolution in Syria, but dozens.

What is unifying the rebel groups at the moment is a common enemy, but once the regime falls, scores of groups with very different ideologies and very different visions of a free Syria will emerge in a country awash with weapons and devoid of civil and security infrastructure. The only hope for avoiding a series of multi-fronted civil wars is for the new government to quickly stand up credible institutions that can rein in the extremists and mediate these fundamental disputes in non-violent ways.

The U.S. can help encourage this process now by working with international partners like Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan to centralize the flow of military and non-military aid into the country. Currently the various rebel groups maintain largely proprietary support channels which fuels divisions and makes unifying command and control very difficult. Many components of the Free Syrian Army are already coordinating action in northern Syria, but that cooperation needs to be enhanced through formal structures that have a chance of outliving the present conflict. Resources are power and the international community needs to invest in developing an inclusive platform that can control and disseminate resources in non-political ways, engaging the Aid Coordination Unit of the Syrian Opposition Coalition as well as the Supreme Military Command, and local civilian councils. If there is a red-line in Syria, it should be related to attaining that goal.