SHAPING A MEANINGFUL OUTCOME TO USE OF STRIKES ON SYRIA
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Accepting Risk on the Basis of Realism Rather than Idealism
05 Sep 13. If the pause in the run-up to U.S. strikes in Syria can accomplish anything at all, it should be to make the U.S. adopt a strategy that can do as much as is practical to shape a stable outcome to the Syrian civil war. This does not mean a narrow focus on some idealized “end state.” Wars may almost always end in influencing history, but they almost never control its course for even the first years following a conflict. The aftermath of most serious civil conflict has been sufficiently unstable so it never conforms to the expectations of even those who shaped the victory in the conflict, and the very terms “end state” and “conflict termination” usually prove to be little more than oxymorons as many forces that led to a conflict reassert themselves and as unexpected new forces emerge.
At the same time, as the Obama Administration has begun to acknowledge, there is little real point in striking the Assad regime simply to send a theoretical message about chemical weapons. Regimes that desperately seek a weapon of mass destruction will continue to do so. If anything, the message of a narrowly focused U.S. strike could be just the opposite of what the U.S. intends. Like the NATO action in Libya and the U.S. attacks on Iraq, the impact of such strikes on nations like North Korea and Libya may not deter them from using chemical weapons but inspire them to rely on nuclear weapons. To the world’s worst regimes, the unintended message of limited strikes that leave their governments intact may be that that if you are going to use such weapons, use them decisively enough to make any international action worth the cost. Worse, such actions may lead regimes to question the utility of using weapons with limited value in deterring international intervention, like chemical weapons. Instead, they may be incentivized to go nuclear, go cyber, or support violent non-state actors.
If the U.S. is to accomplish any lasting strategic result, it must carry out a truly major cruise missile strike and focus on changing the outcome of the Syrian civil war, rather than focus on Syria’s chemical weapons. In the short term, this means a focus on high value military targets that will have an impact on the civil war rather than a focus on chemical weapons stocks or production facilities – all of which present difficult targets for the limited payloads of cruise missiles, may already be dispersed, and can be reconstituted if the Assad regime survives.
Key targets will include high visibility facilities that are symbols of repression, like the headquarters of Syrian air force intelligence, the secret police, and other key headquarters. They include fixed command and control sights with lots of equipment and connectivity, and that serve the most active regime military and security forces. They include key delivery systems like Syria’s air and helicopter forces and facilities, and key air defense sites that will leave the regime vulnerable to follow on strikes.
But making a limited, short-term tilt in the balance will not be enough. Pushing Assad into more shelling and bombing of civilians with “conventional” weapons, relying even more on the Hezbollah and Iranian support, and being even more repressive will make things even worse in human terms inside Syria, It will also be even more destabilizing in the region as Assad’s part of Syria produces more refugees, becomes more dependent on Iran and the Hezbollah, and Assad’s actions produce more Sunni anger in rebel held Syria and strengthen the extremist factions backed by groups like al Nusra and al Qa’ida.
This is why the Obama Administration and the Congress need to act decisively on one key provision of the “Syria Joint Resolution for Mark Up” that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed on September 4th:
“Not later than 30 days after t