Syria War: Why Cruise Missiles Won't End Assad's Regime

The media is abuzz on the subject of a possible United States attack on Syria. The majority of articles focus on the United States' intent to use its long-range capabilities and its aerial stealth assets to strike Syria with traditional American precision and shock and awe, while minimizing the risk to American lives. The goal of this sort of attack would be to punish the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons, not to pick a side in the two-year civil war. However, few articles analyzing the situation have focused on the fact that deploying air and naval power will not have a resounding effect on the civil war's outcome, but will still greatly increase spreading the conflict to neighboring countries, such as Iran, Lebanon, Russia, and Israel.

Preparing for the strike, the United States has four missile-armed destroyers, the USS Ramage, Mahan, Gravely, and Barry, and at least two submarines in the area. Each destroyer is armed with approximately 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles, each of which has a 1000-pound warhead and a range of 1000 nautical miles, and is designed to fly fast, low, and evade radar and anti-missile countermeasures. In addition, two aircraft carriers are within a few days' sail, as well as fighters deployed within nearby Turkey and Jordan. These weapons are now trained on a number of important targets in Syria, including weapons depots, leadership facilities, airfields, and military bases.

These weapons, however, will likely not be as effective as expected. Despite the precision of today's weapons, they are not perfect. Collateral damage will be caused, and unexpected casualties will occur. In addition, 1000-pound warheads are not particularly powerful, and reinforced targets will likely require multiple missiles. Furthermore, attacks on chemical-weapons sites are highly unlikely, as the risk of the toxins leaking out or being captured by others is too high. During the Gulf War, such sites were attacked repeatedly with a variety of different weapons, including incendiaries, to ensure the destruction of any potential toxins and prevent accidental access. These types of attacks would not be possible without the defeat of the Assad government's air defenses and the deployment of United States Air Force fighters and bombers.

There are also a number of other risks with this approach. The first is that of escalation. Russia is deploying a missile cruiser and anti-submarine ships to the Mediterranean, with the possibility of further deployments. Assaults on Syrian positions may cause the country or its allies to respond in turn, with the potential for strikes on neighboring Israel, a country that is already bracing itself for the possibility of rocket strikes from Lebanon.

Eliot Cohen, known for his critique of the Gulf War, has already noted the similarities with this impending conflict. His quote from the early 1990s, "air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment," remains highly relevant. President Obama has backed himself into a corner, no longer able to ignore the "red line" put in place a year past. The plan, according to Cohen, is for the United States to fire off a salvo of cruise missiles, generate results, and then shift focus towards something else. However, this will leave residual effects in terms of the perception of the United States, globally and in the Middle East. Ineffective actions, in this case, would be worse than a refusal to act altogether, by demonstrating the limited will and ability of the United States. Forty-eight hours of missile strikes will not shatter the will or the capability of the Assad government, which has spent the last two years. A lack of clear results also runs the risk of escalation, the deployment of special operations forces, or a larger-scale deployment of conventional forces.

This conflict will not end as cleanly as the United States hopes it will. The enemy must also decide that the conflict has been resolved. A few hundred Tomahawk missiles, no matter how precise, will not end this conflict and instead risk expanding it. At the very least, the United States' global standing will suffer further, as it continues to half-heartedly police the world.