GW Expert Analyzes Options in Syria

Professor Stephen Biddle discusses possible military intervention in Syria.

September 03, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

As the world awaits news of whether the U.S. will take military action against Syria after the nation’s purported use of chemical weapons on civilians, President Barack Obama announced Saturday he will seek congressional approval before intervening. Possible courses of action are being considered.

Political Science and International Affairs Professor Stephen Biddle, an expert on U.S. defense policy and conduct of war, talked to George Washington Today about potential military strategies the U.S. may employ if it decides to become involved, and how the international community is reacting.

Q: What evidence is there of the Syrian government using chemical weapons in Damascus?
A: It’s a combination of intelligence information and circumstantial evidence. The Obama administration intercepted communications it believes show that senior Syrian government figures—we don’t know exactly who—confirmed chemical weapons were used and instructed military units to cease firing them. There is also evidence believed to locate weapon launch areas in Syrian government-controlled territories and impact points in rebel-controlled territories. Activity in Syrian units was consistent with preparations for use of chemical weapons, like the donning of masks. The administration observed that shortly after the apparent attack, there was large-scale use of conventional artillery in the area, indicative of a desire to conceal evidence.

Circumstantial evidence includes that the Syrian government has a large arsenal of chemical weapons, the imagery of victims who didn’t have apparent wounds or injuries and an explosion of social media activity indicating causalities consistent with chemical weapon use. Additionally, the administration has persuaded itself that the Syrian government used chemical weapons previously, albeit on a limited scale. It’s up in the air how senior an authorization this reflects in the Syrian government—Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested no direct link between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a decision to use weapons.

Q: President Obama has said he is considering a narrow, limited strike. What does this mean? What are some other military strategies that can be used?
A: It’s vague and ambiguous. At the lowest end, you could employ cruise missile attacks on empty buildings. You could strike government secret police offices and military offices at night when no one is there. The U.S. government has done things like this in the past when it wants to make a symbolic use of military force. At the high end, you could become a co-belligerent in the war and provide an air force for the rebels, which is more or less what we did in Libya.

There are a variety of options in between. You could destroy command posts or other military assets the regime values, which might not change the war outcome, but would incur costs to Syria and demonstrate our resolve. You could strike Syrian chemical weapon facilities, or the units that used them. Some advocate a short but intensive campaign to destroy or ground the Syrian air force. You could arm and equip rebels more aggressively. Less likely but still conceivable options include establishing a no-fly zone or creating safe areas near the Syrian border for civilians.

Q: The topic of U.S. military intervention in Syria has been highly contentious. What are the cases for as well as against the U.S. getting involved?
A: Heretofore, the case for the U.S. getting involved has been a combination of humanitarianism and the desire to get rid of a leader who opposes U.S. policy. But now there are two new dimensions—one, supporters of a strike believe it will deter President Assad and others from using weapons of mass destruction again. The other argument that wasn’t part of the debate eight months ago is U.S. credibility. The president made a public statement that chemical weapons were a red line that, if crossed, would change his calculus. That statement created a security interest that didn’t exist before: the desire to uphold the credibility of presidential proclamations.

The argument against taking military action is centrally that it’s very unlikely to solve the big dilemmas associated with Syria. If we use force and it doesn’t change anything on the ground, the president will face substantial pressure to escalate, lest we look like a paper tiger. If President Assad then uses such weapons again, then what? We may be compelled to escalate. Once we start down this road, how do we control our exposure to cost and risk when we effectively cede the initiative to an Assad regime whose decision calculus is largely opaque to us? The escalatory pressure could drag us deeper into the conflict, so some would rather not go down a slippery slope that could end in a Vietnam-like quagmire. The military has been making that argument pretty consistently—they have been very uncomfortable with proposals to attack Syria.

 A related argument against using force is that we don’t really like either side in this war, which pits an anti-U.S. autocrat, President Assad, against a rebel alliance that increasingly relies on Islamist Sunni radicals aligned with al Qaeda. If we strike hard enough to defeat President Assad, have we just empowered al Qaeda in a way that might end up with even worse consequences down the road? We also don’t know if toppling President Assad would end the killing—his forces could resort to insurgency following regime change, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or we could end up with anarchy and chaos, perhaps in a nastier version of the war-lordism we increasingly see in post-Qaddafi Libya. Recent experience suggests that stable liberal democracy does not emerge naturally or automatically from the overthrow of a dictator; without a massive investment of peacekeepers and nation-builders on the ground in the aftermath, it is hard to see why one should expect the killing to end even if President Assad falls.

Q: British lawmakers have rejected military intervention in Syria. Is the U.S. prepared to go alone if it comes to this, and is there a precedent for such unilateral action?
A: For now we don’t know what a coalition would look like. There have been some indications of possible military contributions of some kind from France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE, but no specific public commitments.

I suspect the administration thought the British would participate. Prime Minster David Cameron had been doing quite a bit of saber rattling, but his hands are now tied as a result of a parliamentary vote. The combination of Britain’s vote and the administration’s pending vote in the U.S. Congress also puts the French government in an awkward position: President François Hollande had signaled support for military action, but he presumably doesn’t want to get left out on a limb by a commitment made before he knows how U.S. lawmakers will vote. Either way, it will now be harder for him to act without similar authorization from French lawmakers.

Regardless of allied decisions, if the U.S. Congress votes in favor of a strike, the administration will probably use force. They will be reluctant to be seen as offering other states a veto over U.S. policy, and the administration has signaled that it is prepared to act unilaterally if necessary. The U.S. has launched cruise missile attacks against terrorist military facilities in past administrations unilaterally—there’s plenty of precedent here.

Q: What are some reasons President Obama seeks congressional approval?
A: The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, not the president. A limited military strike against Syria falls short of most people’s intuitive definition of “war,” yet strikes of this kind are clearly warlike in important respects. This ambiguity has led to a long-running tension between the executive and the legislative branches over war powers. A fairly common response to this tension has been for presidents to seek some kind of less-formal legislative authorization before undertaking major uses of force, even where those presidents have been unwilling to seek a formal declaration of war. For example, the George W. Bush administration sought a congressional vote authorizing force after 9/11. George H. W. Bush sought a vote before the1991 Gulf War with Iraq. President Obama’s choice here has some precedent.

The President has not fully explained his rationale, however. Some have speculated that it may reflect growing awareness of his political vulnerability on this issue—a favorable vote would spread responsibility more broadly, and could make it more awkward for some critics to attack him. It may reflect his own ambivalence on the merits of attacking Syria: A no vote in the Congress would give him a way to avoid having to make good on his own threats without publicly recanting his own previous commitments.

Either way, though, it’s hard to see how anything substantively important about this policy changed in the couple of days before he changed his mind and decided to seek a vote. If a vote is appropriate, it was just as appropriate a week ago when he seemed ready to act without it; if a vote was unnecessary a week ago, it still is now. Given that one of the primary rationales for intervention is to maintain U.S. credibility after the president made his “red line” commitment last year, all this apparent waffling now just reduces whatever credibility value the attack might have if it does happen. Whether one favors an attack or opposes it, the worst of all possible worlds is to incur the costs and risks of an attack without reaping any reputational benefit from it. The administration’s apparent inability to make up its mind and stick to a policy is increasing the odds that it ends up combining all the disadvantages of action and inaction at the same time.