WASHINGTON, August 27, 2013 — Increasingly bellicose statements from Washington suggest the Obama Administration is preparing military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for deploying chemical weapons last week.
The Obama Administration says it is weighing a “limited scope” military strike against Syria that would act as both punishment and as a deterrent. The strike reportedly would last no more than two days and would involve either cruise missiles launched from Navy warships or long-range bombers targeting Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Before finalizing a decision, Washington reportedly is attempting to garner additional international support from allies. The United Nations Security Council, thanks to likely vetoes from Russia and China, will oppose the move, but the U.K., France and others will almost certainly support military action.
Obama has also ordered a declassified report on the chemical weapons attack to justify a military intervention.
According to administration officials, the president is not considering sending troops into Syria.
The limited scope option is not aimed at altering the current military balance in Syria or in forcing out Assad. “The options that we are considering are not about regime change,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Washington is, instead, considering bombing Syria to punish Assad for a very short period of time without significantly reducing government military capabilities.
Obama may feel forced to act after a stream of media coverage of the recent chemical attack. Videos and photos of thousands of stricken Syrians made it difficult for him to forget his statements last year that any use of chemical weapons crossed a “red line.” He has to act or lose credibility, both domestically and internationally.
But major action against Assad which pushes him out of office is now a frightening scenario for the West. With the saying, “be careful what you wish for” ringing in their ears, policy makers are carefully weighing the risks of a rebel-led government in Syria.
Those risks are high. Islamist militants are streaming to Syria to join the rebels, and several brigades have already sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda. The opposition remains so fragmented that Russian and U.S.-suggested peace talks have failed to materialize. There is no unified leadership structure, and no coherent goal other than removing Assad. One European diplomat noted, “The opposition is making it as hard for us as they possibly can. I can’t see any way they could work together in a post-Assad government. I can’t even think about what a mess it would be, honestly.”
Analysts and high-ranking officials increasingly worry that Syria will become a failed state after the civil war and Assad. One former high ranking U.S. official said, “I believe that if the rebels win, it will be chaos. Each faction will stake out a territory and run it. There will be no tolerance of religious or tribal differences. There will be no true state.”
Washington needs only to look at Libya and Egypt for a taste of the turmoil Syria could face. Egypt’s instability has splashed across front-pages for several weeks. Libya, which has virtually no central government authority and is run by independent, warring militias has slipped from media attention because of confusion and complete disarray in the country. Libyan ports are now blocked by a militia attempting to control oil revenue, and the country is again on the verge of governmental collapse.
The West does not want to see Syria lapse into the same type of mayhem, especially when the resulting government would likely not back Western interests.
While the U.S. is playing up the “limited” description of the upcoming intervention, even a restricted military option carries costs.
Assad has warned the U.S. that any military action will prompt retaliation. With Hezbollah militants and Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers working with Assad, this could mean terrorist attacks on U.S. interests around the world.
Launching any missiles in Syria carries the risk of civilian casualties. While the U.S. likely will strike at night when civilians are less likely to be on the street, there is always a possibility of “collateral damage.” Likewise, although strikes are carefully targeted, missiles sometimes go astray or are aimed incorrectly due to poor information.
Military operations are expensive. In 2011, defense publications estimated that a single Tomahawk cruise missile costs approximately $1.5 million. How many cruise missiles will be launched in a 48-hour period?
Even with remote bombings, there is the risk of loss of the lives of American servicemen and women.
The strike makes little sense. There is no true military objective, no effort to remove the “bad guys” or help the “good guys,” largely because the U.S. is not sure who is who. There is no obviously positive outcome other than allowing Obama to save face for a poorly-considered red-line statement several months ago.
Military and intelligence officials are likely shaking their heads in disbelief at the administration’s decision to advertise its plans to the enemy.
Washington is warning the rebels, the government and civilians to prepare for a 48-hour military temper tantrum that will cause damage but change nothing.
The U.S. is effectively telling Assad that if he just hangs on for 48 hours, the U.S. will be out and he can carry on with his war.
There are no good options in Syria. The quagmire deepens daily, with constantly shifting players and problems, forcing continual reevaluation by international observers.
But a military strike advertised ahead of time to the enemy, aimed not at significant military objectives but proving a point, seems, well, pointless.
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