The High Cost of a Quick Syria Campaign

Josef Joffe

Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Josef Joffe is Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and Senior Fellow of the Kissinger Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Publisher of Die Zeit, and author of numerous books on global affairs. He is also a former AICGS trustee.

Writing on the danger of a hands-off approach to Syria, Editor of die Zeit and AGI Trustee Josef Joffe argues that a humanitarian intervention would include far different components than the limited strike currently on the table in Washington.

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What would Ike say? Barack Obama’s decision to kick the Syria question over to Congress means America won’t be marching to war for days or weeks yet, but even now the aftereffects of the president’s abdication are being felt in Damascus and beyond. Certainly, Dwight D. Eisenhower would have groaned if Franklin Roosevelt had broadcast such a message of unseriousness to Adolf Hitler. The Allied commander would have known that signaling your punches far in advance is both bad strategy and bad tactics.

Let’s assume Mr. Obama gets his war vote, as British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to do. Even though Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the president’s lieutenants in the House and the Senate, support a strike on Syria, the debate will expose all the doubts and divisions that will reassure Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian sponsors.

This on top of opinion polls that show only half of Americans in favor of a bomb-and-run attack. Adds Tom Cole, a leading Republican, speaking with the New York Times: “Obama hasn’t got a chance to win this vote if he can’t win the majority of his own party, and I doubt he can.”

The only compelling reason for “bombs away!” is sheer moral revulsion. Like Mussolini in Abyssinia in the 1930s and Egypt’s Nasser in the Yemeni civil war of the 1960s, Assad has committed the ultimate war crime. He has killed with a heinous weapon, one that inflicts invisible, painful death. He dropped it on the defenseless, who could not pay back in kind.

Assad’s crime against humanity justifies harsh retribution. But, as Chris Harmer, a former U.S. Navy planner, put it to Foreign Policy last week: “Tactical action in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive.” Lobbing a couple of hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria ― plus precision-guided munitions from American long-range bombers ― can inflict some serious pain on the Assad regime. But, then what? The best moral intention goes awry without the right means.

The first purpose of the strikes should be to hit a dozen or two of Assad’s chemical-weapons depots. But assume, given so much advance warning, that Assad’s warheads are ready to go, that they don’t await the assembly of relatively harmless precursor chemicals. In this case, the attack would release precisely the death-dealing vapors that West wants to imprison for good.

This is just a tactical horror scenario. It does not even begin to touch the tortuous strategic issues.

For all its moral revulsion, the West still faces all the dilemmas that have deterred Syrian intervention over the past two years. The death toll has climbed beyond 100,000 ― no gas needed ― and the refugee streams have swelled into millions.

To do justice to humanitarian duty, the West would have to think strategically and plan far beyond a punitive two-day excursion. Steps Two and Three should be a “no-fly” and a “no-move” zone across the breadth of Syria. Step Four should be safe havens for refugees along the country’s borders.

A quick in-and-out foray can achieve none of this. Cruise missiles don’t win wars.

To truly decimate Assad’s war-making potential requires sustained aerial warfare in the manner of Serbia and Libya. But, Assad has a lot more military muscle than Milosevic and Gadhafi had. And, neither of those two enjoyed the support of two greater powers, Russia and Iran. Tehran’s battle-hardened Hezbollah surrogate is already fighting for the Assad regime.

To protect refugees, the West would have to ready substantial ground forces. Boots on the ground? Heaven forefend! The British Parliament as well as overwhelming majorities in the U.S. and in Germany reject even the quick-and-cheap aerial option.

“With luck,” the Economist editorialized last week, “well-calibrated strikes might scare Mr. Assad towards the negotiating table.” Better make that “with lots of luck.” As Americans should know better than most, civil wars don’t end at the bargaining table. A compromise on slavery — “how about just a little slavery, in the cotton states only?” — would not have reunited the Confederacy and the Union.

Civil wars are fought for exclusive power ― until one side wins. The best possible outcome in Syria is to split the country, as was done in Yemen and Yugoslavia.

Moreover, the winners invariably take revenge on the losers. Having disposed of the Damascene dictator, the West would have to shift the “responsibility to protect” to the new victims: Alawites, Shiites, whoever had cast his lot with Assad. And, let’s not forget the “war within the war,” in which the more secular rebels slug it out against al Qaeda and al Nusra, their nominal allies in the fight against the Assad regime.

The West wouldn’t want these really bad guys to win Damascus, even if it helps them topple Assad. Western leaders would need to be ready for more post-victory warfare, with special forces on the ground at the very least.

The moral of this tale? Mass murder by nerve gas has done nothing to change the grim calculus that has kept the West from plunging into the civil war before. A hit-and-run operation may salve the West’s guilty conscience. But it will not crack the strategic issues behind the moral one: how to rid the world of one tyranny without ushering in a new one, how to enforce some kind of domestic peace among bloodthirsty enemies, how to keep Russia and Iran from securing a permanent stronghold in the Levant.

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly,” orates Macbeth. Perfect advice for the West, and for Mr. Obama’s America above all, which hates long, costly and indecisive wars. But, Syria can’t be done quickly. And, the president has just blinked again by passing the buck to Congress, a move that impresses neither his dubious loyalists nor America’s enemies.

But in a disheartening and perverse way, Mr. Obama’s uncertain trumpet signals strategic good sense. Better to contain this war than to spread it.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.