Talk of an intervention in Syria is beginning to sound serious and there are a non-trivial number of influential people advocating for an intervention. The stated purpose would be to protect certain members of the Syrian population from their government - an extension of the R2P doctrine that's popular with liberal interventionists as well as several members of the Obama administration. But is that goal achievable with a limited use of military force? ("limited" in this context means air power with, at most, minimal SoF presence on the ground to facilitate air-ground coordination) Depending on the context and details, I think the limited use of military force could protect those now being killed, but the downsides are pretty dramatic and, in my judgment, the negatives outweigh the benefits by a large margin. Let's take a look at the various options:
First of all, I think there are three "categories" in which military force could be used, or could play a role, to prevent these particular mass killings:
- Regime change, by whatever means.
- Change the balance of power between Assad’s forces and the opposition so that Assad’s forces cannot conduct mass killings.
- Compel Assad to have a “change of heart”and make a political decision to stop the mass killings or reconcile with the opposition.
Let’s examine the utility of military force in each case:
First, regime change:
- Regime change is something military force can achieve by following, very roughly, the Libya model. Another model is the post Desert Storm counter-factual where we help the Iraqi Shia rebels by giving them a proxy air force to finish Saddam off after we decimated his conventional forces. The US does have a lot of experience at this sort of thing - it's exactly what we did for the initial invasion of Afghanistan and it's also what we did for Libya. From a pure utility standpoint, I think this is achievable.
- The problem is, however, that whatever the circumstances, we can’t control how regime change occurs or turns out in the end. It’s a pretty big gamble and the odds are good that the result will not be pretty. The stakes are a lot greater in Syria than Libya because Syria is bigger, more populous, better armed, has chemical weapons, is more geographically strategic, and plays an important regional role with it's alliance with Iran and involvement in factional Lebanese politics. It's not clear at all how things would turn out if we upset that apple cart.
- So the best case here is a successful coup, but that’s not something we can create or control through military force. It's also not clear that an Alawite successor would view the rebels any differently than Assad. The worst case is a civil war in a highly militarized country rife with internal divisions that also happens to have a lot of chemical weapons.
- Even if Syria transitions smoothly to a new government, the effect will likely be that Syrians will still die, they'll just be different Syrians. As noted over at Best Defense by a Marine officer: "Killing several thousand Syrians so they don't kill several thousand other Syrians only to leave the nation knowing that several thousand more will die is not protecting anyone."
The second option is to use military force to change the balance of power between Assad and the opposition. There are two basic ways to do this.
- First is to create no-fly/no-drive zones, (using the Southern/Northern watch model) or something similar like "humanitarian corridors" which some advocate for. A bigger version of this the Bosnia partition model which would require an enduring ground-force commitment to separate the warring parties. Any of these options could be accomplished militarily, but there are some serious downsides. The most obvious problem is that such measures are inherently temporary. At some point the NFZ or enforced partition will end. Perhaps a political solution could be negotiated while the parties are separated, but that is not likely for a whole host of reasons I won't belabor here. If a political solution isn't reached, and the political will to continue spending resources enforcing the peace ends, then the situation would likely return to the status-quo ante.
- The second option involves attriting Assad’s military and security forces while strengthening the opposition so that Assad no longer has the capability to conduct the mass killings even if he still has the intent. This is a task the US military could accomplish, though it would take a long, sustained air campaign. The problem with this option, however, is what then? Either the situation will slide again into Assad’s favor (a return to the status quo ante), or the opposition will be strong enough to overthrow Assad (see regime change), or you end up with a stalemated civil war. None of these options sound very good to me. The best that could be hoped for is for an autonomous area for the rebels, similar to what the Kurds have in northern Iraq, but that's easier said than done and comes with yet more issues and downsides.
The third option is to use military force to compel Assad to come to a political solution with the opposition instead of using violence. This seems the least-realistic of the options and the one least-likely to be accomplished with military force. Is Assad the kind of man who could be bullied into compliance? It's possible I suppose, but it would be uncharacteristic for the typical dictator in Assad's circumstances. And if Libya is any guide, the political mission creep will tend to try to box Assad in and provide no option but fight until the bitter end. There's also no guarantee that the opposition would accept any offer from Assad, especially since their primary demand is that Assad step down from office. In my judgment, this option is mostly fantasy abetted by wishful thinking.
There is a fourth option which focuses on punishment as the goal. Although it wouldn't prevent mass killings, it would "send a message." I'm talking, of course, about the tried and true punitive raid. For Syria it would have to be pretty big and would likely last a couple of days - look at Operation Desert Fox for an example of what it might look like. The operation would likely strike regime targets and key strategic facilities. It won’t stop the killings, won’t topple the Assad regime, but at least we could be satisfied that we “did something" even if that "something" is counterproductive.
That's about all I can think of for the use of military force against Syria. I didn't mention a ground invasion, but that is out of the question and it would not be a "limited" intervention by any stretch of the imagination. If there are other options I'm missing, please leave them in the comments.
In summary, I don’t see how any of the “limited” military intervention options would actually achieve the stated goal at an acceptible cost to the US or even the Syrian people. We could always get lucky, of course, but luck is not a strategy. And I've not even listed some of the more obvious strategic problems with intervention. Mark Safranski lists some geostratic consequences and I would point out the domestic political difficulty of starting another war during an election year when the public is obviously weary of foreign conflicts.