From everything we know, President Obama seems headed for the narrowest, shortest response possible to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. We hope this is not so, for reasons we’ll discuss below, but it is unsurprising. The president has no stomach for complex military situations. He prides himself on “ending wars.” And after five years of downplaying hard power and demanding we “nation-build at home,” the public and Congress is naturally disinclined to make a substantial commitment to the Middle East.
The itsy-bitsy footprint (i.e. a few cruise missiles lobbed from ships) is worse than useless. In a letter to the president, an impressive bipartisan list of commentators and former officials argue that less is not more here:
At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.
Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.
Their argument is bolstered by new reports suggesting that the moderate rebels are identifiable and geographically distinct from terrorist elements. Moreover, one of the prime concerns — jihadists getting chemical weapons — would be alleviated if we destroyed the chemical weapons caches.
Moreover, a negotiated settlement in which Assad retains part of Syria is now impossible. He must go, meaning others must take the reins. It is in our interest to help those more sympathetic to the West get the upper hand. Fortunately, these forces are closest to Damascus and perhaps best positioned to seize power if Assad and his regime are promptly destroyed.
Others advocate just knocking off Assad. But this is foolish. Our goal at this point must be to eliminate the threat of additional chemical weapons and, even more important, send the signal that your regime will not survive if you are bent on obtaining or using WMDs.
One of the open letter’s signatories, Reuel Marc Gerecht, puts it best when he writes:
If the president intends to maintain American influence, which means maintaining a credible threat to go to war to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, then Washington’s response to Assad’s challenge must be devastating. The entire regime must be targeted: elite military units, aircraft, armor and artillery; all weapons-depots; the myriad organizations of the secret police; the ruling elite’s residences; and other critical Alawite infrastructure. President Obama may not believe that Middle Eastern conflicts are a proper test of his or America’s mettle; that sentiment is irrelevant now. He put the country’s reputation on the line in Syria.
In short, anything that leaves Assad in command, his regime in power or the stockpiles of chemical weapons intact would be a humiliation to the United States and an invitation for Syria’s sponsor to plunge ahead with its nuclear weapons program.