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The Limits of Action In Syria

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Aaron David Miller considers three core questions that need answering about the military action the president is about to authorize in Syria.

By now, President Barack Obama has almost certainly decided what kind of military strike he intends to launch against Syria -- and he probably also has a pretty good idea of when it will happen.

Indeed, Obama is on the verge of doing something he's willfully tried to avoid for the last two and a half years: putting America in the middle of a nasty, brutal, and complex Syrian civil war.

And because the president is one very smart guy, a methodical intellect, and lawyer-in-chief, I expect he's rigorously grappled with every angle, dimension, and nuance of the Syrian problem.

But just in case he hasn't, here are three core questions that need answering about the military action the president is about to authorize.

1. Q: What are U.S. objectives in Syria?

A: Pretty limited.

You know the old adage: When you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. After more than two years of civil war, what are the Obama administration's real objectives in Syria -- the ones it's truly prepared to invest in?

Is it to play the lead role in stopping the Syrian civil war and become the dominant architect in replacing the Bashar al-Assad regime with a democratic polity run by the pro-Western opposition? Keep in mind, the United States couldn't do that in Afghanistan and Iraq with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground and trillions of dollars expended. And we can't even manage to bring significant influence to bear in Egypt, where we've had a close, 40-year relationship with a military that's now running the country.

If the United States is not building democracy, then is it or should it be immersed in the Levant's Great Game -- trying to turn the Syria crisis into a broad Manichean struggle with Hezbollah and Iran in order to weaken the latter, halt its nuclear program, and crush the so-called Shiite crescent that stretches from Tehran to Beirut?

I saw a version of this movie in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration made the wrong-headed Cold War calculation that defeating Syria in Lebanon would be a blow to the Russians and tried to work with the Israelis and the Christian Phalange to bring that about. The entire Lebanon policy proved to be a failure in part because U.S. policymakers persisted in seeing Lebanon, Israel, and Syria as part of some great power game when in fact it was all about local politics and regional balance of power.

All this talk of grand strategies, threatening arcs, and hordes of Shiite and Sunni extremists reflects the view -- just like in Lebanon during the 1980s -- that the Syrian crisis is going to produce some clear winner in the end. But Syria is much more likely to morph into a decentralized polity where Alawites, Kurds, and Sunnis continue to struggle with each other and with al Qaeda-type extremists in semi-autonomous and dysfunctional enclaves for years to come.

So if there is no clear or definitive end game, what is the president's plan? I suspect it's to try to make a difference where the United States can -- commensurate with its other priorities and obligations -- on a variety of fronts: including the humanitarian side (as the largest aid contributor), the political side (as the most active Western power engaging with the Syrian opposition), the military side (by providing limited amounts of lethal assistance and facilitating more through other powers), and the diplomatic side (by continuing to pressure the Russians to leverage Assad into a political transition -- see Geneva 1.0 and maybe 2.0). Though with the cancellation of planned talks with the Russians this week, the Geneva approach seems to be all but over -- for now.

Indeed, at the end of the day, the president's bottom line is to restore some credibility when it comes to his own red lines on chemical weapons and keep on the right side of history in the face of the largest deployment of those weapons since Saddam
Hussein used them against the Kurds and Iranians.

None of this is either emotionally or morally satisfying; nor has it been very effective against the backdrop of the carnage in Syria. But the president really does need to decide what he wants to -- and can -- accomplish, particularly as he considers a more direct military strike. Military action to punish Assad and possibly deter further use of chemical weapons will make Obama's point; the question is whether it will make a difference when it comes to changing the situation on the ground.

2. Q: Does a military strike serve U.S. interests?

A: Yes, but very imperfectly.

The context of the Syrian situation and the president's broader goals there should guide how he uses force. Military power is a means to an end. That correlation is never exact, precise, or certain. But the president needs to get as close as he can to identifying clear objectives and making sure he has the capacity to carry them out. It's that lesson -- not the cautionary tale about boots on the ground -- that's worth applying to Syria. What is it precisely that a military strike, campaign, or war is designed to accomplish? How will it shape the political endgame the United States is trying to achieve?

The major challenge in Syria involves chemical weapons. After all, that's why the president is reportedly close to authorizing a military strike. But the United States must also contend with a fragmenting state that's spewing sectarian violence, hemorrhaging refugees, offering up opportunities for Sunni and Shiite extremists, and spreading instability to its neighbors.

Which facet of the Syrian problem will Obama's military action address? On the one hand, a one-off strike to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again -- no matter how punishing -- won't impact the broader course of the war. On the other, the president has repeatedly indicated that he isn't ready to commit to a sustained and integrated military campaign -- arming the rebels, implementing a no-fly zone, and carrying out intensive strikes on Assad's forces and infrastructure -- that would tilt the balance decisively in the favor of the rebels.

Anthony Cordesman and others are already making the argument that using force is a necessary but not sufficient response to Assad's use of chemical weapons. By itself, military action does nothing to address the broader humanitarian, strategic, and moral disaster that Syria has become. Indeed, Obama's critics maintain that he's all tactics and guided by no real strategy. What happens after D-Day plus 1 may well reinforce that view.

Many outside government will argue that if the United States is going to use military force, it must go well beyond symbolic warnings. Assad has crossed Obama's "red line" and the United States must abandon its caution and launch a sustained military campaign. If more drastic action isn't taken now, they argue, Assad will commit another horror sooner or later -- whether it is with conventional or unconventional weapons. He is incorrigible and must go. The time for talking has passed and Obama needs to lead the way in taking him down. And so it goes.

Now isn't the time to identify all of the unknowns and risks inherent in such a calculation. Getting rid of Assad by no means guarantees stability, the end of civil war, or a victory for the pro-Western opposition in Syria. Even assuming the United States can marshal some international consensus -- perhaps in the form of a NATO- or Arab League-backed coalition-- to provide political and legal cover, there are no guarantees that a sustained air campaign would work quickly or at all. In Operation Desert Storm, for example, coalition air forces flew 38,000 sorties against the Iraqi Army and did tremendous damage. But Saddam Hussein's military still fought tenaciously and retained the capacity later to crush both Shiite and Kurdish revolts.

The Balkan precedent -- a favorite these days, invoked as a model for a Syrian intervention both in terms of mobilizing consensus outside of the U.N. Security Council and the effective use of air power -- also provides a cautionary tale.

In 78 days, NATO flew 3,400 sorties and yet failed to enable the Kosovo Liberation Army to make real headway against Serbian forces. Analysts Edward Joseph and Elizabeth O'Bagy point out that the Bosnia precedent is far from perfect. Three factors existed there that made success more likely: a far less fractious opposition, a sense of exhaustion among the sides, and a degree of ethnic separation that facilitated a political deal. None of these factors are present in Syria today. Moreover, Slobodan Milosevic was an opportunist who was ready and willing to save himself by sacrificing hardline Bosnian and Croatian Serbs. There is nothing to suggest that Assad would be willing to take a similar way out.

Where Joseph and O'Bagy do see commonality between the Balkans and Syria is in U.S. ownership -- or lack thereof. And this gets to the heart of any military option the president chooses. Having willfully avoided real ownership of the Syrian problem to date, is he really willing to own it now? Because direct military action -- whether alone or with allies -- is encumbering and filled with uncertainties no matter how controlled or deliberate. Is Obama ready to get stuck with the Syrian tar baby? Which brings us to question three.

3. Q: How important is Syria to President Obama?

A: So far, not very.

There are a lot of very smart people who disagree. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell has actually asserted that Syria is the gravest threat to U.S. national security. But you don't need to go that far to see the crisis for what it is -- a breeding ground for extremism, sectarian violence, and proliferation and use of chemical weapons.

The Syrian civil war is a moral, strategic, and human disaster. About that there can be little doubt. Some are already saying "I told you so" -- that Syria is only getting worse and eventually Obama will have no choice but to act.

So why not draw up a real strategy and lead now? Why not organize the region and our European allies, pretend you're Bush 41 and Assad is Saddam Hussein, accept some risk, and where you lead others will follow?

I've argued repeatedly that Syria is a trap, and that given the president's priorities and legacy -- helping the middle class, not fixing the Middle East -- he's been right to be cautious. This isn't Iraq in 1990. It's a cruel and bloody civil war that America can't end, and it shouldn't be stuck with the enormous bill for cleaning up after the fact. Moreover, it's not as if the broader region is a poster child for stability. It's all a mess.

Whatever decision the president makes, he must lay out an honest rationale for why he's acting. He cannot circumscribe U.S. actions without undercutting American resolve in front of Assad and his supporters. But he also cannot leave open the possibility -- unless this is where he wants to go -- that the United States is on the verge of a new campaign to save Syria. He must talk about why it's in America's interest to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons, but also make clear why Syria is beyond his capacity to save. This isn't just idle chatter; it's the explanation of his policy toward Syria that for too long he's failed to articulate.

Too often, American presidents have cast their policies in the idealized rhetoric of U.S. values. And while values and interests sometimes overlap, fixing Syria's broken house by assuming the lion's share of responsibility for getting rid of Assad and supporting whatever government replaces him is neither a vital American value nor a vital national interest. Obama knows it and so do the vast majority of the American people who are against military invention. The president is just having a hard time admitting it.

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more