Syria crisis likely a precursor to regional upheaval
August 31st, 2013
11:52 AM ET

Syria crisis likely a precursor to regional upheaval

By Robert Hutchings, Special CNN

Editor’s note: Robert Hutchings is dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and co-director of its “Reinventing Diplomacy” initiative. He served as chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005. The views expressed are his own.

In trying to steer down the middle of the road between non-involvement and robust intervention in Syria, the Obama administration is being hit by traffic going in both directions.  So far, the administration has handled an intractable situation well, but with U.S. and allied military action imminent, we could soon find ourselves being pushed up a familiar escalatory ladder.

When all the options are bad, the usual rules of good policy making still apply: identify the U.S. interests that are at stake, specify the objectives that serve those interests, and design a strategy to advance those objectives (along with tactics to implement the strategy), with a system of monitoring and review to ensure that corrective action is taken if the expected results are not forthcoming.  The administration seems to be doing exactly that right now and needs no instruction from outside, but its instincts need to be reinforced rather than transformed into a course of action that aims at grand objectives with limited means.

Assuming the accuracy of administration assertions about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, our principal interests – those that are in the realm of the achievable, at least – are in upholding and defending the normative ban on the use of chemical weapons. Since we cannot eliminate Syria’s stockpile of CW weapons or directly prevent the al-Assad regime from using them, our objectives are to punish the regime sufficiently severely to serve as an object lesson to future would-be violators of that norm, on the part of the al-Assad regime or some other actor. 

More from CNN: Any choice holds risks

Punishment here includes the widest possible international condemnation and joint action, and it also implies a shared readiness to take more severe punitive measures if the regime repeats the transgression. But the operative goal is punishment, not deterrence, protection, or prevention. Using those words carelessly or interchangeably sets the administration up for "mission creep" and a set of new, unintended policy objectives that are beyond our capacity to achieve. 

While punishment is meant to prevent or at least dissuade as a longer-term aspiration, it cannot guarantee that the crime will not be repeated, any more than throwing a thief in jail will prevent him from robbing again. Indeed, believing the punishment must be so severe as to prevent al-Assad and his generals from ever using chemical weapons again would lead us up a ladder that may have no end short of regime change. We have been here before as a country – believing that our power and moral position are such that no one dare flout them. It is a dangerous illusion.  Thus the language used to explain our impending action ought to concentrate on and be limited to words like "punish" and "punitive," as the Obama administration has been doing with reasonable consistency.  

What kind of punishment?  Without getting into target selection, which should be left to those with governmental responsibility, the broad parameters can be identified.  It should be potent and “kinetic,” not merely symbolic. It should be aimed at the foundations of the regime – the military, intelligence services, etc. It should allow for controlled escalation, so that the al-Assad regime knows that other targets are in our crosshairs. It should seek to protect innocent civilians and cultural symbols of Syrian civilization. And our strikes should be confined to targets within Syria, lest we ignite a wider conflagration with even more unpredictable consequences. None of this will change the political and military balance on the ground in Syria, much less lead to regime change, unsatisfying as that reality is. If we wanted to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war directly, to tilt the balance in favor of opposition forces and hasten the demise of the al-Assad regime, this would entail an entirely different set of interests, objectives, strategies, and tactics. 

More from GPS: All or nothing in Syria

Much as we might want to strike a decisive blow against this regime, there does not appear to be a policy option that holds out a reasonable prospect of achieving such an objective at acceptable cost.  So we are left with the more modest but still important – and achievable – goal of punishing a regime in violation of an important global norm codified in international law. (Syria is not signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but most of the rest of the world is, and that huge majority is within its rights to apply this norm even to states that have not signed).

If the history of U.S. interventions has taught us anything, it is that U.S. military action, even of limited scope, will introduce a new dynamic into the Syrian equation, and that our ability to manage this process is vastly less than we would like to believe. As the balance shifts both inside and outside Syria, it will be both difficult and crucial that the administration remembers the interests and objectives that caused us to intervene in the first place, and not to double-down our bets in response to domestic pressures to assure “victory” (whatever that might mean in the Syrian context).

Farther down the road, but not too much farther, we may well be grappling with the disintegration of one or more states in the region. Once the process starts – in a region where all borders are contrived and few correspond to ethnic concentrations – there would likely be a ripple effect reminiscent of the Balkans in the early 1990s, but with more profound consequences. If so, the United States and its allies will be tempted to insist on the territorial integrity of existing state boundaries. But this is likely to prove no more successful than it was at the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Instead, we may need to help manage the redrawing of the map of the modern Middle East. 

Ultimately, whatever we do in Syria needs to be embedded within a longer-term approach to a region in the midst of profound and essentially unpredictable change.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. George patton

    The only decent option for us Americans is just to butt out of this mess. Try telling that to that idiot Obama! He wants to conquer Syria and reduce it to another U.S. satellite state like Iraq and Jordan. We need a new President who doesn't cater to the M.I.C. in Washington!

    August 31, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      There is much speculation (though certainly the truth for many) that Washington is guilty of propagating puppet regimes or dictatorships (often via military persuasion one way or another) despite what may be in the best interest for average American on the whole.

      Introspectively, this would beg the question then if Washington itself is more or less a puppet regime or dictatorship as well. And over the past decade or more there would certainly be realistic examples to convince that may in fact be the case. If so, replacing one "idiot" with another will resolve little if nothing. And I would be more concerned that any direct involvement in Syria (and other such countries) would not only be a precursor to regional upheaval, but quite possibly to WWIII.

      The current and on going atrocities are abhorrent, to say the least. But the real shame is that the rest of the civilized world with all it's might, wisdom and power care only to focus on their own self interests rather than agree to put a stop to the brutality and bloodshed. The global outpouring of human sympathy, concern, respect, and compassion is still no match for the outpouring of weapons, war, and monetary gain. Rest assured, the thunderous cry of war will likely soon drown the weeping of pain and sorrow.

      August 31, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Reply
      • JAL

        Cease fire.

        August 31, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  2. sand

    there will be bodys of dead children in israel every weapon iran syria and hezbollah has will be used against the jews there will be dead jews blown to pieces.

    August 31, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Reply
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    August 31, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  4. joe anon 1

    "non-involvement"?

    sanctions, mercenary thugs, weapons, training, psy ops, money, u.s. stooge countries involved.

    how u.s. not already involved in an illegal, criminal war against Syria?

    August 31, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  5. ✠RZ✠

    Presently, the one thing that is clearly evident to everyone is that the focus of our so called leaders to resolving the Syrian conflict is by means of military force. Rather than caving into this outdated and insane practice, I challenge anyone of them to show some real spine and human compassion in publicly/globally calling out all the opposing sides involved to sit down and resolve the issue in a unified and collective manner. But such an idealistic notion would be completly unrealistic, and nor would it resolve any of the underlying causes and factors pushing for military action and war. Hats off to the British Parliament for exercising their democratic powers with at least some semblance of honesty and dignity. But what are the chances that Congress will do the same?

    August 31, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  6. deniz boro

    There is a difference beteween "shall" and "should" timewise and intention-wise. But this inability to serve the dish one cook is a loser. This time, chemical substance news and report (I made a point of reading that report) seemed logical to me however as Putin puts it...well ...However chemicals are used by one side or the other. This should not go unnoticede. Where are those guys who claim to make point shoots. On just those chemical depots. Well...there is the wind and all and one can not destroy them with just bombing I guest.

    August 31, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Reply
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  8. hffhsdfgsdfgfd12341234

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    GENOCIDIO NORTEAMERICANO LATINO AMERICANO EUROPEO Y ASIATICO.

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    GENOCIDIO NORTEAMERICANO LATINO AMERICANO EUROPEO Y ASIATICO.

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    GENOCIDIO NORTEAMERICANO LATINO AMERICANO EUROPEO Y ASIATICO.

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    GENOCIDIO NORTEAMERICANO LATINO AMERICANO EUROPEO Y ASIATICO.

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  9. hffhsdfgsdfgfd12341234

    Por eso se llama nuevo orden mundial.

    GENOCIDIO NORTEAMERICANO LATINO AMERICANO EUROPEO Y ASIATICO.

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    GENOCIDIO NORTEAMERICANO LATINO AMERICANO EUROPEO Y ASIATICO.

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  10. deniz boro

    That seems to require a specialized team with booths on the ground to dispose of the chemicals. And by the way who was responsible of Syria in the first place should clean the dirt. What is the next to mother tongue of Syria?

    August 31, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  11. Ferhat Balkan

    There have been more than 1/2 million people displaced due to the civil war in Syria and tens of thousands have lost their lives. The international community has failed to respond. The UN Security Council has also failed to reach any sort of agreement. All the while, innocent people continue to die in Syria and what I see is people talking about not getting involved or 'let them kill each other' type of comments.
    In my opinion, the only resolution for the Syrian conflict is getting directly involved. The chemical weapons must be seized and Assad must be removed from power. Standing idly by and not doing anything will only prolong the conflict and will result in more lives and tragedies like the ones we've seen recently. Assad is a selfish dictator who has made it clear he'll never step down, dooming his people to an endless civil war that has no end in sight. The only way this conflict will end is to forcibly remove Assad from power by getting NATO involved and sending troops in. It is not an easy solution, but it is the right one.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:08 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Please Ferhat, quit trying to be funny, will you? You know better than that as well as the rest of us!

      September 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  12. j. von hettlingen

    I'm glad that the author shares my view. Yes, Syria is in the process of balkanisation and the breakup of the country is more realistic than a national reconciliation.

    September 1, 2013 at 9:28 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It could be messy after the disintegration, it would regain stability as time goes by. South-eastern Europe is a good case.

      September 1, 2013 at 9:30 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Iraq right now is in dire need of balkanization even more than Syria is, j. von hettlingen. Balkanization may well be the best for both countries, at least far better than any NATO intervention which will only prove to be another disaster!

      September 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  13. j. von hettlingen

    Perhaps that was the reason why Assad provoked the US with the chemical attack. He knows the US would retaliate and he would be hit. It was a dangerous move, but it would give him an excuse to go negotiate a secession, a break away the rest of the country with only the territory of the Alawites from Damascus to Latakia. He had recaptured Qusayr recently, and this provides him a corridor to the coast.

    September 1, 2013 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: to negotiate a secession, a break away from the rest ...........

      September 1, 2013 at 9:39 am | Reply

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