When the UK parliament voted against missile strikes on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime because of its use of nerve gas against civilians, the prospect of military action temporarily receded. Now that US President Barack Obama has made his position clear in favor of an attack, it again seems all but inevitable. But what kind of action, for what purpose, in the service of what larger strategy? All this remains obscure.
There is impartial evidence that nerve gas was used in an attack in the northeastern suburbs of Damascus on August 21. There are indications that Assad forces were responsible. There is no proof.
US intelligence information is regarded as strong but, as officials have repeatedly said, it does not make a “slam dunk case” against Assad. The UN investigation team, which was already in Syria looking for evidence about earlier alleged uses of chemical weapons, can collect blood and soil samples so as to analyze what happened. But their mandate does not include identifying who did it.
But the evidence is far from the most important part of the story. It is an obvious logical point that if the evidence offers unvarnished and unspun proof of grotesque criminality, that does not mean that any action that follows is therefore justified. There is much else to consider, including what action is planned and with what intended outcome.
The most likely action consists of air or missile strikes and perhaps increased arms supplies to the anti-Assad forces. For the time being, the prospect of forces on the ground seems not to be a real option in almost anybody’s mind.
I take the view that a full-scale intervention to ensure the victory of the anti-Assad forces would not suit the preferences of US policymakers in particular as well as a scenario in which war continued for a long time. This would bleed the power and weaken the regional influence not just of Assad but also of Iran, a much bigger prize.
It’s a grisly scenario and contains nothing but misery for the people of Syria. The American arch-realist Edward Luttwak, author inter alia of the pleasingly titled article, “Give War a Chance,” set out his view in the New York Times that an enduring stalemate in Syria is the only viable US policy option. He argues it can be simply achieved by arming the insurgents until they are doing well, then denying them arms till they are doing badly, then arming them, then not.
Judged by the criterion of ending the conflict or tipping the balance of advantage decisively toward the insurgents, a limited strike will not achieve anything. But there are some proponents of a strike who will come out and say that is part of the point.
UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set out the ground for this. He said that the action would be purely a response to the use of chemical weapons and nothing more: “What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another.”
In this sentiment he was joined by Labor leader Ed Miliband, who set three conditions for offering his party’s support to a strike against Assad, one of which is that the action must be “specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons.”
This seems quite likely to become the center ground consensus, the moderate view, the political common sense of the day. So let me be very careful and nuanced in expressing my own perspective on it.
It is barking mad. And cruel, too.
It is cruel because it will raise expectations of escalation among Syrians who want Assad overthrown, only for them to be dashed with the passage of time.
And it is mad for two reasons. First, taken on its own terms there is no reason to expect it will work. What is the success record of limited strikes?
US missile strikes against actual and suspected al-Qaida targets in the 1990s did nothing to deter 9/11. US air strikes against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi in 1986 did nothing to deter the Lockerbie bombing two years later.
Second, it is mad because you cannot launch missiles at a state involved in a civil war and have no impact on that. To launch missile strikes without having a clear idea of how they fit into the bigger picture is indeed madness.
At least on this point, Barack Obama sees a bit further. While emphasizing that the attacks he wants Congress to back will be limited, he added that the action “also fits into a broader strategy” to weaken Assad, strengthen the opposition and create conditions for “peace and stability in the region.”
He’s wrong about the consequences and ignores the risk of an escalatory spiral both in Syria itself and in the region—but at least he doesn’t pretend the strikes will have no effect on the bigger picture.
A peaceful goal needs peaceful means. That is the core issue. The bigger picture into which missile strikes fit is slowly bleeding Syria and its main regional backer, Iran. It may also include increased risks in Lebanon, other parts of the Middle East, and even farther afield. The bigger picture that might bring something like real peace to Syria does not include missile strikes.
This is not an easy argument to make. Moral outrage about the use of chemical weapons is the obvious civilized reaction. But moral outrage does not necessarily make good political strategy.
The use of chemical weapons is awful. But nothing about them changes the political logic of achieving peace in Syria. If that is not the primary goal of western powers then their policy is wrong-headed and duplicitous. If it is the prime goal, then missile strikes are wrong-headed.
If western leaders wish to play a useful role in the hard Syrian work of building a more peaceful future in Syria, they must start by understanding three things:
• They cannot do it alone.
• If they seek a military option, it will not be easy.
• If they prefer a diplomatic option, their eventual deal-making will involve negotiating with Russia, Iran and Syria, among others.
Dan Smith is secretary general of the London-based International Alert and former director of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). He is also author of “The State of the World Atlas,” “The Atlas of War and Peace,” and “The State of the Middle East.” He was recently appointed part-time professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Manchester.