A smarter way to stop Syria WMD attacks
September 19th, 2013
09:17 AM ET

A smarter way to stop Syria WMD attacks

By Ben Connable, Jonah Blank, and Austin Long, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ben Connable is a senior international policy analyst, Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist and Austin long is political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are their own.

President Barack Obama made a strong case that the United States should take the lead in punishing the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons and actively enforce the near-global ban on these weapons. Now, the possibility of a diplomatic solution to this problem – and the concurrent pause in action – offers an opportunity to alter and improve the request for the authorization of force currently before Congress.

Improving authorization is not simply about punishing Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons – it would actually be a deterrent rather than punitive, and would encompass all uses of chemical weapons in Syria by any group, including the opposition. This revised approach would reinforce the credibility of U.S. diplomatic efforts without necessitating a limited military strike that would likely derail a diplomatic solution. And it would also recognize the muddled history of constrained military action against dictatorships.

A recent RAND report, Airpower Options for Syria, showed that a limited attack would not go far in protecting Syrian civilians, and that removing even a large portion of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon capability could not prevent the further use of sarin or another chemical agent. A limited strike would constitute an act of intimidation, but it would not necessarily establish a globally recognized red line precluding the use of chemical weapons by other states and nonstate actors.

True, concerted air campaigns can influence opponents to alter their decision-making or help coerce them into submission. But the historical record suggests that limited military intimidation strikes rarely achieve goals of deterrence or improved security – and they often generate unpleasant asymmetric responses.

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Pundits have compared the proposed strike in Syria to 1998’s Operation Desert Fox, a limited coalition strike against Iraqi WMD activities and other military targets. But the fact is that although Desert Fox might have convinced Saddam Hussein to end his WMD program, it may also have prompted him to accelerate his missile and rocket programs. Either way, the operation did not end the repression of the Iraqi people, and there is no guarantee that limited U.S. strikes would lead al-Assad to comprehensively and safely dismantle his WMD programs.

Indeed, our colleague, Brian Michael Jenkins, recently noted the historical failure of limited strikes to deter dictators who attack their own populations or to hasten regime change – strikes against Serbia in 1999, Libya in 1986, Iran in 1987, Iraq in 1993 and 1996, and against suspected al Qaeda training and chemical weapon sites in 1998, met with either questionable success or failed to achieve their intended objectives altogether.

For example, Moammar Gadhafi responded to the 1986 attack on Libya by bombing Pan Am Flight 103 and shipping weapons to terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and its affiliates, meanwhile, went on to attack the United States on 9/11 and to employ chlorine gas against coalition and civilian targets in Iraq.

Perhaps most tellingly, though, the full-scale 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syria’s immediate neighbor, in response to perceived violations of international rules on WMD did not deter al-Assad from using chemical weapons against civilians in 2013.

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Still, although a rapid surprise attack on the Syrian regime would probably have been more effective than a delayed and highly visible action, continuing to pursue a “yes” vote in Congress may help the president sustain U.S. diplomatic and popular credibility. It also affords the opportunity to consider new approaches.

Instead of asking for authorization to strike Syria specifically for its alleged August 21 chemical attack, for example, he could ask for authorization to conduct punitive strikes as a deterrent against the future use of chemical weapons. He could then opt to strike only in the event of additional attacks.

President Obama could go further and broaden his request to include authority to strike any actor in Syria who uses chemical weapons, including extremist groups and elements associated with the Free Syrian Army. A comprehensive policy that punishes any use of chemical, biological, or radiological weapons would also improve U.S. leverage over the hundreds of disparate Syrian opposition groups. This enhanced scope would demonstrate a broader, global U.S. position against the use of chemical weapons.

Prior to the alleged chemical attacks last month, the U.S. had taken a long-game approach to the Syrian problem, an approach that recognized that there were few, if any, good policy options. So it remains today. But the climate of heightened uncertainty and difficulty in gaining support for limited strikes present the U.S. with the opportunity to craft a more effective version of this long-term regional strategy in support of global objectives.

This strategy can emphasize and reinforce the indirect — or at least less overt — elements of the long game. Reinforced by the credible threat of an unbiased, deterrent strike option, such a strategy could better support U.S. policy objectives than taking action right now.

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Topics: Syria

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soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. ✠RZ✠

    The following has clearly proven a failure in Middle East:
    1. Diplomacy..
    2. Limited strikes.
    3. Intervention.
    4. Occupation.
    5. Puppet regimes.
    6. Democracy.
    7. Religion.
    8. War.
    9. Suicide bombing.

    Peace is the only thing that works, and just barely.

    September 19, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  2. Georgio

    Sitting over there in USA, and writing news will not stop anybody. Do a little bit business, defense 'a la Italian style', but please no war.

    September 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  3. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    September 21, 2013 at 5:51 am |
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    November 9, 2013 at 8:05 am |

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