The Obama administration seems likely to embark upon a relatively fruitless campaign to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for using chemical weapons against their own people. While noble, the administration and the loose coalition of foreign powers that support action against the regime have not laid out the goals they wish to achieve by slamming a few Tomahawk missiles into military installations and other assets. As is true most of the time, military action produces far more negative than positive consequences, and these are the top five reasons why attacks on Syria will maintain that canon.
1. Collateral Damage
The Obama administration has leaked their potential weapon of choice, the Tomahawk cruise missile. The latest version of the Tomahawk can be guided through a window in a target building from 1,500 miles away, loiter in the sky while beaming damage assessments from other missiles back to commanders, and dynamically change targets after being launched. But if the intelligence being used to paint such targets is shoddy, hundreds of innocent people could die. Such awesome power is only as useful as its human operators, and as we have seen before, the risk to innocents is high.
While the consequences of an attack on Syria for U.S. military installations, Israeli security, oil prices, and relations with allies and adversaries may be obvious, other unintended results are not as clear.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, is seen as more pliable than his predecessor; a vital asset to the U.S. in its struggle to come to some type of nuclear agreement with Iran. Attacking Syria could be a direct severance from this human olive branch, as Rouhani has already come out against such action and pledged to ally with Russia to thwart it. Further, there will be little incentive for Rouhani to cede nuclear ground if he witnesses the U.S. attack one of his only allies, sending a clear message that his country’s nuclear program may be its last line of defense against an increasingly hostile Western adversary.
Further, Saudi Arabia has been crafting some rather unorthodox foreign policy as of late. Meant to entice Russia away from Assad and win uneasy approval of military action, Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan has allegedly offered Vladimir Putin better cooperation, favorable petroleum market manipulation, and protection of Russia’s only regional military base, located on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, if Russia will turn its back on Assad. The last thing the U.S. needs is Saudi Arabia getting in bed with Russia or anyone else east of Riyadh, potentially altering the dynamics of the entire region.
Interestingly, Hezbollah has entered the fray in Syria, ferociously defending the Assad regime and its assets. But if Hezbollah goes all-in after a U.S. strike, it may cause further problems for Syrian rebel groups that are hoping a strike helps change the balance of power in their favor. On an alternate course, Hezbollah’s devotion to Assad could be an overstep, leaving power vacuums in Lebanon, and even motivating Israel to chop the snake’s head off while it’s down. If one thing is certain, the U.S. requires stability in the Middle East in order to achieve its own policy objectives, and Hezbollah’s future, as bizarre as it may seem, is a large part of that equation.
Lastly, any Western attack on a Muslim country is a boon to Islamic extremists — Shia and Sunni alike — who use such attacks as recruiting material and to bolster their message of paranoia that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam. Not only is this dangerous for the U.S., but it could bolster Al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria further while causing complications for allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who at present is using such extremists to fight the Assad regime. What is unapparent is the historical cycle of good extremist/bad extremist that Saudi Arabia goes through with its radical partners, and that means consequences in the Kingdom that have bitten both Saudi and the West, most notably in 2001.
3. Mission Creep
While the air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya was considered a tactical success, it was a blatant example of a mission to protect becoming a mission to decapitate.
Many people are comparing the action taken by the U.S. and others to stop Qaddafi’s slaughter machine from killing innocent civilians to this new Syrian case. While we may never know whether regime change was the intended goal in Libya, we do know that the campaign ended that way when a no-fly zone was implemented and NATO forces actively engaged Libyan soldiers in support of the rebel opposition.
While the wording of the UN resolution for Libya was incredibly vague in detailing appropriate use of force, at least there was a resolution to go by. Since U.S.-backed action against the Syrian regime would never clear the UN Security Council, there is effectively no script with which to deal militarily with Assad. Just because the Obama administration has made it clear that the purpose of attacks is not regime change in Syria does not mean that the tides won’t change if a quick smack upside Assad’s head births unintended consequences.
4. It Probably Won't Work
Even if the U.S. simply wishes to punish Assad and walk away, sending only a message that chemical attacks will not go unchecked, what if he does it again?
Further, whether he uses chemical weapons, tanks, or Russian supplied Dragunov sniper rifles, he is still killing civilians on a massive scale and nothing short of regime change will stop it.
While this is certainly not advocacy for such major action, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which a few missile strikes stop the merciless killing of innocent civilians by a tyrant, no matter his methods. If the ultimate goal for the U.S. –and the one it should be-- is to stop the death toll from rising in Syria, strikes of this nature do absolutely nothing to achieve this end and are almost antithetical to such a goal.
5. Unfortunately, It Just Isn't Our Business
In the world of international relations there exist two main schools of thought: Liberalism and Realism. Liberals seek to create a more peaceful world through diplomacy, economic and political interdependence, and the setting of global standards. But if that doesn’t work, in a crystalline show of dangerous irony, they are happy to use force.
Realists recognize that not only is peace and order completely impossible on a global scale, but that force rarely achieves the desired outcome when trying to realize such lofty ambitions and should be used only when clear goals exist, domestic or international security is in imminent danger, broad international support is in place, and a well thought out plan that covers every conceivable contingency has been prepared and is under perpetual review. In the Syrian case study, as well as Iraq in 2003 and most other wars fueled by idealism, Realists win by a mile.
Heartless as it may be, it just doesn’t make sense to get involved in another country’s civil war, no matter how cheaply and with minimal effort we plan to do so. Such measures rarely end desirably, and threaten to create further disarray while pushing us adrift of the impossible goal we’re trying to realize with such a fantastically bizarre choice of tool.