By Dina Esfandiary, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Dina Esfandiary is a research associate on the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The views expressed are her own.
The red line has now been crossed in Syria, and calls for intervention have intensified. Yet as things stand today, the United States has little or no hope of making a decisive impact on the course of the war. If President Obama wants to maintain credibility by responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s forces while minimizing U.S. involvement, he should make sure any intervention is couched in simple terms: anyone using or proliferating weapons of mass destruction will be punished.
The al-Assad regime has shown tremendous resilience during more than two years of fighting. Defeating them while securing Syria’s chemical weapons will not be possible without a significant ground presence, something currently not on the table.
Yet the war cannot be won from the air. Airstrikes are an attractive option, but unless they are in combination with ground forces they wouldn’t be decisive. They would have to take place on too great a scale to cripple the al-Assad regime – the casualties would be too daunting, and the commitment too heavy for this to be an option today.
The absolute minimum military intervention needed to affect the regime’s ability to survive would be to impose a no-fly zone, and even this would not be crippling to al-Assad. But last month, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to dismiss even this option, stating that it was costly and the risks high.
What’s more, securing the very weapons that have sparked this controversy cannot be done by air. Indeed, bombing chemical weapons facilities would more likely lead to a humanitarian catastrophe far worse than what was seen in Ghouta last week. Meanwhile, any agents or munitions that were not destroyed would be left open to looting, spreading the very weapons we’re trying to contain. No option looks good for securing Syria’s chemical weapons.
And the war cannot be won by arming the rebels. This may have been an option earlier on in the conflict, but today, it’s too late. The United States should know who it’s arming. But the Syrian opposition is fragmented, disorganized and constantly evolving. The emergence of radical elements has added an extra complication. Arming just the “good guys” is therefore not possible.
So what can the United States do?
The short answer is punitive strikes. But the goal of this operation must be clear. A year ago, Obama drew a red line over the use of chemical weapons. It has been crossed. If the U.S. is going to act, this is the time to do it, and only as punishment for the use of such weapons.
The United States must make it clear that the use of chemical weapons will not go unpunished. This is not to say that the atrocities that have been committed by the al-Assad regime to date were not important enough to warrant a reaction, but merely that use of WMDs is unacceptable. Not today, not ever, and not by anyone.
Such a limited and precise goal will allow for successful limited intervention. Airstrikes could target the following: missile batteries, airports (to stop Iranians re-supplying the al-Assad regime by air), Syria’s anti-air defenses and al-Assad’s air force to stop him bombing the rebels. This would be punitive and operationally justifiable.
But the goal must be clear: action is being undertaken not to change the regime, not to turn the tide of war and certainly not to try to secure al-Assad’s chemical weapons. It is simply to punish – to deter al-Assad from using them again, and other countries from thinking that use of any WMD will not receive a firm response.
No one is suggesting that such action is enough, or that this will ultimately solve much. And no one is saying that the atrocities committed in Syria should be ignored. Simply that today, there is no good option and no way of ensuring victory for one side. In fact, even limited airstrikes are a poor option – Obama will still look weak.
From a non-proliferation viewpoint, the best course of action for the United States today is to stand by its red line, maintain its credibility, and punish the use of chemical weapons.