Should the the U.S. strike Syria? These are the five smartest arguments.

September 3, 2013

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after a Syrian Army tank shell explodes.(REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

The debate within the United States over whether or not the United States should launch limited, off-shore strikes against Syria, as punishment for President Bashar al-Assad's suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians, is now entering the realm of U.S. domestic policy. And that means the conversation is getting politicized, which can make it tougher to follow.

Among foreign policy-watchers, this question often invokes deep, almost tortured ambivalence. On the one hand, it's an opportunity to protect the international norm against chemical weapons, which matters not just for Syria but for future wars as well. On the other, it's risky, could have unintended consequences and almost no one believes that it will bring the two-plus-year war any close to resolution.

Here, then, are highlights from five of the smartest arguments I've come across on whether the U.S. should strike Syria.

1. International Crisis Group: Intervention could actually help Assad.

• It might discourage future use of chemical weapons by signaling even harsher punishment in the event of recidivism – an important achievement in and of itself. Should the regime find itself fighting for its survival, however, that consideration might not weigh heavily. Elements within the opposition also might be tempted to use such weapons and then blame the regime, precisely in order to provoke further U.S. intervention. ...

• Military action, which the U.S. has stated will not aim at provoking the regime’s collapse, might not even have an enduring effect on the balance of power on the ground. Indeed, the regime could register a propaganda victory, claiming it had stood fast against the U.S. and rallying domestic and regional opinion around an anti-Western, anti-imperialist mantra.

Grain of salt: The Crisis Group report, heavily praised for its analysis of strikes' potential impact, also has been widely criticized for advocating a political solution that neither side of the conflict has shown any interest in accepting or that would even be possible to organize.


2. Steve Coll, The New Yorker: The norm against chemical weapons is worth preserving.

Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands of civilians with conventional weaponry. But chemical warfare is a step beyond. Since the Second World War, governments and armies have gradually forsworn weapons that do not distinguish between soldiers and civilians. These include nuclear, biological, and chemical arms, and also land mines and cluster munitions. The treaties that ban such arms are building blocks in a decades-long campaign by human-rights activists to insist that warfare be subordinated to international law, that soldiers attack only other soldiers, and that generals be held accountable for where they aim their weapons.

International laws and informal warnings of retaliation are designed to dissuade dictators and terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction under any circumstances. A failure to enforce such norms in Syria would likely lower the threshold for chemical use in this and future wars. Obama’s deliberateness about military action in Syria is understandable. The consequences of intervention may be difficult to control; the Syrian opposition is fractured and influenced by jihadi fighters. As Iraq has shown, the public requires transparency, accountability, and democratic deliberation when war crimes become a basis for more war.

In Iraq, starting in 2006, Chemical Ali went on trial for mass murder and other crimes against humanity. The proceedings were undeniably flawed. Yet they put Majid’s murderous arrogance on full display to his countrymen, and guaranteed that the record of his guilt can never be obscured. He was hanged in 2010. The prospect of even such rough justice for Syria’s chemical bombers looks elusive. Yet Obama’s original instincts were sound. There are red lines even in a war as devoid of clarity as Syria’s. The best available evidence is that on August 21st Bashar al-Assad’s forces crossed to the other side.

Dina Esfandiary of International Institute for Strategic Studies makes a similar case here.


3. Steven Cook, Council on Foreign Relations: Strikes would only make things worse.

Assad would remain defiant in the face of an attack. It is not as if he is constrained now, but he would probably step up the violence both to exert control within his country and to demonstrate that the United States and its allies cannot intimidate him. At the same time, the regime’s Iranian patrons and Hezbollah supporters would increase their investment in the conflict, meaning more weapons and more fighters pouring into Syria — resulting in more atrocities. And on the other side, Syrian opposition groups would welcome a steady stream of foreign fighters who care more about killing Alawites and Shiites than the fate of the country. This environment would heighten Syria’s substantial sectarian, ethnic and political divisions, pulling the country apart.

The formidable U.S. armed forces could certainly damage Assad’s considerably less potent military. But in an astonishing irony that only the conflict in Syria could produce, American and allied cruise missiles would be degrading the capability of the regime’s military units to the benefit of the al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting Assad — the same militants whom U.S. drones are attacking regularly in places such as Yemen. Military strikes would also complicate Washington’s longer-term desire to bring stability to a country that borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.


4. Daniel Serwer, Johns Hopkins University: Smart strikes could break the political deadlock.

I am not privy to the Administration’s military planning, but a serious political strategy would continue to aim for a power-sharing arrangement that shoves Bashar al Asad aside. The diplomacy would likely benefit from broader military action (against the Syrian air force, Scuds and artillery) than is currently contemplated, especially if it aimed at tilting the battlefield in the opposition direction. I don’t know if the Congress is willing to point in that direction, as it might require deeper American commitment than we can afford at present. But at the very least Congress should insist on stronger support for the Syrian opposition.

Is there an American interest in getting more deeply involved? Continuation of the war will likely cause state collapse in Syria as well as weaken Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and possibly Turkey. Al Qaeda affiliated extremists in both Iraq and Syria will be the beneficiaries. Kurdish irredentism is a likely consequence. The Syrian war has the potential to reshape the Levant in ways that are inimical to American interests. If Congress is going to worry about military action in response to chemical weapons use by Syria, it should also worry about a political and military strategy to counter longer-term threats to Middle East peace and stability with potentially gigantic costs to the United States.


5. Fareed Zakaria, CNN: Strikes would make little difference but to highlight larger U.S. failure.

In truth, Obama and many others miscalculated. They believed that Assad's regime was near the end, misreading both its strength and brutality, but also the level of support it has from several segments of Syrian society. Then, just about a year ago, came the off-the-cuff remarks about a red line on chemical weapons, insufficiently thought through but now publicly stated and definitive. ...

I don't think that this strike, should it eventually take place, will be as damaging as its critics fear. The Assad regime will likely hunker down, take it, and move on.

It will make little difference one way or the other. But the manner in which the Obama administration has first created and then mismanaged this crisis will, alas, cast a long shadow on America's role in the world.

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Max Fisher · September 2, 2013