Shadow Government

4 Unaddressed Concerns About a U.S. Strike Against Syria

The British Parliament's decision to override Prime Minister David Cameron's desire to join the United States in attacking Syria marks the first time in about 150 years that Parliament has vetoed its country's leader. Its virtually unprecedented action underscores the many doubts that hover over the U.S. administration's plan to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime for crossing President Barack Obama's "red line" on the use of chemical weapons. 

These doubts fall into four categories, none of which the administration has addressed. These are: the efficacy of an attack, the likely responses to such an attack, the prospect of America once again being sucked into a prolonged conflict, and the budgetary consequences of anything more than a single missile strike on Syrian facilities.

It should be noted at the outset that Britain is not alone in backing away from the White House's lurch to war. The Arab League has rightly warned that an attack on Syria would further stoke anti-American feelings that continue to run high in the Middle East. Jordan, America's closest Arab ally, has announced that it will not permit American operations from is soil. The Russians and Chinese are ensuring that there will be no support in the United Nations for a strike on Syria. And of course, the continental Europeans, minus France, want no part of what is beginning to look like Obama's obsession.

Would an attack succeed? A missile attack would likely have no more effect than did the missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998. An attack on Syrian airfields would face not only sophisticated Syrian air defenses, but also the prospect that these might be manned by Russians. Such an attack could well unleash Iranian and Hezbollah attacks against American targets worldwide. It could prompt Russia to redouble its support for Assad. And it could spur the Chinese to offer aid to Assad as well. 

Should a strike result in American casualties, America might not be able to back away from getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. Should Assad fall, the government most likely to succeed him would be led by the al-Nusra extremists, the best organized of the rebel groups and one that is closely linked to al Qaeda. An al-Nusra-led Syria, determined to restore the Caliphate, would pose a mortal threat first to Jordan, where King Abdullah II faces serious internal challenges, and then to Israel, which al-Nusra, like all Islamists, seeks to destroy.

Equally ominous for the stability of the Middle East is that an American-supported regime change in Syria would prompt the mullahs in Tehran to ramp up their quest for nuclear weapons. Having watched America successfully force regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, but not in North Korea, the ayatollahs could be expected to conclude that only nuclear weapons will stop Washington from overthrowing their regime as well. Of course, any overt Iranian push for nuclear weapons would finally prompt an Israeli strike, thereby dragging America into yet another Middle Eastern maelstrom.

How the administration proposes to pay for an American strike, much less follow-on strikes, against Syria in an era of budget constraints remains an open question. Any campaign against Assad beyond a token missile attack will cost far more than the $1.5 billion price tag for the 2011 Libya campaign. How will the Defense Department's budget foot the bill in the face of the sequester that continues to haunt Washington? Will more weapons programs be cut, more forces discharged?

Surely the president can find a way to wriggle out of the "red lined" corner into which he has boxed himself. He has no shortage of spin doctors to assist him. And given the international community's reluctance to support a military strike, no one would complain if he were to rationalize away an attack in favor of a new diplomatic initiative that seeks to bring Syria's horrible civil war to a civilized end.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A Highly Plausible Explanation for Why Assad Would Launch a Chemical Attack

One of the intriguing uncertainties surrounding the Syrian chemical weapons crisis is the question of motive: Why would Bashar al-Assad's regime do something that would risk U.S. military reprisals? Framed in this "who benefits?" way, the question seems to answer itself: Surely Assad does not want a U.S. military reprisal, so he would not have done something that would catalyze a reprisal. The rebels, however, did want to draw the United States in. Since, according to this line of reasoning, the rebels are the ones most likely to benefit, isn't it possible that they manufactured the chemical use? This is the official Syrian position, backed at least by the Russians. And there is some historical precedent for this, as Alan Kuperman has argued with respect to the Balkans.

Barack Obama's administration is confident that this is not what happened in this case. Indeed, without using the unfortunate phrasing, it has boasted that it has a slam-dunk case of Syrian guilt. There is always a chance that the Obama administration and the über-confident intelligence assessment are wrong. And it may be years before we have all the evidence we need to reach a conclusion provable in a court of law.

However, we already know enough to reason our way to a plausible explanation that answers the "how could the Syrian regime miscalculate this badly and do something that triggers a U.S. response" question in a manner that supports the Obama administration's side of the story. All that is needed is two crucial steps to be true:

Step 1: The Assad regime must have believed that it could get away with small chemical attacks -- attacks big enough to terrorize the rebels and divert rebel resources, but small enough to avoid triggering U.S. action. According to Obama administration sources, Assad's regime may already have done this in the spring. The Syria-related signaling from the Obama administration has been confusing over the past two years, but one unmistakable message has gotten through: President Obama is reluctant to intervene in the Syrian crisis and has tolerated a humanitarian disaster far in excess of what any single chemical weapons attack could produce. This is not to claim that Obama has been insensitive, uncaring, or even necessarily wrong in his judgment about U.S. national interests and the utility of U.S. military options. But let us be clear: The Assad regime had lots of reason to doubt Obama's resolve and to believe that it could escalate a bit without triggering a U.S. response.

Step 2: The Assad regime did not expect the chemical attack last week to be quite as vivid an escalation as it turned out to be. A crucial part of this explanation is that the regime must have wanted a smaller escalation than the one that happened. According to FP's Noah Shachtman, that is exactly what happened. In an exclusive based on intelligence sources, Shachtman claims, "Last Wednesday [Aug. 21], in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people." In other words, the allegedly overheard conversations convinced the intelligence community that the Syrian regime knew that it had done the chemical attack but was shocked at the scale of the results. Thus, whether due to human error, the friction of military operations, or other miscalculations, the Syrian regime overshot its purported target of escalation and may have inadvertently triggered a U.S. response.

This is not the only plausible interpretation of the available evidence. The intelligence Shachtman cites could also indicate unauthorized use by lower-level commanders that surprised the regime not merely in the scale but also in the very existence of the attack. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps Assad actually wants to draw the United States in because he calculates that Obama's manifest desire not to intervene in the civil war will yield a tepid U.S. strike that Assad can easily withstand. Defying the United States and living to boast about it might be the game-changer Assad needs to demoralize the rebels into making major concessions. Or perhaps key parts of the evidence are flawed and something else entirely has happened. It would not be the first time that the intelligence community missed a slam dunk.

However, we know enough to say one thing: The possibility that Assad might not have wanted to suffer the U.S. military reprisal that seems imminent is not strong evidence that the regime did not authorize the chemical attack. In fact, the preponderance of the evidence available at this time makes it highly plausible that Assad thought Obama was bluffing and thought he, Assad, could get away with calling it, provided he did so on the margins.

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images