As President Obama prepares to make the case for a military intervention in Syria to the American people on Tuesday, senior military officials are grappling with a key question underpinning the planning of the operation: How does it end?
The crux of the operation, as it stands now, is to use cruise missiles fired from US Navy ships to target any elements of Mr. Assad’s arsenal that give him the ability to use chemical weapons on his people. This includes Syrian rockets and artillery, as well as places that US intelligence determines to be military headquarters for planning and launching chemical attacks.
The plan is to have “a collateral damage estimate of low” – meaning to kill as few civilians as possible – the nation’s top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told lawmakers last week.
That said, he used the opportunity to send a warning to Assad and those suspected of planning chemical weapons attacks on civilians. The US military would not show “the same constraint, if you will, in what damage could be done to regime personnel.”
And how about Assad? Will he simply lay low until the US military carries out its attacks, if the Pentagon is ordered to do so by President Obama? Not likely.
“In the real world of unintended (and unwelcome) consequences, all manner of unpleasant alternative scenarios could rapidly materialize. A limited strike could just as easily provoke Assad,” notes retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former commander of US forces in Afghanistan.
Assad told CBS News on Monday that a US strike definitely will provoke him. “Will there be attacks against American bases in the Middle East?” host Charlie Rose asked. “You should expect everything," Assad promised.
There could be chemical warfare, too. “That depends if the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it, it could happen. I don’t know. I’m not [a] fortune teller,” Assad said with a shrug and a quick smile. “Nobody expected the 11th of September,” he added. “When everything is on the brink of explosion, you have to expect everything.”
Some, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, are pushing back against the plan for a strike that would simply target chemical weapons caches.
“If anything, the message of a narrowly focused US strike could be just the opposite of what the US intends,” says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“To the world’s worst regimes, the unintended message of limited strikes that leave their governments intact may be that that if you are going to use such weapons, use them decisively enough to make any international action worth the cost," he adds. "Worse, such actions may lead regimes to question the utility of using weapons with limited value in deterring international intervention, like chemical weapons. Instead, they may be incentivized to go nuclear, go cyber, or support violent non-state actors.”
But this is the problem with limited military strikes: They almost never remain limited, writes General Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in an analysis piece for the think tank.
“The most likely outcome of such a strike now in Syria is that the war goes on with the regime emboldened, the region further inflamed, and continuing pressure on Washington to do more as the bloodshed continues,” he adds. “Assad will not back down; his survival is at stake. There is simply no good end in sight. The slope inevitably leads quickly downhill to deeper and deeper US involvement.”