Marc Lynch

Restraining Order

Obama's been wise to not get involved in Syria. But now comes the tricky part.


It now seems virtually inevitable that the United States will be launching a military strike against the Syrian regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. The contours of this planned strike seem increasingly clear, as well: several days of bombing of military targets and perhaps chemical weapons facilities. That means it should look a lot like Operation Desert Fox, the December 1998 airstrikes against alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites, and not like the actions against Kosovo or Libya.

The rumored air strikes would drag the United States across a major threshold of direct military involvement, without any serious prospect of ending the conflict or protecting Syrian civilians (at least from non-chemical attacks). They likely would not accomplish more than momentarily appeasing the whimsical gods of credibility. The attack would almost certainly lack a Security Council mandate. Meanwhile, the response from Arab public opinion to another U.S. military intervention has been predictably hostile; even the very Arab leaders who have been aggressively pushing for such military action are refraining from openly supporting it. And nobody really believes that such strikes will actually work.

But it could be worse. The real test of the U.S. air strikes in Syria will be whether they preempt or accelerate moves toward an intervention aimed at regime change, which would drag the United States inexorably into a quagmire. U.S. President Barack Obama’s manifest determination not to get pulled down that slippery slope and his understanding of the implausibility of a successful limited intervention suggest that he believes that he can resist allowing the air strikes to trap America in the Syrian civil war. Let’s hope he’s right.

The debate about Obama’s Syria policy has too often been framed around the supposed existence of plausible options for ending the war through a limited military intervention — if only the president showed more backbone. Nonsense. If there were easy options for ending Syria’s bloodbath and delivering on the president’s public aspiration to see President Bashar al-Assad gone, the administration would have taken them long ago. There are not.

Gen. Martin Dempsey’s authoritative analysis of military options in response to Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) made painfully clear the Pentagon’s understanding of the likely costs and risks of limited military intervention. None of those have changed in the last month. Indeed, this is one of the greatest differences from the run-up to Iraq: Instead of politicized intelligence minimizing the likely costs and risks of a war already decided on, Dempsey and the White House are honestly assessing and communicating the costs of a Syrian war. No wonder McCain is outraged.

Washington suffers no shortage of suggestions for getting more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. Over the last year and a half, I’ve read dozens of think tank reports and thousands of op-eds urging U.S. military intervention in some form, from no-fly zones to arming the opposition to air campaigns. Not one has made a remotely plausible case that these limited means will resolve the war in ways favorable to Syrians, the region, or America. The honest ones admit that limited intervention is a wedge toward mission creep (as if Iraq had not proven that full-scale intervention is bound to fail). The rest rely on an alarming series of best-case assumptions that fall apart on close inspection. Seriously, when was the last time any best case scenario actually materialized in the Middle East?

From what I’ve seen and heard in countless public and private settings over the last two years, Obama and his team have thoroughly examined all of these ideas and more. Their hesitation is based on a well-founded recognition of the implausibility of these proposals for limited intervention. And it’s not like they haven’t tried. The administration has spent many long months trying to engineer a viable Syrian opposition, pushing for a diplomatic process, jawboning erstwhile allies to stop working at cross-purposes by competitively funding local proxies, assessing the prospects of military options, and trying to plan for what comes next. Assad’s presumed use of chemical weapons has transformed the demand for action, but not the strategic analysis underlying America’s painful policy choices.

Obama is routinely lambasted for a failure to lead on Syria. In fact, he has been leading … just not in the direction his critics would like to go. Washington remains wired for war, always eager to talk itself into another battle in the same basic ways: invocations of leadership, warnings of lost credibility, stark sketches based on worst-case scenarios of inaction and the best case scenarios for low-cost, high-reward action. Most presidents — including a John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney — would likely have long ago leapt to play the assigned role; the United States would already be hip deep in the Syrian civil war. But Obama has actually learned the real lessons of Iraq, the risks and costs, to America and to the world, of poorly conceived interventions abroad that never go quite as promised.

It came as a bit of shock, then, when the administration suddenly began moving toward military action this week, especially when pundits quickly grabbed onto Kosovo as a likely model for the impending campaign. Fortunately, the administration rushed to clarify that they did not in fact envision such plans. It has been reassuring to see their war plan aggressively communicated in terms of punitive strikes (which will presumably also take out the SCUD launchers and attack aircraft which have wreaked such bloody havoc on Syria’s people) and explicit rejection of the goal of regime change. Every message coming out of the administration screams limited goals and warnings against mission creep.

But the administration’s loud protestations of limited aims and actions are only partially reassuring. Much the same language was used at the outset of the Libya campaign. Everybody knows that it will be excruciatingly difficult for Obama to hold the line at punitive bombing after those strikes inevitably fail to end the war, Assad remains publicly defiant, the Geneva 2 diplomatic process officially dies, and U.S. allies and Syrian insurgents grumble loudly about the strike’s inadequacy. Once the psychological and political barrier to intervention has been shattered, the demands for escalation and victory will become that much harder to resist. And what happens when Assad launches his next deadly sarin attack — or just massacres a lot of Syrians by non-chemical means? This too Obama clearly knows. But that knowledge may still not be enough to save him.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark