By Emanuele Ottolenghi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The expected military strike in Syria fits well into the end of summer schedule. If we are to believe that the missile salvo will commence before the weekend, and we take carefully orchestrated leaks to be true, the boys will likely be back by Sunday.
Squeezed neatly between the British parliament's debate on intervention (they are no longer a superpower, but they still do government accountability best) and Labor Day, a long weekend of targeting allows the political and diplomatic fallout to evaporate in time for President Obama and his European allies, David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, to travel to Russia for the G-20. No spoiling the photo-op. What a relief that must be.
Still, such a well scheduled war leaves the basic terms of our discussion unchanged and unresolved.
Those for and against intervention in Syria all appeal to sound reasons – the evil of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be punished, say those in favor. By helping rebels remove al-Assad, retort opponents of intervention, we could bring an even worse set of people to power. But as sensible as these arguments are, the real question we must ask our leaders is, which desirable outcome is still within reach? And whether a military intervention at this point can help or hinder that outcome.
The most favored option, a political transition to multiparty democracy where al-Assad steps aside and Syria remains unified, must contend with some 100,000 confirmed deaths, five million displaced persons and counting, chemical attacks and a long list of other assorted atrocities. For those who like the Bosnia parallel, imagine asking Slovenia and Bosnia to rejoin a Federal Yugoslavia after Srebrenica. It is no longer in the cards.
We could also sit this one out and hope for the best – maybe Jesus and the Mahdi will arrive before it is over and they are on our side. Otherwise, we must contend with the following.
Is the role of indifferent bystanders as the slaughter reaches the unimaginable heights of gassed civilians the one we prefer and that best serves our goals? Are our pangs of conscience a human yet pointless emotional impulse we would do better to ignore? And if we don’t ignore them, what can we do not to make it worse?
A nation, let alone a superpower, should never do war unless it is prepared to know what it wants to achieve from conflict and whether it has the means to succeed. Thus, a punitive expedition that does not change the balance of power on the ground is a pointless exercise in moral self-congratulation. But inaction is also not without consequences.
Our choice between indifference and intervention goes well beyond the outcomes of Syria’s civil conflict or even making an example of al-Assad to deter future recourse to chemical weapons.
Syria is not only the collective tragedy of the Syrian people, but also the chessboard of a larger regional war where the stakes are high but where Western powers have so far refrained from playing their hand. If nothing is done at this point, after more than two years of the United States and Europe repeatedly setting and then ignored red lines, the credibility of Western powers vis-à-vis Iran will vanish overnight. If Syria wins, it is Iran’s victory. And if Syria loses after all, it will be the victory of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
This begs the question hardest for those who cite the danger of helping jihadis as a reason for inaction. But by contracting out our role to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey we are already propping up the jihadi side of the equation. By letting Iran win, we undermine our own posture in the nuclear chess game against Tehran and let Iran stalemate – or worse, win.
Getting in the fight now may actually stem the tide of history from its current direction, which is a choice between very bad and potentially much worse.
But what should be done, then? The chief goal of this operation should be to tilt the balance in favor of those forces where the West has most influence.
First, a swift military action from the air should massively target the regime’s military and political infrastructure – Republican Guard bases, airbases, command-and-control centers, Ba’ath party headquarters, army bases, airport runways, state TV and Radio.
Coalition strikes should also consider going after the senior leadership of Syria – starting with the al-Assad family, as suggested by the brilliant Bret Stephens in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. A sustained air assault coupled with regime decapitation should include special forces missions to hunt and destroy chemical weapons depots (for which the United States and its allies have reasonably good intelligence).
Third, when the dust settles, Western powers should throw their weight fully behind moderate rebels, so that we can strengthen the ones we like.
Our total absence from the battlefield has not avoided the conflict’s escalation – the grotesque imagery of last week’s chemical carnage and the previous 100,000 victims should put that silly notion to rest. Syria’s backers have shown no remorse and spared no resources in sending weapons, funds and fighting men to help al-Assad, come what may. Western inaction will vindicate their ruthlessness in their own eyes – and invite more.
It is not too late to intervene wisely. A salvo of missiles, on the other hand, is pointless. By the time the British Parliament authorizes action, one hopes that planners will have persuaded their political masters that, unless a crushing blow is dealt to al-Assad’s regime, we might as well keep our planes on the ground.