America and Syria: The Perils of a Limited Response

by Mark N. Katz

“Obama weighing limited strike on Syria,” reads the main headline of an August 27 Washington Post article. We still don’t know exactly what this will entail, but as this piece — and many other news reports — indicate, the operative word definitely appears to be: limited.

As authors Karen De Young and Anne Gearan explain, the action that the Obama administration is contemplating “is designed more to send a message than to cripple Assad’s military and change the balance of forces on the ground.” In other words, after warning last year that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” that the Assad regime must not cross, President Barack Obama feels that he must respond if (as appears increasingly likely) the Assad regime has used them against its own citizens. But he wants to do as little as possible for fear of getting the US involved in another fractious Middle Eastern conflict.

If this is indeed the sort of attack on Syria that the president is contemplating, it is not likely to be very effective. Bashar al-Assad is not only willing to kill his opponents; he will sacrifice his supporters as well. If the US-led retaliation to his alleged recent use of chemical weapons is just one that targets some of his military facilities, that is a cost that Assad will be willing to pay. Indeed, it may encourage him to launch even more chemical weapons attacks due to the belief that while US retaliation may be annoying, it will not threaten the survival of his regime or its advantages vis-à-vis his opponents.

The White House should not forget that there is precedent for something like this. Between the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 and the US-led intervention against Iraq in 2003, the US launched numerous, small-scale attacks against Iraq in retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s many misdeeds. These did not succeed in improving his behavior much.

Nor will limited (there’s that word again) strikes against Syria improve Assad’s behavior. If the Obama administration seriously wishes to alter Assad’s ways, then it must attack or threaten to attack that which he values most: his and his regime’s survival. It is not clear, of course, that Assad will change course even if he is personally threatened. But it is only if he is eliminated, or appears likely to be, that elements within his security services concerned primarily about their own survival and prosperity will have the opportunity to reach an accommodation with some of the regime’s opponents, neighboring states and the West.

Threatening Assad’s survival is what is needed to attenuate the links between Assad and the forces that are protecting him. Undoubtedly riven with internal rivalries (something that dictators encourage for fear that their subordinates will otherwise collaborate with one another against them), the downfall of Assad — actual or believed to be imminent — is what will open the door for some in the security services to save themselves through cooperating with the regime’s opponents. Absent this condition, it is simply too risky for them to turn against their master and his other supporters — who are ever on the lookout for signs of disloyalty.

So far, though, the Obama administration has taken pains to signal that it is not going to threaten the Assad leadership. This seems very odd. It did, after all, kill Osama bin Laden when it could have captured (and possibly gained a treasure trove of intelligence from) him instead. The Obama administration has also launched an aggressive drone missile campaign against Al Qaeda targets in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. But however heinous the actions of these terrorists have been, they have killed far fewer people than Assad and his henchmen.

The Obama administration may be reluctant to target Assad because he is a head of state. But whether for this reason or any other, the result of Washington’s self-restraint will be that Assad remains free to kill more and more of his own citizens.

An American attack on Syria does indeed need to be limited — limited to Assad.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at