What would the U.S. hope to accomplish with military strikes in Syria? That’s the question that the Obama administration is trying to answer as it makes the case for “limited” military action to members of Congress in anticipation of a vote. But it’s worth talking about what strikes against Syria’s Assad regime wouldn’t do as well. Here are 3 things a military intervention in Syria wouldn’t accomplish:
1. It won’t stop the killing of Syrian civilians. Despite his support for strikes, even President Obama has admitted this. A limited strike would serve as a “pretty strong signal” to Syrian leader Bashar al Assad but it “doesn’t solve all the problems inside Syria, and, you know, it doesn’t, obviously, end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria.” What’s even more worrying is that it might actually result in more civilian deaths at the hands of the Assad regime. As a 2012 paper by political scientists Reed Wood, Jacob Kathman, and Stephen Gent (also noted by Erica Chenoweth and Ezra Klein) argues, military interventions pose the risk of changing the incentives toward killing civilians. After reviewing the history of such interventions, they conclude that intervening on the side of anti-government rebels typically increases government killing of civilians by about 40 percent.
2. It won’t disarm or destroy Assad’s chemical arsenal. These facilities are difficult, at best, to find and target from the air. As a RAND Corporation report on strategic options for air strikes against Syria explains, “locating all Syrian chemical weapon facilities (e.g., storage sites, production facilities) and defining them well enough to design effective conventional air strikes against them would require very precise and detailed intelligence.” But it's not like Assad has provided a map. Indeed, intelligence officials have admitted that they're not entirely sure where Assad's chemical weapons are. As a result, the RAND report warns, “prospects for eliminating Syria’s extensive chemical weapon capabilities through air attack do not appear promising.” In fact, a campaign to destroy the nation’s chemical weapons stores could make things worse because of the hazards involved in destroying chemical weapons. "Striking the chemical sites presents a very real risk of releasing toxic chemicals over nearby civilian populations,” Amy Smithson, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, told CNN. And according to RAND, chipping away at Assad’s chemical weapons stocks “would create a powerful ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ incentive” to either relocate the weapons to locations where they can’t be bombed or use them in battle before the opportunity is gone.
3. It won’t tip the balance of the war against the Assad regime. Not under a “limited” approach like the one President Obama has talked about. The same RAND study says that tipping the balance is a much bigger job. Paving the path to rebel victory would likely entail “a full-scope aerial intervention on the side of the Syrian opposition” as well as equipping and training the rebels. Which is not to say that a more expansive approach would be in any way desirable. The risks of a big offensive against the Syrian government would be huge: “Involvement in a prolonged conflict, causing civilian casualties, and suffering losses of aircrew and aircraft,” as well as complicity in “any unsavory actions” the rebel forces might take during or after the war are just a few listed by RAND. And anyway, the administration says it has specifically ruled out regime change as a goal. There’s also the other big problem with taking the rebels’ side: Those forces are heavily linked to Al Qaeda.