August 31, 2013

Calibrating the attack on Syria

I have no reason to doubt that President Obama has, as he said today, made up his mind to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons by a US military attack. He has also been quite explicit that this is not intended to bring about regime change, and he is deeply aware of the dangers of getting dragged into the Syrian civil war, so the strike will be limited. It is, however, explicitly intended to prove that the US means what it says and to deter further use of CW by Syria or anyone else.

Imagine that you are a White House adviser and you have been asked to calibrate a military intervention that will send an unmistakeable message to Assad that his use of CW was a serious error and persuade him that any such action in the future would be unacceptably costly to Syria generally and to the Assad government in particular. 

However, the attack should not change the fundamental balance of power in the civil war — specifically it should not empower the radical Sunni opposition forces that are potentially worse than Assad. The strike should not be so great that it inspires reckless behavior by other states or parties in the region — specifically it should not provoke retaliation, for example, by either Hezbollah or Syria against Israeli targets.

The attack should be time limited, so the United States should not be required to go back again and again — to “mow the lawn” in Israeli parlance. Above all, it should not require us to escalate, regardless of how Assad or his allies may respond.

Ultimately the strike should at best encourage a shift to a negotiating track or at least not place an insuperable obstacle in the path of a non-violent solution to the problem. Within Syria, the attack should not create a new wave of refugees or make the conditions of ordinary Syrians worse than it already is.

You may have up to ten days to present your plan (depending on the Congressional calendar), but your proposal really should be available tomorrow for proper vetting in advance and possible immediate use.

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It is on occasions like this that I am grateful that I am no longer a White House aide. I truly wonder if it is possible to balance all these moving parts and give the president the policy instrument he wants and needs. I am absolutely certain that I don’t know how to do it.

  1. garysick posted this