3 Things a Military Intervention in Syria Won't Do


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. 

NEXT: Obama Confident Congress Will Vote in Favor of Syria Action

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  1. The most curious and bizarre thing about this whole affair is the Administration’s commitment to not remove Assad from power. If the end isn’t removing Assad from power, why the hell are we bombing? IF the idea is to deter other people from using chemical weapons, any response that leaves Assad in power will be totally ineffective to that end. The only thing that will deter future leaders from using WMDs is the message that if you use them you and your entire regime ends up hanging from lampposts. The threat of some bombing that still leaves you in power doesn’t create much or any of a deterrence. The end game for Assad is to stay alive and stay in power. So if US bombing doesn’t prevent that, it hasn’t accomplished anything and won’t deter anyone.

    1. There is exactly one purpose for military action against Syria: So Obama doesn’t look like a big pussy for not backing up his “red line” comment.

      It’s about saving face and nothing else.

    2. “”””Administration’s commitment to not remove Assad from power.””

      He has gotten boxed in with his own decisions and reality

      On one hand he has declared that the opposition is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

      On the other hand the opposition is a mess with lots of crazies which make it look better if Assad or at least his regime remain in power in some way to counterbalance them.

      So even if he could remove Assad from power it will probably be an even worse situation. So we will shoot at the Syrian government but not hard enough to weaken them greatly

    3. There is a big parallel to Vietnam in this; much of what happened there was driven by U.S. domestic policy considerations – for example Johnson’s determination to not look weak and his desire not to deal with the political fallout of calling up reservists.

      1. This is total Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Look at the resolution Obama wants. It is open ended just like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. And just like Johnson, Obama, given the opportunity, will half ass the entire thing going back more and more each time hoping to show the Syrians this time we are serious. If we allow this, Obama will end up in a war that will make Iraq look like a picnic. It won’t be just a few days of bombing. It will be that followed by increasingly serious actions designed to make up for the ineffectiveness of the previous actions until finally we are in a full blown war, just like Vietnam.

      2. What I don’t get is why more people don’t see containment as the better option here. Basically, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are killing each other within Syria’s borders, and while there will be some repercussions in Lebanon, the conflict doesn’t look likely to spread elsewhere, if we just leave the combatants to their own devices.

    4. The most curious and bizarre thing about this whole affair is the Administration’s commitment to not remove Assad from power.

      Given the assurance Obama gave McCain and Graham over the weekend, isn’t this “commitment” ridiculous to begin with? The goal is regime change, whether they want to say that or not.

      1. I am not sure. I think they are just stupid enough for it not to be. They don’t seem to have a goal.

      2. Not necessarily. It’s entirely possible to believe that the Al Qaeda linked rebels are bad, but so is Assad, and the best thing for the US geopolitically is to let Al Qaeda and Iran waste money fighting each other. (Too bad about the civilians.)

        This WSJ article indicating that the US hasn’t armed the rebels because we want a stalemate (and that the air strike is specifically drawn up to avoid tilting the civil war) makes that argument.

  2. “Those who make accusations must show evidence. We have challenged the United States and France to come up with a single piece of proof. Obama and Hollande have been incapable of doing so,” al-Assad said.

    al-Assad said that U.S. military intervention could have disastrous consequences for the region.

    “We shouldn’t just talk about a Syrian response, but what will happen after the first strike. Everybody will lose control of the situation when the powder keg blows. There is a risk of a regional war,” al-Assad said.

    “We are fighting terrorists. 80-90% of those we are fighting belong to al-Qaeda. They are not interested in reform or in politics. The only way to deal with them is to annihilate them,” al-Assad said in the interview.

    I can’t say I disagree with his point. Why can’t we see this evidence?…..z2dqIDf1J2

    1. They don’t want you to know that their source is a Syrian refugee driving a cab in Washington.

  3. And, Obama can’t articulate a strategy, because his strategy is stupid. I really think he is hoping to facilitate the sort of Islamic-friendly communism of the dictator who ran Indonesia after independence from the dutch. I think his ideas are literally ones formed attending that elite elementary school where the Dutch and Indonesian nobility and the commie leadership sent their kids. The time he was attending that school, the rightists were just starting to purge the supporters of the old islamic/marxist regime from various posts, including I would expect the school.

    If he were to come right out and say Assad reminds me of that mean old Suharto, people would laugh at him.

    1. An Islamic friendly communism. Honestly, I can’t really doubt you. That whole concept is so fucking stupid that it really does sound like something the Chocolate Nixon would embrace.

      The deeper problem is that him and the useful idiots in his administration are so steeped in anti-imperialism that they refuse to see any movement that bills itself as anti-imperialist as possibly being a bad thing. That is why they fell in love with the Muslim Brotherhood. That is why they were not bothered by Al Quada being in both the Libya and now the Syrian rebellions.

      It is not so much that they mean the US harm. It is that they really just don’t care about US interests beyond paying lip service to such to keep up appearances domestically. They seem to be caught up in their own little post colonial fantasy world.

      1. Last week I decided to read up on what was going on in Indonesia when Barack was a kid there. It was pretty illuminating.

        Basically, while Obama was there, Suharto was purging Sukarno and his ideology from he government. Basically, Sukarno tried to institute a philosophy called Nasakom which blended Indonesian culture and religion with Communism. Of course, it all fell flat on its face and he had to become increasingly authoritarian to maintain his power, and he lost the game of thrones to Suharto who took over in the late 60’s.

        Obama’s step dad of the time was pro-western, and his mom was becoming increasingly anti-western. She sent him to a state school that was run by teachers appointed during the Sukarno era for a year, and to local Catholic schools. This was at a time when Suharto was consolidating his power, and was sending troops to quell student demonstrations. Much of the dissent was over foreign investment and ownership of big developments such as an amusement park that unified the nativists and the commies in opposition.

        I think this had a huge effect on him… to the Indonesians (who are a bit racist) he was a black American, and his mom is telling him that American capitalism is bad and ruining Indonesia, and the argument over this breaks up his parent’s marriage and he has to move to Hawaii!

        I think he is profoundly ambivalent about capitalism because he childishly wishes that old school socialism was superior and because he thinks it is more moral.

        1. That may be. The sad thing is that his step dad seemed like a pretty good guy and would have been a good influence on him. It is my understanding that one of the reasons his mom divorced and took him back to Hawaii was she didn’t want such a noncomunist having influence over him. She wanted him back with her good communist parents.

  4. Last but not least. What sort of asshole puts his feet and his weight on a nice table like that?

    Did they teach Obama no manners in all the elite, aristocratic schools he attended growing up?

    1. I was just wondering this. Every other “action photo” of him in the WH shows him with his feet on the furniture. Does he think it makes him look serious? Committed? Casual? Busy?

      This photo in particular is hilarious, since he had to jack up his leg really high to get his foot on the table. It looks like he’s getting ready to do a table dance.

      1. To me it shows how much disrespect he has for the office and the country at large. Obama putting his feet on the desk in the oval office is a pretty good metaphor for his performance as President.

    2. What’s with the gun finger where his cock should be? Kids get expelled from elementary school for gestures like that.

  5. So what in the world will it do? Besides kill a bunch of civilians (possibly more than were killed in the alleged chemical attacks), piss off half the world, and help Al-Qaeda?

  6. I have a rather long caption:

    I’m like evil, I get under your skin
    Just like a bomb that’s ready to blow,
    ‘Cause I’m illegal, I got everything
    That all you women might need to know.

    I’m gonna take you down – yeah, down, down, down.
    So don’t you fool around.
    I’m gonna pull it, pull it, pull the trigger.

  7. According to Mavericky maverick John McCain, if we don’t strike Syria, there’s going to be a war between Iran and Israel, that we’ll get pulled into. Ignoring why we’d have to be pulled into that war, what does one thing have to do with the other?

    1. I am not seeing how Iran being tied down propping up Assad leads them to go to war with Israel. And if there is such a war, Iran would have no support within the rest of the Arab world. So, short of lobbing a nuke, what would Iran be able to do to Israel?

    2. Nobody on Assad’s side shows any desire to go to war against Israel at the moment. That’s more likely to come from our putative allies in the opposition.

      1. And more importantly, I bet the Islamists in the opposition have going to war and destroying Israel as part of their long term goals.

    3. a vote I wish I could take away… not that 2008 was a good year for anything.

  8. 4. It won’t deliver good, American-made alt-text to Reason readers.

    1. Reason has always been afraid to alt-text Obama photos. Perhaps they’re afraid of getting the Sharpton contingent after them.

  9. I can’t think of any time that I’ve stood with my foot on the desk while taking a call. Feet propped up while I’m sitting down… oh, yes!

    1. I might be a little less willing to sit with my feet up on my desk if it was a nearly priceless 19th Century antique. But that’s just me.

      1. I’m sure someone would say it indicative of Obama’s contempt for the office of the presidency. It’s probably just bad manners.

        1. I think it contempt for the people who bought the desk – and will buy him a new one if that one gets fucked up.

        2. It is both what Drake and Lord Humungus said.

  10. Now that France has ruled out unilateral action, we have an opportunity to not only stop a strike from happening, but also end some careers in Congress, from Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to Eric Cantor.

  11. Who gives a shit about any of that stuff?

    The President wants to put on his Warrior Philosopher hat with the plumes on it, and strut around like a peacock while everybody admires his new finery.

  12. What sort of asshole puts his feet and his weight on a nice table like that?

    The sort who has servants on call to polish the scuff marks off the soles of his shoe.

  13. The US strategy is to keep the stalemate going, just like in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. “Why can’t they both lose,” both the Al Qaeda linked rebels and the Iranian backed Assad.

    So this missile strike will be intentionally limited to avoid upsetting the stalemate.

    1. That makes more sense than anything. If it seems like Assad is starting to win, intervene to balance things out again.

  14. I am conflicted over intervention, and I agree intervention will not accomplish your three goals. But…..think how many people throughout history have been forgotten, killed, maimed or lost some rights because no one stood up and offered them, the powerless, a chance against the powerful.

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