You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Not Sure How to Feel About Syria?

Six key questions before an intervention

AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration now wants Congress to approve a military strike against Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons. Why is the administration so bent on intervention? Isn’t it violating international law? What will be the likely impact of an attack? Will it plunge the United States into another war in the Middle East? Or will it have no effect whatsoever on the carnage? Should the U.S. go further and ensure a rebel victory by crippling Bashar al Assad’s regime? Or should it stand back and watch the two sides destroy each other and the county?  

What is happening in Syria's civil war?

In March 2011, Syrians, inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets in Damascus and Daraa to demand political reforms. As the demonstrations continued and grew, the government of Bashar al Assad responded with guns and tanks. By July, Assad’s forces had killed some 3,000 demonstrators, and what had begun as a movement for reform became an armed revolt aimed at toppling Assad. The Free Syrian Army was led by defectors from the Syrian Army and was backed by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. But even as defections from the Assad regime mounted, the rebels were not able to win a quick victory over Assad, who could rely on an army drawn from his own minority Alawite community, which makes up about 15 percent of Syria, and on support from Iran, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.  

As the battle stalemated, foreign Islamists, many of them loyal to al Qaeda, began to pour into Syria late last year to join the battle against Assad. By this Spring, they constituted a more effective fighting force than the Free Syrian Army. Politically, the opposition became splintered into a largely dysfunctional Syrian National Coalition, which compromised the more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army, and hundreds of Islamist groups, who lack any unified leadership or common objectives, but who have a base among Syria’s Sunnis, who make up 60 percent of the population.  

To some extent, the war has degenerated into what Brookings political scientist Kenneth Pollack calls an “intercommunal conflict” pitting Assad’s Alawite minority, which enjoys the support of the Kurds and other minority groups, against Syria’s Sunni majority. The two sides control roughly equal parts of the country. Assad enjoys an advantage from his air force and more trained military and the rebels from their larger population base. Assad, who has shown a willingness to destroy his own country in order to maintain power, represents the greater evil, but from the standpoint of the United States, the rebels are by no means a viable or desirable alternative.

Why is the United States considering intervention?

In February 2010, the Obama administration signaled a thaw in U.S.-Syrian relations by nominating Richard Ford to be the first ambassador to Syria. The Bush administration had withdrawn the United States ambassador in 2005.  But as the Syrian regime stepped up its violent repression of demonstrators in mid-2011, Obama backed sanctions on Syria and in August 2011 called for Assad to step down. Yet, as conflict became a civil war, Obama, fearful of being drawn into another Middle Eastern war, refused weapons and extended only the most limited military training to the Free Syrian Army. In June 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared, "We made a decision not to provide lethal assistance at this point … If we don't get this done in a responsible way, there's a real danger that the situation there could deteriorate into a terrible civil war." Of course, the conflict did deteriorate into a terrible war—one in which the United States then became reluctant to arm a rebel force increasingly dominated by Islamist factions.

Obama did warn Assad in August 2012 and again in December that if he used chemical weapons, he would be crossing a “red line,” and beginning early in 2013, there were repeated reports that Assad’s forces had been using these weapons. In April, Great Britain, France, and Israel each charged that Assad had used chemical weapons, and in June, the Obama administration said it had confirmed that the Assad regime had killed 100 to 150 people from chemical weapon attacks around Aleppo. The administration announced that in response, it would now be giving some military aid to the rebels, but the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, worried about funding the Islamists, joined forces to set conditions on aid that were tantamount to blocking it.

On August 21, reports surfaced that the Assad regime had launched a massive poisonous gas attack against civilians in the rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus. Doctors with Borders estimates at least 300 dead from the attack and 3,000 affected. The Russians initially denied that any attack took place and the Syrian government blamed the rebels for the attack, but the U.S., Britain, France, Israel, Turkey, and the Arab League countries put the blame squarely on Assad. Some policy experts have insisted that Assad could not have used chemical weapons, because he had no interest in doing so. He would just offend the United States and could kill as many civilians with normal explosive. But those who believe it was Assad and not the rebels point out that the Assad government actually possesses chemical weapons, has always claimed to secure them against theft, and has the ability to use them, which the rebels don’t. Assad might have also believed that with the tepid American response to the Aleppo killings, he could get away with a tactic that would terrorize the rebels’ civilian supporters.

If Obama does order a military strike against Assad, it will be a departure from his response to the first reports of Syrian chemical attacks. Then he had promised to up his support for the rebels. But now Obama seems intent on punishing Assad for using chemical weapons without directly aided the rebels. Obama has stated that he wants to reinforce an international norm against the use of chemical weapons–not only in order to deter Assad from using them again, but to deter future governments that want to attack their own people or other nations. The administration is also clearly worried about its own credibility in foreign affairs. That’s not merely a matter of public relations, but of being able to influence what happens in the world.

Would Obama be justified in attacking Syria? 

Some policy experts believe that the U.S., even with allied support, should not attack Syria without authorization from the U.N. Security Council. Insofar as the Russians and most likely the Chinese are sure to veto any resolution calling for reprisals against Syria, these experts are, in effect, saying that the U.S. should not attack Syria. If, lacking Security Council authorization, the Obama administration were to make a legal case for intervention, it would rest on enforcing the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical or biological weapons. That protocol was designed to prevent the use of weapons whose principal purpose was to terrorize civilians, which is exactly how the Assad government appears to have used its chemical weapons. Obama could also cite a United Nations initiative, adopted in 2005, establishing that a state has a “responsibility to protect” its citizens from genocide and other crimes against humanity. Assad’s war crimes don’t so much amount to genocide as patria-cide, a willingness to destroy his own country.  

Does abiding by the Security Council takes precedence over supporting these other norms?  That represents  a highly idealized view of how the Security Council has functioned. When Franklin Roosevelt first conceived the United Nations, he thought of the security council as a kind of extension of the wartime allied alliance in which the great powers, united among themselves, would prevent lesser nations from getting into trouble. But the Cold War undermined that original conception of the Security Council, and it has had a tattered record in preventing war. There are good reasons for the United States not to act alone in enforcing the 1925 Protocol, but there are also reasons why it should ignore the need for Security Council approval.

What kind of attack could the U.S. make against Syria?

According to military experts, the United States is most likely to launch a limited punitive strike against the Assad regime. It would involve shooting Tomahawk Land-Attack Missiles from ships that are stationed in the Mediterranean. The attack would not involve sending airplanes that would violate Syrian airspace and be vulnerable to Syria’s reputedly formidable air-defense systems.  And the ships are sufficiently offshore to resist attack from the Syrians. According to defense analysis Anthony Cordesman, the targets could include “Assad’s palace in Damascus, the headquarters of Syrian intelligence and the secret police, Syrian and Al Quds bases and training centers for the Assad militias, and the mix of air bases and ground support facilities that do most to support Syrian military operations.”

The targets are not likely to include chemical weapons depots. Hitting them with missiles could set off clouds of poison gas. To destroy these depots, the United States and its allies would have to launch a ground attack that would seize these depots. The Obama administration will not authorize ground forces in Syria. The administration is also unlikely to authorize a no-fly zone in Syria. That would require a sustained military effort over days, weeks, and months that would be very expensive, involve casualties, and bring the United States squarely into the war on the side of the rebels. Obama is clearly unwilling to do that.

What will be the likely effect of an American-led attack?

Some analysts don’t think a strike will deter Assad. Retired Major General Paul Eaton, an advisor to the National Security Network, told me that “if Assad or rogue elements have decided to use chemical weapons in the face of very strong international condemnation, an attack is not going to be an deterrent.” That may be true, but Assad may have also assumed that the United States, which had not responded strongly before, would once again back off. If that were Assad’s reasoning, serious retaliation could deter him, and could also send a signal to other rogue governments.

Some analysts also fear that an American-led attack could harden opposition to any settlement from Syria’s allies in Russia and Iran and make them eager to defy the United States. An attack could make “the Russians more recalcitrant,” writes Rami Khouri of Harvard’s Middle East Initiative. That could be, but Dmitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest thinks “Russian would stay on the sidelines” if the United States attacked Syria. Eaton thinks that the Russians, seeing an American willingness to use force in Syria, might even become more amenable to urging Assad to negotiate with the rebels. Iran’s response to an American attack is equally uncertain. Will an American attack make the new Iranian government less amenable to negotiations over its nuclear future, or will it, by demonstrating American resolve over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, make it more likely to seek an agreement?

Should the United States intervene more forcefully?

Charles Krauthammer and other neo-conservatives have urged Obama to help the rebels win by establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Krauthammer, citing Israel’s “successful strikes around Damascus,” thinks establishing a no-fly zone would be relatively costless. Military experts like Eaton disagree. But the underlying argument is not over military tactics, but over how, and to what extent, the United States should involve itself in Syria’s civil, or intercommunal, war.  As late as a year ago, a policy expert could have argued that by throwing its weight behind the Syrian Free Army, the Obama administration could have encouraged Assad’s fall and his replacement by a moderate regime. But that option no longer seems to exist.

In a letter to Congressman Eliot Engel, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed up the problem. The U.S., Dempsey assured Engel, could “destroy the Syrian Air Force.” But he warned that “the use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict. Syria today is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Could the U.S. ensure that one of the sides is ready to promote our interests rather than those of, say, al Qaeda in Iraq? That would, of course, involve the United States not just in intervening militarily but in trying to set the political agenda of another country in the Middle East.  That’s one thing that the Obama administration, having already withdrawn American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, is unwilling to undertake. And for good reason.