There is overwhelming evidence that Bashar al-Assad has let loose the dogs of chemical war. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, hair and blood samples from first responders show signs of Sarin Gas, a common chemical agent. Doctors Without Borders has also reported treating symptoms consistent with a chemical attack. The Syrian rebels don’t have the ability to launch a major chemical attack, so all signs point to Assad loyalists.
Military action is never desirable, but at this point, the United States has little choice. Failing to intervene would be catastrophic for American interests, which are already at stake. Besides the clear humanitarian reasons for military intervention, the United States is deeply committed to upholding treaties banning the use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, we have already stated that the use of chemical weapons is a line that cannot be crossed.
Failing to intervene would communicate that the United States will not uphold its commitments when put to the test. This message would embolden countries like North Korea and Iran in their ambitions for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). In short, our efforts of counter proliferation would be seriously frustrated. On the other hand, the use of military force would make it clear that the use of WMDs against civilians will not be tolerated and those responsible will be punished.
Furthermore, it is in the interest of the U.S. to topple the Assad regime. Not only is Assad a brutal tyrant, he is also Iran’s only ally in the region. The overthrow of the Assad regime would further isolate Iran and put the U.S. in a better strategic position to negotiate Iran’s nuclear program.
The Russians have proposed a plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons under control. However, inspecting and dismantling a chemical arsenal the size of Syria’s would be a long and complicated process, especially since Syria is a warzone. It would be impossible to confirm that all of Assad’s chemical weapons were gone. Furthermore, Assad could make false promises to delay intervention, as the Serbs did in the 1990s by promising to hand over their heavy weapons.
Sun Tzu said wrote in the Art of War that “the victorious army first realizes the conditions for victory, and then seeks to engage in battle.” Thus, it is important to establish clear goals for the intervention. The first goal should be to stop the use of chemical weapons. This means that the U.S. military should diminish Assad’s ability to deploy chemical weapons. There is a risk that Assad will not back down after a punitive strike, so the U.S. military must damage Assad’s ability to gas his own people.
The broader goal of an offensive should be to collapse the Assad regime and replace the Assad regime with moderate elements of the opposition. It would be very bad for the U.S. and the Syrian people if radical Islamists came to power, and the U.S. should do everything possible to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Many politicians favor a limited strike with tomahawk cruise missiles. This is because unlike aircraft, tomahawks don’t have pilots, so the lack of inherent human risk is appealing. While tomahawk missiles are very capable weapons, they are not enough to do serious damage to Syria’s ability to deploy chemical weapons on their own.
Chemical weapons cannot be taken out with air or missile strikes. The risk of bombing chemical stockpiles and releasing their contents into the air is too great. Also, Syria’s stockpile is very large and has been dispersed in response to the threat of a U.S. strike, making it exceedingly difficult to eliminate.
The best option to destroy the ability to deploy chemical weapons is via aircraft, ballistic missiles, or artillery. Also, command and control is necessary to coordinate chemical attacks. Cruise missiles can destroy airfields as well as the command and control sites. However, there are not enough cruise missiles to take out all of the Syrian missiles and artillery.
Aircraft are necessary to take out these weapons. A no fly-zone would also be required to ensure that any aircraft not destroyed on the ground couldn’t deploy gas. Since aircraft and artillery provide the main advantage the Syrian loyalists have over the rebels, removing those factors from the equation would help the rebels defeat Assad.
An air attack requires neutralizing Syria’s air defenses. According to the Rand Corporation, Syria’s integrated air defense system (IADS) is not as formidable as is often reported and mostly uses technology from the 1970s. The U.S. military knows how to deal with these types of defenses, having overcome them before in Iraq and Serbia.
An air attack can topple the Syrian regime, but it can’t ensure that Islamists won’t take over. Accordingly, the U.S. must support vetted elements of the opposition that are moderate, such as arming and training the rebels. These weapons should include anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to reduce Assad’s advantage in armor and aircraft. The rebels should also receive non-lethal aid, including antidotes to nerve gas.
The Jihadist elements of the opposition are currently more trained and experienced than their moderate counterparts, since many of them are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Training moderate rebels would even the playing field, especially if a power struggle erupted in the aftermath of an Assad collapse.
Many point to atrocities committed by the opposition as reason to deny them aid. However, the Washington Institute’s Jeff Tabler points out that aiding the rebels would allow America to shape the opposition and ensure that liberal forces prevail.
Now comes what will probably be the most controversial proposal: the US should put boots on the ground. While I’m not advocating an Iraq-style invasion, small numbers of Americans will be needed to ensure the success of any strategic action.
First, CIA operatives should enter Syria to train the rebels, identify moderate factions, and act as liaisons with the rebels. More importantly, special operations teams should be sent in to hunt down mobile missile launchers. Syria possesses ballistic missiles that can deploy gas and attack our allies in the area. Since many of these missiles have mobile launchers, it can be difficult to take them out from the air. In the Gulf War, Special Forces were required to destroy Iraq’s ballistic missiles and conditions suggest the same action may be required in Syria.
Syria is not a simple situation. Military action always carries risks, but those risks are far outweighed by the consequences of not responding. A world where dictators can freely use WMDs against their people is not a world anyone wants to live in. From a humanitarian and national interest standpoint, the United States must intervene with the necessary force to crush Assad’s regime.