Unless President Obama blinks/”bottles it”/pays attention to r/Politics somewhere over the next couple of days, America plus others are likely to begin openly bombing something in Syria. Who or what they’ll hit, no-one can say. The internet is alive with competing theories of what’s good, what’s bad, and what it would be plain stupid for America to destroy. The (immediate) “why” is somewhat clearer: most evidence points to Assad’s government doing another hop, skip and jump over the “don’t use chemical weapons” red line that is encoded in customary and treaty international law, as well as being verbally pointed out just over a year ago by Obama himself. The pictures are somewhat shocking, as is the somewhat flagrant disregard for international opinion by the embattled Syrian government. Yet the prospect of America bombing a fourth (mostly) muslim country halfway around the world since 9/11 is worrisome. As is the prospect of America being drawn into Syria’s civil war, with its myriad factions and little prospect of a quick ending. The American public appears unconvinced at the talk from their politicians, with just 9% supporting intervention.
Within the melee of hypothetical commentary, I’ve been engaged in quite a good back-and-forth debate with Rex Brynen and Tom Wein over what American goals should be. Personally, I see a “win” for America as a demonstration of force against something the regime values, which can be separated from the civil war as much as possible, so that Russia doesn’t take offence, and the regime can’t use the (inevitable) continuation of the civil war as evidence that it didn’t affect them. For that reason, my hypothetical target of choice would be the Syrian navy, since destroying an entire arm of the military would be a good deterrent to other states thinking of using chemical weapons use, plus it would be pretty clear that it isn’t intended to affect the course of the civil war, unless the Free Syrian Army was thinking of floating a navy at some point. Rex disagreed, pointing out that any attack would naturally be associated with overarching goals in Syria (the civil war ending in some form of regime change) and the US might as well take the opportunity to affect the course of the war. It should be noted that I think both myself and Rex see “win” in the relative sense that America is at the point where it’s using $0.5-1.5 million missiles to achieve something. When events get to that point, there is no “good” scenario, as the Guardian handily pointed out in cartoon form. Either way, it’s pretty clear that limited air strikes will not stop the civil war from continuing so the signal-value of military action is likely to be important.
I’m still mulling over the two takes. Personally I see signalling to other states not to use chemical weapons as more important than engaging with the civil war, since I think it’s difficult to do the latter “well” in any sense of the word, without getting involved in a politically unsustainable military engagement. It raises good questions of strategic communication – my take on the issue relies on the rest of the world seeing the strikes as unrelated to the war. Is it possible to do that? On a wider level, would a Syrian ‘Desert Fox’ be anything other than a prelude to a larger military engagement by America? The last question that keeps bouncing around my head is why people like Obama refuse to use the language of coercion and reprisal, when this is what such acts clearly entail. Tony Blair has once more waded into the arena that nobody (including, I think, the people itching to detonate missiles in Syria) invited him into with precisely the same language that raises red flags after Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s somewhat odd that what (I think) would serve Obama and America is the message – “We will send cruise missiles at anyone that uses chemical weapons on civilians.” - yet they can’t even think of using language like that. I’m sure Tecumseh Sherman would be turning in his grave at the quasi-humanitarian excuses for killing. Any KoW readers that wish to wade in, feel free. I’m sure the topic will stay current for weeks.