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The Battle for Syria


President Obama has Big Choices on Syria

August 29th 2013

Free Syrian Army fighters

What will the commander-in-chief order our military to do in Syria, and what will it accomplish?

President Obama has two big sets of choices should he want to launch military action against Syria: What to do before the first shot is fired, and what to do once military action commences. As U.S. warships cruise off Syria, Obama’s national security team has already presented him with a menu of options. For a president who likes to take his time deliberating, decision time is fast approaching.

Question one: Go it alone? The president abhors unilateralism; it was one of his big objections to the war in Iraq, and to earlier intervention in Libya. But the UN Security Council is a nonstarter, given veto promises by close Syria ally Russia. No wonder the State Department said on Wednesday the U.S. would do what it needs to do with or without the UN.

Other models exist: In 2003, President George W. Bush dredged up Security Council resolutions more than a decade old to justify action. Still, sending the lawyers in to parse past resolutions on Syria or chemical weapons likely will not convince skeptical allies, nor would Obama want to model himself after a man whose foreign policy he disdains.

White House aides have brought up the 1999 Kosovo campaign as a possible model. Lacking Russian support, the United States then acted under NATO. Could work. Of course, unilateralism is also an option. In 1998, President Bill Clinton asked no one before ordering a missile strike on Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for Al Qaeda’s East Africa embassy bombings.

Any broad coalition is likely to be more symbolic than real. Only the British, French and Turks have the capability to act, and only the latter two likely have the will.

Next, Obama must decide the time line. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is asking for four days for UN inspectors to issue a report on the chemical weapons attack. The body count, however, makes the report moot. Inspectors can interview victims, but we know that a chemical weapons strike happened, and we are almost certain the regime did it.

Momentum matters. While waiting allows UN inspectors to leave and gives countries the chance to join a coalition of the willing, it also enables those culpable to hide. And it gives the Syrian military the chance to ready their defenses and retaliation.

Already, Bashar Assad’s army might have loaded chemical warheads on missiles aimed for Tel Aviv, Istanbul or Amman, Jordan. In 1991, it took all of America's diplomatic leverage to stop Israel from retaliating once Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Tel Aviv. Should Assad do so with chemical weapons, all bets are off.

The last question is exactly where to focus American force. The Pentagon will have already offered Obama a list of targets. If U.S. intelligence knows which Syrian military unit carried out the strike, then it might go after individuals to demonstrate very personal consequences for utilizing chemical weapons. Targeting other chemical weapons depots — both in government and rebel hands — would signal that the military strike was about the chemical weapons and not choosing sides.

Remember: While the Aug. 21 attack on East Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, was the most severe chemical weapons strike, the UN has accused both sides of utilizing chemical agents.

Before striking chemical depots, however, the President is first going to want to know about collateral risks. He will not want an American bombardment to unleash a chemical cloud and endanger more civilians.

If the White House wants only symbolic action, it might go after Assad’s palaces but not Assad himself. The president’s advisers are also asking him what he sees as the end game. It’s a crucial question.

Decapitating the regime is not an option Obama is likely to choose because of fear of what comes next. The opposition has radicalized, and handing them a victory would be like French-kissing Al Qaeda.

If the White House expects this might be the first shot in a longer campaign, then it will also target enemy airfields and air defenses. A big exception here, however, will be in the neighborhood of the port city of Tartous, which hosts Russia’s only military base outside the confines of the former Soviet Union. Consider Tartous to be Assad’s safe haven.

In any scenario, Obama is going to want to destroy regime missiles before they can be launched at American allies. If Syrian missiles are mobile, then that means multiple sorties as aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles determine damage and track targets.

Sorties carry risk, however. The Kremlin might order its navy to shadow U.S. ships, risking an international incident. Syrian anti-aircraft batteries are not as strong as some suggest — the Israelis have managed multiple strikes without Syrian air defenses firing a single shot — but the Syrians could always get a lucky shot.

A downed American pilot-turned-POW would change the diplomatic game dramatically.

Michael Rubin is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, from where this article is adapted.

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