Questions and Airstrikes

Why Congress needs to think hard about Obama’s Syria plan.


President Barack Obama’s surprising announcement that he will put off action on Syria until Congress weighs in offers a chance to consider, or reconsider, fundamental questions regarding a U.S. military strike on Syria. Congress should recognize that the president’s decision to consult has costs and that a limited military strike is likely to accomplish little and could even make a bad situation worse.

Congress’s first question should be about the president’s claim that, "our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now." Yes, of course, the Syrian civil war still will be raging weeks from now, and the U.S. military will remain prepared to strike. But during those weeks the carnage will continue, with jihadists growing stronger among the opposition. The diplomatic moment created by Bashar al-Assad’s massive use of chemical weapons on August 21 will fade as other concerns become prominent on the international agenda.

Legislators must be pleased to have a say, but they should also ask whether the delay in striking and the last-minute decision to put the use of force before Congress affects U.S. credibility on other issues. Will Israel believe America has its back if the president must wait for Congress to approve military action? Does any coercive threat regarding the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program now come with the caveat that the United States would only strike after a congressional vote? Iran’s mullahs will no doubt enjoy this fillip to democracy. In the end, the greater democratic legitimacy that comes from congressional support may make this worthwhile, but the decision is not cost free.

Beyond questions concerning Congress’s role, the scale of the use of force should be a top concern. Politically, a limited bombing campaign that is of short duration and hits few targets is easy: after a few days of media buzz, the American people, and the world, will soon go back to ignoring a conflict they’d rather forget. Militarily, however, a short campaign will barely make a dent in the Syrian regime’s hold on power or ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The regime has waged a life-and-death civil war for more than two years: 50 or so Tomahawks lobbed from the warships in the Mediterranean, though able to hit targets the rebels cannot, will not fundamentally alter the military balance.

Hitting chemical weapons storage areas has dangers, as some of the chemicals may be released in the process. So instead the United States may leave many stockpiles alone and go after regime bulwarks like elite forces and command-and-control sites, as well as air defense nodes. Destruction of these targets would be a real blow to Assad, though the administration would justify them as going after the broader infrastructure responsible for chemical use. But Assad is likely to see it as part of a broader strategy of regime change. So although the administration is trying to make this about chemical weapons, the Syrian regime will interpret it as a much broader strike.

Because Assad clearly sees this as a life-and-death battle, Congress should ask the administration what they intend to do if the Syrian regime remains defiant. Obama has tried to assure a war-weary American public that the strikes are a one-off. But if the purposes are deterrence and to enforce a norm against chemical weapons use, defiance leaves America only worse off. My sense is that Assad will be likely to avoid using chemical weapons again because he fears escalation — but like most analysts I also thought he’d avoid a massive, obvious use in the first place. Assad may also play it safe in terms of fomenting terrorism outside of Syria against the United States or its allies, but again his chemical weapons use and fear for his regime’s survival suggests that he may take foolish risks. Simply put, we should admit we don’t fully understand how Assad makes decisions. So Congress needs to ask the administration what it has in store if the worst case materializes.

Assad’s friends, particularly Iran but also Russia, should also be part of the discussion. Both may increase support for the Syrian regime in the face of an American attack. So while Assad’s forces may take a pounding, he may gain new arms, new fighters, and more financial support. Iranian officials have even talked loudly if vaguely that someone, somewhere, might retaliate in response to a U.S. strike.

The question of credibility should also be prominent in the debate. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry raised expectations that America would strike Syria. Is there a price to backing down? It is easy to doomsay and claim that every American enemy will become emboldened. But hyperbole aside, escalating the rhetoric and backing down in the face of, well, nothing suggests to U.S. foes that Washington has little stomach for future fights.

Finally, though I am skeptical U.S. strikes will change the military balance, Congress should also explore whether we are prepared for "success." Jihadists are running amok in Syria, and the U.S.-backed moderate opposition is weak. American programs to strengthen the jihadists militarily, which received only lukewarm administration support and (ahem, ahem) stalled in Congress until July, are barely off the ground. Should Assad fall, Syria would probably collapse into chaos and radicals would control much of the country.

The debate in the weeks to come should be broad. Legislators and the administration should discuss the strategic and military implications of a congressional role and think about the long-term effects of any U.S. military action. In the end, a healthy debate might find that a middle ground — a strike that hits only a few targets and is of limited duration — may be the worst of all options. To make a difference in the long-term, the United States needs to do more, particularly with the opposition. And if it won’t do more, then staying out altogether may be the best option.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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