All or nothing in Syria
August 29th, 2013
01:46 PM ET

All or nothing in Syria

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.

More from GPS: 3 things to consider about Syria

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.

More from GPS: All U.S. can do is punish Syria

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.

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Topics: Military • Syria

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soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Treat this with the same tact as the embassy attack in Benghazi. How does a 3rd party get the 1st and 2nd parties to engage in escalated conflict?

    August 29, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  2. Lyndsie Graham

    Did anyone here ever notice that all these senseless attacks are well scheduled? Of course they are! H8ll or high water, you can bet that this right-wing thug Obama will launch his senseless attack on Syria, butchering thousands of Syrians in the process at the most "convenient" time! This clown needs to be impeached, indicted and tried for crimes against humanity as well as his rubber stamp European allies!

    August 29, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      Uhhhh "right wing thug" I believe that was the previous president. But regardless, if you feel like calling him anything at least know what you are talking about. He is a democrat, they lean left. Dont jus spout off stuff you hear as your own knowledge you end up making a fool of yourself.

      August 31, 2013 at 3:14 am | Reply
      • Lyndsie Graham

        Tell me Nick, if Obama is not a right-wing thug then why is he so adamant on attacking Syria, killing thousands more in the process? He wants to take over Syria just like he did Libya two years ago!

        August 31, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  3. sand

    then usa and britain should come on 1 iranian anti ship missile up that irish potato farmer from dublin a s s and usa and britain start to cry.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  4. Nike

    We need rescue Syrians now, bring peace, stability, prosperity and human rights to this beautiful Mediterannean country. Trust best NATO alliance countries, such as France, Great Britain, Netherlands, Sweden, ... do not do it alone.

    August 30, 2013 at 9:39 am | Reply
    • Lyndsie Graham

      Are you trying to be funny, Nick? The U.S. wants to take over Syria by "bringing peace and stability"? Of course not, they want to run Syria just like Russia did Poland after WW2 and that's all there is to it!

      August 31, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  5. rightospeak

    A propaganda piece by a "FOUNDATION" paid for by the BIG MONEY TRUST that makes money on wars.

    August 30, 2013 at 9:42 am | Reply
  6. Or

    Or we could send them more chemical weapons?

    August 30, 2013 at 10:32 am | Reply
  7. bruce

    THIS WILL BE THE LAST CHANCE TO DEAL WITH IRAN, HEZBOLLAH AND SYRIA BEFORE IRAN CAN PRODUCE AND DISSEMINATE NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

    August 30, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    Assad can't go unpunished. It's just a question how to deal with him. Surgical strikes are useful if the targets of high-value. Otherwise the punitive action would just be a gesture token, which would hit but not hurt him.

    August 31, 2013 at 4:54 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The author wrote: "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."
      The former Yugoslavia broke up and saw the independence of 7 states. True, nobody wants to join Serbia to build a new federal state under Serbia's leadership.
      Syria is seeing the balkanisation of the country. It would make more sense to finalise the breakup that sets an end to the civil war. A national reconciliation would just be an illusion, after all these atrocities. Assad and his sect will be better off on their own. The rebels too.

      August 31, 2013 at 5:01 am | Reply
  9. shamus

    kill the regime anyway, if you are going to strike, make it count! find the regime, and just pulverize the place.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:01 am | Reply
  10. spirittoo

    This is nothing more than another false flag attack by the us/israel. Back in Feb. Mail Online put out a report of intercepted email from the us indicating they were going to have the hired mercenaries used the gas and blame it on the government.

    The elite that believe they have a god given right to control ... wants Syria because that is the road to Iran. And they want to force all countries into the private central banking system and the petrodollar.

    The us/israel are nothing more than terrorists states.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  11. Giacomo Falconi

    Where was the moral outrage of the Americans when they used delpleted uranium bombs to kill over 100,000 people in Iraq? I find their moral outrage over the use of chemical weapons to be phony and hypocritical. They killed over 2 million people in Vietnam using napalm and agent orange. They are always looking for any excuse to go to war.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  12. Luqman

    As usual, the objective of the US opinionists is not about what is in it for the Syrians. It is always what is in it for us. Genocide against the Indians, slave trade in Africans, colonialism, neocolonialism, facism and all that. I wished all of you calling for war instead of peace are all Syrians. It is a shame.

    August 31, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  13. GR Jr

    I'm sory to disaprouve But the U.N seems to be weaker and the Hays (Geneva) have more power I think the war against humanities is quite something else .So for that purpuse If they can do better so be it .for me my raison is done

    September 1, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  14. bruce

    clueless

    September 1, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  15. Chaz

    @Lyndsie Graham

    I assume the plan you've been working on to resolve the issues in Syria are coming along quite well as from what I've been reading. What's that, your not working actively within either country's government to defuse the situation? Ok, so now we nknow that if we allow a power to use toxic gas against civilians, it's ok? Let them sort it out? "The next time you go camping with your family and you are being attacked by a bear or mountain lion, ensure you start with peace talks. And if that doesn't pan out, you can try putting a .44 slug in its head. Oh but wait, that's violence. And you don't believe in guns, so you better call the game warden or sheriffs office and tell them to bring a gun to put down the beast." Your right though, no one should intervene. It's funny to see how your brain instantly goes to bombs killing people, when the words America and strike in the same sentence appear in forums. Just saying, until you help fix the issue, calm yourself hippie!

    September 1, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  16. prof gerald peters

    if we follw the authors advice, then 10 years from now, syria will look like iraq. constant sectarian violence. constantly on the edge of perpetual civil war. we will have accomplished nothing after racking up huge debts, and losing many lives.

    September 2, 2013 at 10:02 am | Reply
  17. Professor3

    This is the congressional solution to Obamas request:

    The Congress of the United States:
    Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria and finds that continued use of such weapons is a danger to world security and to the security of the United States. The President has asked the Congress for immediate authority to conduct limited, punitive strikes against Syrian regime targets not aimed at regime change or influencing the ongoing Syrian civil war, but which will degrade the capability of and deter the use of chemical weapons as well as punish the past use of such weapons.
    However, limited punitive strikes are not necessary to deter future use of such weapons because the Orders of this Congress shall suffice.
    The Congress of the United States Orders the Syrian regime to stand down from its use of chemical weapons. Chemical units shall return to bases and dismantle the illegal weapons which shall be met with the force of the United States of America.
    The Congress of the United States Orders that In the event of future chemical weapons attacks causing mass casualties and perpetrated by the Syrian regime, that the President of the United States, upon certification to this Congress, and without a majority vote objection, is therefore authorized and directed to commence naval and air campaigns to:
    1. Eliminate Syrian regime chemical weapons including delivery and production of such weapons.
    2. Significantly degrade or eliminate Syrian air defense capability.
    3. Degrade or significantly degrade other air assets.
    The campaign shall end when the President certifies to the Congress that 1-3 have been accomplished.
    In the event of another mass casualty chemical weapons event by the Syrian regime following the certification of the previous event by the President in the previous paragraph, it is Ordered that a State Of War shall exist between the Syrian regime and the United States of America.
    It is so Ordered.

    September 2, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  18. DR STEVE RAMSEY- CANADA

    ALOOO USA SHOULD STRIKE LONG TIME AGO YOU DONT GO AND TELL YOUR ENEMY YOU GONE STRIKE THIS DATE IT IS STUPID WHERE IS THE TACTICS AND SURPRISING ELEMENTS THAT ARMY TEACHES YOU...SYRIA ALREADY MOVE ALL THE WEAPONS AND CHEMICAL BOMBS HIDING IT IN LEBANON WITH HEZBOLLAH SAFE HOUSES, AND ALSO HIDING THEM WITH THE SHIIA MOSQUES SAFE HOUSES CALLED HUSSAINIA PLACE AND ALSO IN THE OFFICERS HOUSES AND HOMES , SOME OF THE JETS ALREADY HIDDEN AND SOME WENT TO IRAQ AND LEBANON SOME TO RUSSIAN SHIPS....SO USA WILL ATTACK EMPTY BUILDINGS AND SOME ARMS AND CAMPS.....USA SHOULD ATTACK HEZBOLLAH BASES IN LEBANON IF THEY WANT TO DESTROY SYRIA EVIL ARMY AND IF IRAN WANT TO INVOLVE IT IS BETTER TO HIT 3 BIRDS IN ONE STONE ONCE AFTER ALL THOSE EVIL MUST GO......

    September 8, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  19. DR STEVE RAMSEY- CANADA

    shia Iran cult government Iraqi almaleki shia government Syria shia thugs along with Hezbollah stole billions and killed more than 1 million Sunni kurds and Christians already those evil thugs killed 1444000 in Syria alone..and usa are silent!!!!!!!!!!!!attack them now before it is too late Syria sent most of the weapon to be hidden with Hezbollah and Iraqi shia wake up usa...

    September 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  20. DR STEVE RAMSEY- CALGARY- ALBERTA

    FK U putin AND FK ALL RUSSIAN COMMUNISTS PEACE OF SH IT VILLOGE IDIOT. YOUR HAND HAS BLOOD ON IT 1444000 PEOPLE DIE CAUSE OF YOUR WEAPONS TO SYRIA AND IRAN MONEY , Obama is more smarter than u and all stupid commi...VIVA USA DOWN WITH RUSSIA , DOWN WITH IRAN SYRIA AND HIZBOALLAH IT IS OBAMA MISTAKE TO TALK TO YOU IF ME I WILL HIT SYRIA AND IRAN ONCE AFTER ALL AND GET RED OF EVIL

    September 12, 2013 at 11:48 am | Reply
  21. VIVA QATAR AND DOWN WITH IRAN ,HIZBOALLAH AND SYRIAN THUGS

    fk bashar al asad al kalb, it is bul sh it, only 8% of the freedom fighters are Islamist and the rest all like us want real democracy and hate communist fascist like bashar al asad and Russia and hate terrorists like IRAN AND HEZBOLLAH WHO ARE THE PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER 1...SAUDI AND QATAR MUST HELP TO GET RED OF THOSE COMMUNIST BAATH PARTY AND ALL THE HEZBOLLAH TERRORISTS who are get paid by Iran and get weapons from Russia. VIVA QATAR AND SHAME ON YOU USA AND UN , MORE THAN 150,000 CHILD , WOMEN AND KURDS WERE KILLED AND MANY CHRISTIANS BY THOSE SYRIAN AND IRANIANS THUGS.

    October 26, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Reply

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