The first question before intervening in the Syrian conflict is to establish a clear objective: what is it the United States to achieve? Without an achievable objective, it is unlikely planners can construct a sequence of actions to obtain it. Whether or not policy makers agree on an objective, the United States is proceeding toward some result, for better or worse. As Lao Tzu said, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
What are some possible objectives?
– To ameliorate human suffering in Syria
– Deter future employment of chemical or biological agents, either by Assad or others, or as Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron put it, to maintain the taboo of using chemical weapons
– Shift military balance of power toward opposition groups, either to prolong pressure on the regime, or so opposition groups to prevail
– To demonstrate international resolve to act in the face of Russia’s and China’s opposition, thereby reducing their influence
– To bring the Syrian dictator Assad and those who employed chemical agents before the International Criminal Court at the Hague
– To punish Assad and his supporters for the employment of chemical weapons
There are no doubt other possible objectives. The list above shows, however, that it is not immediately apparent what specific military actions can achieve them. In addition, distinctly different sets of actions will be required to achieve each objective. Halting the suffering may demand peace enforcement to separate the belligerents so aid can be provided. Punishing Assad effectively will require careful building of international consensus (at least among U.S. allies) on the type and severity of those actions.
In addition, from each objective flows a different set of consequences, unintended effects. For example, prolonging the fighting by empowering the opposition will increase the suffering the United States is apparently wanting to halt. Bringing about regime change obligates the international community to facilitate the rebuilding of a legitimate and responsible government and social institutions. Acting outside of a United Nation Security Council mandate will weaken and complicate that institution. Assad may deliberately attack people with chemical weapons again, either in retaliation for the punishment and to demonstrate the punishment was ineffective.
Finally, resilience will be essential because success in achieving any objective will take time and persistence. Does the international community and the United States have the will to follow through?