Syria Conflict: There's No Such Thing As a "Limited" Strike

The Obama administration is on the warpath in Syria. Despite the fact that the UN investigation on the August 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburb of Ghouta has yet to release its findings, the U.S. government has already accused the regime of Bashar Al-Assad of being behind the attack. In the upcoming days the Senate and House will continue to deliberate over whether to give the administration approval to carry out strikes, despite significant opposition from the American public.

One tactic that the Obama administration is using to garner support for the military campaign is to downplay the scope of it. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have constantly stressed that the attacks will only be against Assad's chemical warfare capabilities and not will not extend to outright support of the rebels like in Libya. The current military-force authorization being debated does give a set timeframe of 30-60 days and specifically bars the use of any ground forces. However, neither the secretaries' statements nor the resolution go into detail about what the military action itself will encompass.

The closest we have gotten to any substantive details on the campaign has been a handful of disclosures from government sources and proposals by think tanks such as the Institute for the Study of War. From what we can gather from these sources, the primary targets of the strikes will not be the chemical-weapon stockpiles. Targeting the weapons themselves would cause untold environment damage and leave the stockpiles vulnerable to scavenging. Instead, the targets will be the delivery methods for the weapons (artillery, aircraft, etc.) as well as command centers of the Syrian military. 

While the reasoning behind not directly targeting the stockpiles is sound, the problem is that there is no such thing as a chemical-warfare-only howitzer, missile launcher, bomber, etc. The Syrian military has a sizable number of indirect fire weapons and aircraft that all are, as the New York Times article awkwardly describes, "dual use." They are capable of firing chemical weapons just as easily as they can fire conventional ones. While the amount of equipment in the Syrian government's possession has clearly diminished since the start of the war, the Syrian government still has enough that there will be a lot of potential targets for the strikes.

Assuming that the Obama administration is serious about preventing another chemical attack on the same scale as Ghouta, the problem now is that the Assad regime's capability to use chemical weapons and its ability to fight the war overall are intertwined. If we keep our attacks limited in scope and time frame so as not alter the course of the war in the rebels' favor, then ultimately they will be useless in disrupting and damaging Assad's ability to use chemical warfare in the future. They will be too small to affect the government's warfighting capability and as a consequence Assad himself will be unfazed by the attacks. In a worst-case scenario, he might even order a larger-scale chemical attack as a way to embarrass Obama. 

The alternate solution is to expand the campaign to ensure that a significant portion of Assad's chemical-warfare capabilities are destroyed. This is an equally unappealing option. Not only would it require more manpower, but we will inevitably become the de-facto air force of the rebel factions, including the Al Qaeda-linked and highly influential Al-Nusra Front. In a sense, we will become "Al-Qaeda's Air Force" that Dennis Kucinich warned about, and will be at fault for the ensuing chaos if Assad is deposed and another Islamic fundamentalist state with strong ties to terrorist groups rises in his place.

The strikes are a textbook no-win situation for this country: We either keep the strikes small in scope, ensuring they'll be ineffective, or we focus on waging an effective campaign and risk getting dragged into another war and ultimately supporting our enemies. There is no real middle ground. There is still plenty of time for Congress to debate the merits of the attacks and hopefully err on the side of caution. At the very least, the Obama administration has to give clear objectives and be up-front about the true scope of the mission it is pushing for. The attack on Ghouta was horrifying, but our intervention could easily make matters worse.