Go Strategic in Syria


Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday left no doubt that the United States is preparing to act, in a significant military way, in Syria. “President Obama,” he said, “believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”

For many of us, it has been a long time coming. But we have steadfastly insisted that intervention in Syria was required and inevitable. The question now is, will it be tactical or strategic?

For too long it has been tempting to think that the Obama administration has essentially viewed Syria as a secondary issue – a subset of either the U.S.-Russia or U.S.-Iran files. While caution is always justified, neither perspective was defensible.

Kerry laid out a clear moral and political vision that leaves the United States with no choice but to act decisively to stop the use of the “world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

When, early in the second Obama term, the United States finally decided to provide nonlethal aid to rebel groups in Syria I called for some “good, old-fashioned American mission creep.” That aid wasn’t ever going to be enough. And now, American military action in Syria of some kind is a virtual fait accompli.

But it is far from clear what – apart from stopping the use of chemical weapons – the broader strategy is. This could simply prove a tactical, limited intervention designed to prevent the use of internationally banned weapons and punish the Syrian government, again in some limited ways, for having used them.

This would, of course, have a significant impact on the war. The Syrian military will be hit and, presumably, deprived of its ability to use some of its most appalling lethal weapons. But if it is limited to that, it will hardly be decisive. Indeed, despite the blow to the Syrian government and military, it’s far from clear that this would have a major strategic impact on the balance of power on the ground between the rebels and the government – or among rebels themselves, for that matter.

But the United States would be well advised to avoid limiting its intervention to a tactical, chemical weapons based, approach. Instead, whatever is done under this rubric should be part of a broader effort to shift the strategic balance on the ground away from both the odious family-led Mafia regime in Damascus and the despicable, bloodthirsty Salafist-Jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and in favor of the groups like the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army led by General Salim Idriss.

This process, though underreported, is already well underway on the ground in the south, where, unsurprisingly, the recent chemical attacks occurred, It has been amply described by Michael WeissElizabeth O’Bagy, and Thomas Pierret, among others. Such strategic intervention would require coordination with allies such as France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey along multiple fronts. It would mean providing not only much more sophisticated weapons and intelligence, but also training, and command and control capability for the FSA.

This would probably from the outset, or by additional “mission creep,” lead to the creation of safe areas and no-fly zones, certainly in the south, and possibly the north as well.

Most importantly, the intervention should focus on weakening the regime’s most potent strategic advantage: its airpower. Above all, the systematic destruction of airbases and major landing fields under the control of the regime would dramatically shift the ability of Iran and Russia to supply men and materiel to the Damascus dictatorship.

As things stand, it’s possible that the Obama administration is acting mainly out of moral and legal outrage, as eloquently expressed by Kerry. If so, I would both urge, and cautiously predict, additional “mission creep” of the kind that took us from belatedly providing lethal aid to being on the brink of unavoidable direct military intervention.

Tactical intervention against chemical weapons-related resources is a good start. But it’s not enough. A strategic intervention designed to shift the balance of power on the ground – away from both the regime and the more extreme rebel groups – and toward more nationalist, rational, and acceptable rebel forces is required.

Everything is in place. It may not happen, or be obvious, right away. But if the United States is to finally abandon, however reluctantly, what has heretofore been a fundamentally risk-averse, reactive policy that has allowed other, entirely malevolent, forces to shape realities on the ground in Syria, a genuine, coordinated strategic intervention is required.

The time to act decisively is now. Both the Damascus regime and the extremist rebels simultaneously must be outmaneuvered, thwarted and defeated. This will require real, courageous American leadership.