U.S. Airstrikes in Syria: Strike Strong Or Don't Strike At All

It seems there is a good chance Congress is going to pass a resolution that will pave the way for U.S. military involvement in Syria. In an address on Saturday, President Barack Obama said he is confident U.S. action can “hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”

If Congress passes a resolution that allows U.S. military involvement it will likely be narrow in scope and only allow for limited strikes from U.S. Arleigh-Burke class destroyers, attack submarines, and maybe stealth bombers. A more restricted, or “tight” resolution, as members of Congress are calling it, might be necessary to get lawmakers who are wary of intervention to back President Obama’s plan to punish Assad.

If the resolution only allows for limited Tomahawk cruise missile strikes, the question then becomes: Can the U.S. do enough damage to Syrian forces to deter Assad from using chemical weapons on civilians again? If the U.S. is really going punish Assad, the effort cannot be half-hearted. Overly restrictive airstrikes that come off as weak or ineffective will make the U.S. look only semi-interested in upholding the values and international law that Kerry and Obama have spent the past week defending. This would then allow Assad to defend his legitimacy to the world, and only strengthen the Iran-Hezbollah-Russia-Syria axis. U.S. military capabilities, leadership, and international resolve will be questioned, damaging any future political capital to use as leverage against Iran building a nuclear bomb. 

President Obama and his cabinet want to demonstrate by attacking Assad that the U.S. has the moral fiber and willingness to lead the international community. Debate the merits of that all you want, but if the coming military action is not in congruence with our recent willingness to lead on Syria, dangerous questions will arise that could inspire actors to respond to a U.S. attack with one of their own.

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If a U.S. attack is weak, Assad might decide that the further use of chemical weapons does more benefit than the punitive harm he survived once before. In the worst case scenario, the U.S. will fire missiles into Syria, inflict only minor damage, and elicit a physical response from Assad against Israel or other U.S. assets. This would provoke a more direct U.S. response that could lead to a dangerous mission creep, as the U.S. would again be forced to up the ante. Obama said this intervention will not be open-ended, and there will be no boots on the ground. Can he stand by that if Assad strikes back, as he has already warned he will?

Using overwhelming airpower to inflict pain is not the most attractive policy, but it’s something the U.S. is very good at. Our military was built to inflict maximum pain on enemies. It is only in the last 12 years that we have turned towards more complicated and unconventional tasks like nation building. If our goal is to hurt Assad, we should do so all the way. Whatever options Obama uses to strike Assad must include a show of overwhelming force. Doing so will achieve the dual goals of inflicting pain and discouraging a direct response by Syria, Iran, or Hezbollah. Anything short of that, and U.S. global strength and resolve will be in question even more than they are now. 

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